Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze Review
When Nintendo first revealed Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze during E3 2013, I’ll admit I was disappointed. Though I enjoyed 2010’s Donkey Kong Country Returns, a wonderfully challenging platformer on the Wii, I wasn’t clamoring for a sequel. Part of me also wished Retro Studios had been working on some groundbreaking original franchise (or Metroid Prime 4, obviously). Fortunately, DKC: Tropical Freeze provides a largely impressive platforming experience, albeit a rather predictable one.
Tropical Freeze separates itself from the ever-growing pack of 2D platformers on the Wii U by its level of difficulty. Unlike in New Super Mario Bros., there’s no handholding here, even when you die… repeatedly. Through trial and error, you’re trusted to learn the layout of each level and adapt to the various bottomless pits, falling platforms, and hostile enemies scattered from start to finish. The final unlockable levels in particular showcase some of the most rewarding and downright devilish platforming segments in the entire series. Curiously, however, the game still includes lives, which is fairly puzzling given how easy it is to max out your red balloons.
The cold never bothered me anyway?
Thankfully, the controls in Tropical Freeze are a significant improvement over those in DKC Returns. Gone are the annoying waggle and mic-blowing prompts, replaced by more intuitive and comfortable button alternatives. Simply mapping DK’s roll to a button makes platforming infinitely tighter. Similarly, plucking items from the ground with the right trigger greatly improves the flow of each level. However, DK’s heavier weight and inconsistent momentum physics sharply contrast with more instinctive platformers like Mario and Rayman. The difference between a standstill jump and a rolling jump is staggering at first, but does feel more natural after a few levels.
Fortunately, both mine cart and rocket barrel stages return once more, providing Tropical Freeze with some welcome and necessary level diversity. The mine cart stages, in particular, boast some of the most intense and frantic moments in the whole game. For example, in Sawmill Thrill, razor-sharp saws continuously swing down and cut through wooden obstacles on the track, creating an ever-evolving and increasingly treacherous path ahead. And, though the rocket barrel controls are still perhaps a little too sensitive, they’re never frustrating enough to diminish the thrill of narrowly dodging a falling icicle or leaping shark.
Warning: Do not attempt barrel roll.
Tropical Freeze also introduces a “dynamic 3D camera” in certain stages in an effort to add an extra layer of depth to gameplay. Unfortunately, the shifting angles only make it more difficult to accurately gauge the distance between platforms. Additionally, Tropical Freeze reintroduces underwater stages, but swimming without Dixie as a partner makes quick, precise directional changes somewhat difficult to pull off.
Speaking of Dixie, she’s one of three sidekicks that aid Donkey Kong on his latest journey. Her ponytail-twirl not only allows her to hover over short distances, but also provides a small lift at the tail end, which serves as a useful safety net if you misjudge a jump. Dixie effectively renders Diddy, whose barrel jet can only hover on a flat level, rather useless once you become accustomed to the former’s ability. The last companion, Cranky, can use his cane to bounce on spikes, enemies, and other hazards to reach new heights and previously inaccessible areas (a la Scrooge McDuck). Though he’s a neat nod to a classic NES platformer, his move set just doesn’t fit particularly well within Tropical Freeze’s level design.
Like in DKC Returns, each world (only six this time around) ends in a boss battle. Defeating bosses requires you to study their attack patterns during each phase in order to appropriately time your offensive and defensive maneuvers. Though fairly creative and initially enjoyable, the lack of a checkpoint system during these battles absolutely destroys the game’s pacing. Repeatedly playing through the same phases, even once you’ve mastered them, is incredibly frustrating and (dare I say) boring. Each phase can last for several minutes, so dying even a few times can be maddening. There’s a thin line between challenging and aggravating, and most of these battles fall into the latter category.
One of Van Gogh’s most popular works
As for visual presentation, Tropical Freeze is beautiful yet slightly unimpressive. Though the game is more vibrant and detailed than its predecessor, its art style is essentially just an HD-polished iteration of the previous game’s design. Still, certain levels are absolutely stunning to behold. Cliffside Slide, for example, features a silhouetted DK against the backdrop of a raging snowstorm, his red tie the only discernable color as you jump between falling platforms. Additionally, the colorful Snowmads are a massive upgrade over the uninspired Tikis of DKC Returns, but Retro still relies too heavily on slight enemy variations in later levels; a penguin with a different helmet is still a penguin.
In terms of music, Tropical Freeze blew me away thanks to the return of original DKC composer, David Wise. By blending variations of classic DK tunes with new themes and ideas, Wise not only managed to compose music that's enjoyable in its own right, but also completely engrosses you in each level. Just play through Grassland Grove to understand what I’m talking about.
Ultimately, though Tropical Freeze is a fundamentally entertaining game, it’s a sequel that doesn’t offer much in the way of new ideas (a symptom shared by most Nintendo 2D platformers at the moment). Not even the great Retro Studios could find a creative (or really any) use for the Wii U Gamepad. Hopefully, both Donkey Kong’s next outing and Retro’s next game provide more unique, memorable experiences than this latest chapter in the DKC franchise.
Please note that the final score is not an average
Reviewer's Note: I didn't feel that the co-op multiplayer represented a significant enough portion of the overall game experience to warrant its own component score.