So, this is Kirby, but I’m sure you already knew that. The repeat savior of Dreamland with an insatiable appetite has been around for years, traveling on adventures through different worlds and across genres, from action platformers to high-speed racing to endless rollers. Regardless of play style, the Kirby series prides itself on simple and straightforward gameplay with an “easy to play, difficult to master” philosophy. I’ve personally always been a Kirby fan since the original Kirby’s Dreamland released on the Game Boy back in 1992, so I’m always looking forward to new releases. The previous two entries, Kirby: Triple Deluxe and Kirby: Planet Robobot felt fresh and exciting given their brilliant use of the 3D effects of the 3DS, and are easily two of the best games in the franchise. The newest entry, Kirby Star Allies for Nintendo Switch, quite frankly isn’t on the same level and feels fairly basic and uninspired for a traditional Kirby title.
Don’t get me wrong, the game is definitely good, filled with the series trademark charm, laid back platforming, and some genuinely funny moments, but it falls short of being great. Taking a page from Kirby’s Return to Dreamland (Wii), Kirby Star Allies focuses on providing a multiplayer experience with up to four players taking control of Kirby and his allies as they travel to different locales, copying abilities, fighting bosses and solving puzzles. Besides eating his enemies and stealing their powers, Kirby can now befriend almost any creature in the game by throwing a heart at them against their will, a skill typically resulting in the opposite effect in real life. These new “persuaded” allies can then be controlled by either another player, or the CPU, and the CPU controlled allies generally do a good job of processing whatever the current situation calls for. On the rare occasion the computer can’t figure out what to do, it is possible to take over the character by having Kirby ride piggyback and give you direct control like some kind of adorable parasite.
Taking another page from Kirby 64: The Crystal Shards, Kirby, and friends have the ability to combine their powers in some surprising ways. For example, an ally can set fire to Kirby’s sword, giving him new flame-based attacks. Or a wind-based ally can give bombs the ability to float into the air. Some weapons have a special “Friend Ability” that will activate a special technique usually reserved for the game’s puzzle rooms. The umbrella can extend into a larger form to protect all players from falling debris, and the new (surprisingly awesome) Spider ability will have a friend jump onto a web like a trampoline, firing them high into the air for instance. My personal favorite is the “Friend Throw”, where Kirby grabs an unsuspecting ally and hurls them across the screen like a pinball damaging everything in their path. Wait… mind control, forced servitude, and general disdain for personal space and physics? Wow, in hindsight, I guess Kirby is a bit of a jerk.
Not to mention the ability to literally cook his friends in a pot and send them flying from heat pressure for a quick snack with “Supper Party”. My point is, the ability combinations are fun to discover and some are morbidly hilarious. There are also special platforms used to activate Friend Actions, abilities that transform the team into various forms such as a giant wheel, a bridge, and a train capable of scaling walls and ceilings. As silly as that sounds, these sections are actually one of Star Allies strongest points. The ally system altogether is an enjoyable addition but is also both, directly and indirectly, the cause of the game’s most prominent weaknesses. First of all, having so many players on screen at once firing off a multitude of attacks and special effects can make it very difficult to tell what is happening in any given moment, especially during boss fights. The CPU allies can also be aggressive to a fault. You never know if you’ll need to fight more carefully because they got themselves killed, or if you can sit back and relax as they steamroll everything in their path. It’s a gamble for sure, but if you’re feeling confident it’s easy enough to discard any allies you don’t want like an old pair of socks. The friendship norms of Popstar are bit different from what we’re used to, apparently.
The final downside to the ally system is a personal one, being the general simplicity of the level design. I understand tuning a game for multiplayer requires some compromises, I just feel a few too many were made resulting in a less challenging and therefore less satisfying experience. Kirby isn’t well known for challenging content, to begin with, but previous titles did at least offer some resistance with puzzle rooms and hidden items. While those two aspects are present in Star Allies, they’ve been overly simplified in my opinion. Puzzle rooms almost always contain every copy ability you need to solve them, requiring little to no preparation or insight, just trial, and error. There is a special puzzle piece hidden in each stage, and hidden switches that unlock new levels in a select few, but these are very hard to miss if you pay even a modicum of attention. I know I sound like an old man yelling at clouds, but I’ve paid my dues as a Kirby fan and reserve the right to at least express my disappointment after experiencing the phenomenal stage designs of the 3DS titles, and to tell you to get off my lawn.
Despite these issues, I can at least acknowledge the difficulty of some of the late game boss fights. Even without the fireworks display of your allies going to town on the bosses, the final section of fights will definitely put your skills to the test. And of course, in typical Kirby fashion, the final boss (without spoiling anything) takes an unconventional turn compared to the rest of the game. Finishing the story mode also unlocks a few extras, including the usual arena where the most challenging content lies. I also need to mention this is hands down the best Kirby has ever looked, as Star Allies is a bit of a graphical showcase. The character models and environments are highly detailed and the lighting is top notch. Unfortunately, the usual 60 frames-per-second gameplay has been reduced to 30 as a disappointing trade-off, but it still plays well. The controls are smooth, the music is dangerously catchy as always, and I ultimately enjoyed my time with it. It’s not the greatest of Kirby’s adventures, but still a fun little trip. If you’re into that kind of thing and have a few friends to tag along, Kirby Star Allies is a recommended, but not essential experience.
Kirby Star Allies is available for Nintendo Switch. If you’re on the fence, there is a sizable demo available on Nintendo eShop.