The core Kirby series has seen something of a revival in recent years, after a long period of interesting yet different spin-off titles taking the main spotlight. Starting off with Kirby’s Return To Dreamland, this new era of mainline Kirby games has taken on a character of its own; almost standing apart as a distinct sub series. The latest release, Kirby Star Allies, stands as the most polished and enjoyable version of this ‘new’ Kirby yet, but it also shows that the main Kirby formula is starting to get a little tired.
Star Allies kicks off with a mysterious alien creature standing at an altar, performing a ritual which causes a series of creepy looking purple hearts to rain down across the universe. One heart, which is pink, falls onto a napping Kirby, which imbues him with the ability to cause his enemies to instantly become his friends. Naturally, our hero sets off to discover what the cause of this disturbance is, and finds himself caught up in an intergalactic adventure through cutesy worlds that - as is tradition - culminates in a battle against an eldritch abomination that looks weirdly dark when contrasted against all the smiles and colors.
As expected, this is a game that positively oozes charm in nearly all aspects, although it is a little light on original ideas. This is the first mainline Kirby game to make the jump to HD, and the extra level of definition shows in all the little details, whether you’re playing portable or docked. Be it a fallen star casting a soft glow on a nearby tree trunk or a sunset in the distance causing the pillars of a castle to cast long shadows, the effects are top notch and certainly qualify this to be in the running for the most visually impressive Kirby release to date. Even so, there’s a notion that the developer wanted to play it safe here; you’ll still find yourself running through the same grassy field, fire, water, etc type worlds that have appeared in Kirby games before, and while they certainly do look beautiful, it would’ve been nice to have seen an art direction that was a little more visually distinctive, such as the robotic landscapes of Kirby: Planet Robobot.
This is matched by a similarly well-done soundtrack that does little to surprise, but plenty to satisfy. There are many remixed themes that see a return from previous games to accompany the new music, and the whole soundtrack does a great job of matching and setting the overall tone. Whether it be threatening and mischievous track for a boss fight or a whimsical track as you wander through a grassy plain, you'd be hard-pressed to find a bad tune in this diverse soundtrack.
The same core gameplay of Kirby applies here, and there’s a good mixture of new and old powers on offer. Series staples such as Beam, Parasol, and Sword are present and accounted for while interesting new ones such as Spider and Artist help to bring new ideas into the mix. Each of the newer Kirby games has also included a central gimmick - whether it be a mech suit or supercharged versions of powers - though Star Allies doesn’t really have such a feature to make it stand out. Kirby’s heart ability enables you to turn up to three enemies into AI companions who will follow you around and fight alongside you. Building on top of this mechanic is power mixing, which enables Kirby (or allies with similar powers) to power up an ability with fire, electricity, and other things.
Brief, linear sections where you band together with your teammates to do things such as rolling into an unstoppable ball help to add some light gameplay variety, but the AI partners otherwise don’t add much to the overall gameplay experience aside from the option to have up to three friends jump in for local multiplayer. This is far from the first Kirby game to include such a mechanic and while it’s a nice feature to have, Kirby Star Allies doesn’t do much to try new things with the idea. If anything, it makes an already easy game significantly easier, as a full team can easily mow down most of the bosses and enemies you encounter.
Similarly, the power mixing mechanic is fun to play around with, but its limited options can make it feel somewhat tacked on. Essentially, any of the weapon-focused abilities can be buffed with elemental effects that augment their usefulness, while most of the other abilities have a combined super attack that can hit multiple enemies. It can be fun to discover these extra abilities and attacks, but the easy difficulty of the game hardly necessitates their use, which can make them feel like overkill in many instances. Often, we find ourselves using the ability mixing not because it was particularly useful, but just because it makes certain attacks look cooler.
While the main gimmicks of the game may come across as disappointing to some, the level design and overall pacing of Star Allies save it from being a total disappointment overall. The overall slow pace of the game doesn’t prioritize rushing you from one set piece to the next, but instead focuses on just giving you the space to goof off and take your time drinking everything in. It can be great fun discovering the nuances of different powers and how certain team compositions work together, and though the level designs will rarely challenge you, there’s just enough pushback to keep you interested in playing one more level.
Though exploration and puzzle elements feel dramatically dialed back, each level contains a series of puzzle pieces to collect, with one being a rainbow piece that’s a little more difficult to obtain. At the end of every stage, these pieces are then randomly inserted into one of a handful of 'Celebration Paintings' that call to mind the Puzzle Swap StreetPass puzzles and these paintings all reference past Kirby games. Even the most dedicated player will take quite some time to fill out these paintings, and they do a good job of adding much more replay value to what is an admittedly rather short campaign.
Though the campaign may be on the short side, the post-game content is arguably where the real game begins. Guest Star mode enables you to do a speedrun of the game while playing as one of any of the common enemies you face in the campaign, and this can provide interesting variations on the basic gameplay. Not only are you locked to that one power for a full run, but the difficulty is ratcheted up a little, and a variety of stat-boosting hearts - which boost health, speed, and attack - are scattered along your path. This RPG-lite approach to gameplay helps to keep repeat playthroughs from feeling too stale, while adding a new incentive for exploration.
Similarly, The Ultimate Choice is this game’s version of The Arena, and it tasks you with running a gauntlet of bosses with limited health refills in between. The difference here is that a difficulty slider at the beginning of an attempt dictates how many bosses you’ll face, but also how many puzzle pieces you’ll be rewarded with. As you’d expect, dialing that slider all the way up brings a difficulty level that will challenge even the most seasoned gamer, and there’s plenty of replay value to be found if you wish to try passing with all abilities.
It wouldn’t be a Kirby game without some side-games, too, and Star Allies doesn’t disappoint in this area. Chop Champs sees you competing with friends or AI opponents to mash the 'A' button the fastest to chop down a tree while dodging obstacles, and Star Slam Heroes sees you timing button presses to fill up a gauge that determines how far you’ll hit a meteor back into space with your bat. Both of these games have three difficulty levels and support for motion controls, and while they ultimately aren’t much more than minor distractions from the main game, they’re still a welcome inclusion and fun to come back to now and then.
One aspect that won’t bother everybody, but still bears mentioning, is that Kirby Star Allies appears to perform at just 30fps. Given that the last few entries in the series were at least close to 60fps, and that this doesn’t appear to be a game that’s too taxing on the Switch’s humble hardware, this comes off as a bit of a disappointment. The game is still perfectly playable, and it felt a little less sluggish when playing on a TV, but the low framerate certainly detracts somewhat from the overall experience, and will no doubt prove to be a sticking point for some.
All in all, Kirby Star Allies is a fun, relaxing game that does a good job of showing off what makes the main Kirby series so great. The slow pace, diverse powers, beautiful environments, adorable enemy designs, and light difficulty ensure that this is an enjoyable ride from start to finish. But with that being said, there’s a lingering sense that the developer was a little too keen to play this one safe, and the lack of new ideas may come as a disappointment to series veterans. This is not the Super Mario Odyssey or The Legend Of Zelda: Breath Of The Wild of the Kirby series, but that doesn’t mean that it’s a bad game. If you’ve never played a Kirby game before, this is a fantastic place to jump in, but if you’re a longtime fan, you may not be blown away.
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