Kirby games come in two flavors: Simple, saccharine platformers, and wildly innovative (and saccharine) experiments in any number of genres. The latest chapter of the series, Return to Dreamland, falls squarely into the former category. It’s a perfectly decent little platformer, but coming hot on the heels of the brilliantly inventive Mass Attack and visually imaginative Epic Yarn, it feels decidedly mundane.
The title “Return to Dreamland” is strictly an invention of the Western localization, but it’s fitting enough; the game is more than slightly reminiscent of Kirby’s Dreamland 3, with absolutely beautiful graphics and a heavy emphasis on Kirby’s companions. The main difference between this adventure and that Super NES classic is that the companions this time around aren’t adorable animals (though those guys do show up in a random blink-and-you’ll-miss-it visual reference); instead, they’ve been supplanted by other players thanks to a drop-in/drop-out multiplayer format that can totally transform the play experience.
More Kirbys Return to Dream Land VideosAs a solo effort, Return to Dreamland is totally by-the-numbers Kirby. You run, jump, transform by swallowing enemies, and employ your powers in a variety of ways. The game’s difficulty slowly ramps up from baby-gentle to a genuine old-school test of reflexes and skill at the very end. It’s never hard, exactly; Kirby is, after all, a platformer hero who can fly at will. Still, some of the later challenges — especially the “hidden dimension” sections in which you outrace a rapidly approaching void — will definitely leave your nerves jangling. The power-ups are numerous and varied, and each one offers a surprising array of abilities, though many of their more subtle features feel a bit wasted in such a breezy game. Dreamland also offers very little in the way of opportunities to be truly strategic with your skill usage; the levels are designed in such a way that you’re almost always going to have the best luck fighting foes and solving in-level puzzles if you collect each new power as it appears. Even in the final stages, when the gloves finally come off and Dreamland starts to put up a fight, the ideal power-up for any given situation usually pops up about a screen or two before it’s needed.
Tackling Dreamland alone is really sort of missing the point, though. The game is far too manageable when it’s just Kirby on his lonesome. Throw in another three players, however, and suddenly the entire experience changes — and not just a little, either. Multiplayer practically turns this into a completely different game.
Remember how manic New Super Mario Bros. Wii could be with four players going at it simultaneously? How you’d bump into other players, screw up each other’s jumps, chuck one another into pits, and worse? Compared to four-player mode in Return to Dreamland, that brand of insanity seems almost sedate. Between the zoomed-in visual perspective, the fact that Kirby and friends move quickly and can basically go anywhere, and the way screen-filling attacks are the order of the day, the challenge of Dreamland’s multiplayer is just trying to keep up with the action.
Click the image above to check out all Kirby’s Return to Dreamland screens.
Developer HAL has taken an interesting approach to the cooperative play; not only is it completely insane, it’s also asymmetrical. Kirby is the hero here, and Player One can only choose the original pink version of the character. The other players can elect to control either off-color Kirby clones or long-time frenemies like Waddle-Dee and Metaknight, but either way the action ultimately revolves around the main Kirby. When Player One runs out of health or (god forbid) falls into a pit, everyone dies with him. The other players can die as often as they like and rejoin freely — though doing so consumes one of Player One’s lives. This is the sort of thing that can end friendships if the original Contra (which let players swipe lives from their partner once they reached game over) is anything to go by. Fortunately, lives are plentiful and easy to come by in this game, which reinforces the notion that it’s really balanced around co-op. A solo player will rack up lives by the dozen in an hour’s time, while a group effort is likely to burn through the generous starting stock within the space of a level or two.
The other big gimmick for Return to Dreamland is Kirby’s new ultra abilities: Super-charged versions of standard copy skills that appear occasionally in specific locations. These are ridiculous and over-the-top — Kirby may, for example, gain the ability to swing a sword that covers nearly the entire screen as often as he likes within a certain time limit — and basically serve to shatter any illusion of difficulty in an already fairly easy game for the sake of ludicrous empowerment. And that’s quite alright. You don’t really play a Kirby game like this to have your mettle tested but rather to drink in the lush visuals and power through a bunch of adorable monsters, and that’s precisely what this new power set allows. The ultra powers are basically a license to curb-stomp the game… and the preposterous imbalance they create is quickly rectified by the fact that their primary in-game purpose is to reveal passages to those aforementioned hidden dimensions, which consistently provide Dreamland’s most white-knuckle moments.
The Kirby series has always enjoyed a reputation for visual excellence (provided you can stomach the sugary sweetness of it all), and Return to Dreamland is no exception. Its clean, colorful visuals will make you hope the Wii U up-rezzes Wii software to 720p, because this is a game that deserves to be seen in high definition. It absolutely bursts with detail, from full-screen explosions to subtle embellishments (like the way Kirby’s flaming hat when equipped with the fireball ability creates a tiny ripple of heat distortion). The music is frequently excellent as well, with jazzy arrangements that sound like they were swiped from Namco’s Sound Team.
If not for its impressive graphics and completely insane multiplayer design, Return to Dreamland might be a tough sell. Despite his juvenile appearance, Kirby often plays host to some of Nintendo’s most imaginative game design, yet Dreamland is anything but. It’s a perfectly tame, perfectly predictable little platformer whose only real edge comes in its cooperative design and, to a lesser degree, in how dauntingly unforgiving the later, “secret” stages can be. If you don’t have any friends to play with, you can safely pass on Return to Dreamland. It’s perfectly decent solo, but Kirby can do better than “decent.” With friends, however, it’s wild, infuriating, and fun.