Friday, 2 September 2016

Kirby: Planet Robobot - Review

Developer: HAL Laboratory
Publisher: Nintendo
Platforms: 3DS

Kirby has had a slightly underwhelming career in the past few years. Kirby: Triple Deluxe was a decent platformer for the little pink gumball, even if it was a bit predictable. Meanwhile, last year, the Wii U was graced with Kirby and the Rainbow Paintbrush, one of the best looking games in recent memory, with a wonderfully tactile art style, that was scuppered somewhat by a stubborn control system that insisted you spent most of the time jabbing Kirby along with the stylus.

I’ve made the case before that the best way to think of Kirby is as the “easy mode” of Nintendo’s platforming triumvirate. Mario is the benchmark for difficulty, just as the moustachioed plumber is the trademark standard character in any Mario Kart game. Meanwhile, Donkey Kong is there for the games that need an extra dose of challenge; a hard mode if you will. That leaves it down to Kirby to provide a more mellow experience.

And Kirby: Plant Robobot would definitely fit into this idea. It’s not a ruthlessly challenging game, but neither is it a complete walk in the park. Instead it strikes a remarkable balance; testing the player but always allowing creativity and fresh ideas to be at the forefront of its overall design.

More than any other game I’ve played this year, Kirby: Planet Robobot wallows in excess creativity. There’s enough ideas here to fuel three games let alone one. From the opening stage to the game’s final multi-part boss fight it’s an utter joy to play, capturing the central fun of playing as Kirby whilst also evolving and expanding his base gameplay in as many ways as possible. It’s a sleek, well-oiled machine, to use an (appropriate) machine-based metaphor. HAL Laboratory show off just how much they’ve learnt at crafting Kirby games over the years.

The core gameplay of Planet Robobot is, initially, very similar to that of Triple Deluxe. Charming platforming levels are populated with various enemies that all alter Kirby’s core move set if he eats them. Vacuum up a sword-wielding foe, and Kirby will brandish a sword, fire enemy and he’ll spit fire, you get the idea. New forms for Kirby add some great new concepts. The doctor form has the little pink guy start lobbing pills at enemies, bashing them with clipboards, whilst the ESP form (pro-tip this mode is fab against most bosses), has Kirby attack from long range with his mind and even teleport short distances.

The whopping twenty seven forms that Kirby now has are what help bolster the sheer variety of the game. There’s a genuine level of strategy that goes into when to switch to what form, and most levels have various puzzles and challenges that can only be completed by switching into a particular form, such as eating an electric enemy in order to power a nearby battery for example.

Where Kirby: Planet Robobot goes one step further is in the titular Robobot suit that Kirby can pilot. Many of the game’s levels have Kirby hopping into his mech suit and stomping around. What’s better, is the suit has the same morphing abilities as its pilot. Suck up a fire enemy whilst in the mech, and you’ll have two flame-throwers to start blasting away with.

The game also smartly uses the Robobot suit as a change of pace. Some levels will have you turning the robot into a jet or car to mix up the gameplay even further. And each of the changes is handled perfectly. No segment lasts too long that it overstays its welcome, and the sheer difference in gameplay from level to level means that any weaker moments (not that there are that many, mind), are quickly forgotten as you’re shuttled along onto the next challenge.

Whilst the core concepts of Kirby: Planet Robobot might seem overwhelmingly familiar, even with the new robot suit, it’s the games incredible of pacing and level design that takes it even further. For an ostensibly 2D game, HAL Laboratory have a tremendous skill with injecting each level with plenty of depth. Most stages have you bouncing back and forth between the foreground and background. This is the kind of game that doesn’t need the 3D functions of the 3DS switched on to understand what the developers were going for. Levels teem with animation, whether it be running across a giant pool table, dodging traffic that comes hurtling towards the screen, or diving through a Tron-style computer world. The game’s levels are packed with a sense of depth and vibrancy that put many similar games to shame.

Even the story, which is hardly at the forefront of a game like this, is handled with more thought and charm than many games that put far more stock in their stories. Attacked by an organization from outer space, Kirby’s world is assaulted by a giant robot bent on hoovering up every ounce of water on the planet. Kirby spends the majority of his time contending with the organization’s secretary, a confused little robot named Susie, before taking on the moustache-twirling head of the company during the game’s finale, who, in addition to attacking you, blocks up the 3DS screen with hordes of bank notes.

The bosses are the final jewel in Kirby’s crown. Kirby and the Rainbow Paintbrush struggled with this aspect in particular, recycling the same three or four ideas multiple times over the course of the game. Robobot has no such problems. Whilst its sub-bosses might be rehashed a little too often by the game’s final worlds, the major bosses are a joy to fight, whether it be a robot A.I. or a genetic clone of King Dedede. Visually, and in terms of the gameplay, these challenges are on point providing the player with a suitable challenge, whilst bolstering the strategic significance of Kirby’s various forms.

It’d be churlish to complain about much in Kirby: Planet Robobot because, frankly, it’s a wonderfully crafted game. Better yet, it’s one that does so solely through the strength of gameplay and makes the whole experience look effortless. With a host of extra modes upon completion, including a speed-run challenge where you play as Meta Knight, there’s an abundance of activities to keep players occupied when they’ve wrapped up the main adventure.

Kirby: Planet Robobot isn’t just the best 3DS of the year so far, it’s one of the best games of the year on any platform. Not since Super Mario Galaxy has Nintendo handled one of its platforming mascots with such confidence.


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