Kirby and the Rainbow Curse is a sequel of sorts to 2005's Canvas Curse, which is considered to be among the top titles the pink puff has ever starred in. That's pretty high praise and a tough act to follow — but 10 years on, Nintendo and developer HAL Laboratory are giving it another whirl. The result is a video game equivalent to a big ol' wad of cotton candy: Playful, light, and full of sweetness, but over before you know it and not quite as filling as one might hope.
The setup is suitably straightforward, befitting the series' kid-friendly nature. One day in Dream Land, Kirby and Waddle Dee watch as a portal tears open the sky to suck all the colour from the world, freezing its inhabitants. Out of the portal comes the paintbrush fairy Elline on the run from Claycia, the evil being at the root of it all. Elline frees Kirby and Waddle Dee from their frozen state, and the three team up to stop Claycia and restore Dream Land.
Kirby's end of the deal has him rolled up in a ball, constantly moving forward. Much like Canvas Curse, Kirby is not controlled directly — instead, he must be guided by drawing Rainbow Ropes on the GamePad's touch screen. These ropes are more than just rails for Kirby to ride though, sure, there's plenty of that. A well-doodled rope can stop a projectile in its tracks, declaw an environmental hazard, or simply switch Kirby's direction. Rainbow Ropes are tethered to a meter that refills over time, so they can't be drawn entirely willy-nilly. Tapping Kirby directly with the stylus sends him into a dash attack able to knock out enemies or break through certain barricades. Or just move along quicker — Kirby can sure take his time.
When the stages click, Rainbow Curse feels like a big daydream of a puzzle solved by blissful doodling. The GamePad's large size offers plenty of room to breathe, feeling far more generous with the elbow room than the DS's diminutive lower screen. There are clever stage elements at play here, too, that require careful consideration of how to use — or do without — Rainbow Ropes; also, for the most part, the handful of stages that transform Kirby into a rocket, tank or submarine play to the GamePad's strengths.
Not every stage is a hit, though, and at its low points Rainbow Curse feels like a game short of ideas. Kirby's buoyancy when underwater amplifies the problems associated with indirectly controlling the pink puff, making these stages far more annoying than their land-based and airborne counterparts. And while Rainbow Curse has some clever thoughts on moulding its stylus-driven concept in new ways, the game has a habit of repeating certain mechanics and totally underusing other great ideas. Annoyingly — this is a pet peeve of ours, which the game's predecessor was also guilty of — Rainbow Curse uses the same three end-of-area bosses twice each. One of them is ol' series standby Wispy Woods, the poor tree whom Kirby has felled so many times at this point that he could build a log cabin from its multiple remains and still have enough wood left over to last through winter. Familiarity has always been a Kirby trait, but this kind of repetition is just about silly and indicative of Rainbow Curse's creative shortcomings.
Each level has a slew of collectibles to find, from treasure chests containing bonus figurines and music for the jukebox to stars that let Kirby unleash a powerful strike when enough are gathered; many of these are well hidden and reward skilful exploration. In fact, players looking for extra difficulty beyond what the relatively easy six-hour Story Mode has to offer would do well to make a point of searching for these extras. In addition, Challenge Mode throws down 40 stages that require quick thinking and quicker acting, which should give those who seek more testing moments something to sink their teeth into.
The game isn't quite the breeze that Kirby's Epic Yarn is, but experienced players should have no trouble besting what is designed as an accessible game for kids. New or inexperienced players will enjoy the gentle challenge, and if a stage proves too challenging and a player meets their demise a few too many times on a stage then Rainbow Curse has their back — it politely asks if you'd like to simply move on to the next stage.
Right off the bat, meanwhile, Rainbow Curse stuns with its sculpted clay look. Nintendo has dabbled with integrating texture into its worlds before — Kirby's Epic Yarn being a masterful example of weaving presentation with gameplay — and this time out, in glorious high definition, the results are seriously jaw-dropping. This is — dare we say? — the prettiest game on Wii U so far.
HAL Laboratory took this visual theme and ran with it as far as it could. What's most remarkable is the attention to imperfections, the beautiful little touches that breathe life into this polymer presentation. The tiny indents that look as though left by a finger's pressure, or the slight beveled edges where different colours meet. When dropped from a great height or blasted into a wall, the shallow crater Kirby leaves on the surface is not just a fun wink at the elasticity of clay — it's a sign of HAL's wholesale commitment to this art style. It's wondrous.
However pretty the clay look may be, the look is entirely incidental to gameplay. Coming off of Kirby's Epic Yarn's masterful weaving of fabric into its gameplay and environment, and considering the ways Paper Mario toys with two-dimension worlds, the use of clay in Rainbow Curse is disappointingly little more than a visual gimmick. HAL Laboratory has gone through the trouble of crafting this gorgeous environment and fails to capitalize on its potential gameplay implications. Were it paper, yarn, wood, or any other material theme then Rainbow Curse would be the same game as it is with clay. That's a missed opportunity in our book.
And, since Kirby is guided entirely by drawing on the GamePad — and thus where a player's attention is at all times — it's a shame that this aesthetic is essentially wasted on the tablet controller's smaller, standard-definition screen. It's tough for a solo player to really enjoy the lovely details of this plasticine paradise. You can steal glimpses of its visual greatness in idle moments — between scenes, in menus — but once Kirby is rolling it's a bad idea to divert attention away from the GamePad lest he roll into a ditch. For a spectator, though, it's a great game to watch.
Three other players can join in as Waddle Dees using a Wii Remote or Pro Controller, and they have the pleasure of playing on the main screen. Their job, essentially, is to protect Kirby — Waddle Dee has no Rainbow Rope ability, but he can travel on the ropes drawn by Player 1 and can spear things real good. Rainbow Curse likely won't dethrone your favourite local multiplayer game, but it does offer a pleasant bonding experience in a beautiful environment. There's something to be said for that.
Those fortunate enough to get their hands on a Kirby, King Dedede, or Meta Knight amiibo (good luck!) can also tap them for a special power-up once a day. The Kirby amiibo allows our hero to use Star Dash at any time, without having to collect 100 stars in a stage. King Dedede helps Kirby hulk out by increasing the health counter from four to six bars. Meta Knight allegedly gives Kirby a powerful boost, but we were unable to test that one for this review as Meta Knight was not available to us at the time of writing. None of these abilities are crucial to finish the game, but strategic use can make certain challenges or bosses easier.
Kirby and the Rainbow Curse is perfect for a lazy Sunday afternoon: a pleasant roll through a gorgeous world, with some novel concepts, and one of the most beautiful games the Wii U has yet seen. However charming the game may be, Rainbow Curse is a few strokes from greatness: overly repetitive mechanics, underused ideas, and a failure to integrate its clay theme into gameplay in any meaningful way keep it from reaching the lofty heights to which it potentially could. Well crafted, but not a masterpiece.