Kirby Star Allies Review
A Lull in the Franchise
Published on March 31, 2018
Kirby Star Allies
Release Date: March 16, 2018
Platforms: Nintendo Switch
Developer: HAL Laboratory
As it nears its 26th birthday, the Kirby franchise has had its fair share of ups and downs. Often the victim of “Nintendo Experimentation,” Kirby has been the guinea pig of wacky game ideas from time to time. Mini-golf, racing, pinball; they put him through it all. Even with these wild tangents, it’s fascinating to see that the mainline games have remained relatively similar to the debut Kirby’s Dream Land from 1992. Kirby’s Star Allies makes sure to stay on the safe path while providing plenty of fan service of long-time followers of the series.
The core gameplay mechanic of Kirby Star Allies is the four-player co-op similar to Kirby’s Return to Dreamland. Where this game differs from the past is the fact that a limited selection of characters no longer bounds your team. Ability helpers from Kirby Super Star make their return, and your team can now be composed of any combination of abilities in the game. Throwing a Friend Heart at an enemy will convert them to join your team, with the new team member being controlled by either the AI or a human friend. This makes it easy for even solo players to enjoy the experience of having a full party for their adventure.
Friend Abilities, first introduced in Kirby: Squeak Squad are back, they allow the team to mix specific abilities to either solve puzzles or upgrade attack levels. Friend Actions let the group perform “spectacular feats of friendship” by transforming them into different combinations of objects such as a train or a bridge to progress through the level. Although new additions are always welcomed, the novelty factor wears off fairly quickly and become just a tedious task later in the game.
The game takes very heavy inspiration from previous games in the series, as you can tell by all the references above. The title sequence animation and music should remind long-time players of the Kirby Super Star opening cinematic. Many abilities that were absent in many of the previous entries are back: Plasma, Yo-Yo, and Suplex to name a few. Retro music permeates the game, as familiar tunes play throughout the extra stages. And finally, old friends and foes such as Rick the Hamster, Gooey and Marx join Kirby for his adventure. This game is the epitome of fan service for long-time fans of the series, but it spends too much time in doing so and struggles to create a unique identity for itself.
Where the game falls flat is in the actual implementation of these features, both new and old. There’s a very limited set of ability combinations that can be created, significantly less than what Kirby 64: The Crystal Shards had. Callbacks to level designs are barely fleshed out and abandoned within two or three screens. Even the core concept of the ability helpers is lacking; they are missing the sense of sacrifice as they did in Kirby Super Star. Upon death, helpers easily are revived, and there’s no feeling of consequences when you lose someone on the team. Although the sheer number of features they try to bring back diversifies the gameplay experience, they are not able to flesh them out properly to create a cohesive, fun product.
Past the smaller features, Kirby Star Allies still struggles to find proper footing in its core gameplay. The lack of challenge that has been consistent in the past few games has not been addressed, and perhaps gotten worse. Many of the puzzles require very little thought, are usually confined to a single room and have no consequences for making mistakes. Puzzles can be reset without losing a life or replaying the level. In the event you’re stuck, everything required to solve the problem is usually placed in the same room as the puzzle. Although co-op gameplay is the central feature of the game, many of the level designs seem to be aimed at a single player experience. There are very few challenges that require real cooperation from players. The few segments where players are separated from the map are usually linear hallways that need no more than activating buttons in alternating sequences.
The mechanics implemented to ensure multiple playthroughs of the levels are disappointing as well. Collectables that required safekeeping a specific ability through a tricky segment or out-of-the-box thinking is nonexistent. They are usually in plain sight or part of a mini-boss fight that is almost impossible to miss. The lack of an extra mode that other games in the series did so well is entirely missing from Kirby Star Allies, completely removing the need to play through the main story again.
That’s not to say the game is all bad. Platforming feels responsive, and ability movesets are fun to play with. The game looks fantastic on the Switch (albeit only running at 30 FPS), and there are some pretty unique ways the storytelling is done. The game allows different ways to solve puzzles from time to time, providing a little room for experimentation from time to time. Although the majority of the level designs feel uninspired and cookie-cutter, there are a couple that I enjoyed playing.
The modes unlocked after the main story add a lot more value and are enjoyable. Star Allies GO! is a shorter version of the main story where you play as a helper. With the addition of power-ups that increase your speed, attack or health and a timer that keeps track of how fast you make it through the level, I found it pretty enjoyable to try more than once. The Ultimate Choice is a boss rush that provided the best challenge; the broad range of difficulty ensures a fun experience for players across all skill levels. A couple of short mini-games round out the game; they’re nothing extraordinary, but provide fun breaks between long gaming sessions.
Overall, Kirby Star Allies sticks too close to the safe boundaries with its conservative design choices. Even with the new features and return of older elements, the game feels formulaic and barebones. The game has few memorable levels, and it provides very little reason for players to go back after their first run. Although the core of a Kirby game is present, it fails to push the franchise forward. This is all but a blip in the series’ long history, and I am hopeful that HAL Laboratory will be able to bring back to its former glory.