♫It’s a whoooole new woooorld, and you’re still by my side!♫
It’s been a while since I last talked about a Kirby game, which is a shame considering I always had a soft spot for the series. Some of my favorite games as a kid were Kirby Air Ride and Nightmare in Dream Land. A decade ago, I started going through the entire Kirby series, clearing all the mainline games and trying out the ‘spin-offs,’ but I burned out before I wrote a Kirby 64 review. I reviewed Triple Deluxe in 2014 and thought it was alright, but little more. I reviewed Super Star Ultra in 2016, saying that it is one of my favorite games of all time— and it’s still in my top ten.
Then 2016’s Planet Robobot came out when I was not really interested in the 3DS due its low resolution, and 2018’s Star Allies was met with a more muted reception, so I sorta went on an accidental Kirby hiatus. However, if there was ever anything that would force me out of the hiatus, it would be the first ‘proper’ 3D Kirby platformer.
…A game that is called Kirby and the Forgotten Land in western markets, but I prefer the Japanese title of Kirby Discovery. Which is what people called the game after it was leaked from Nintendo Japan’s website a day before the official announcement. Discovery is a bold word that evokes a sense of wonder. While ‘The Forgotten Land’ is a generic sounding suffix that has been applied to a walking simulator, match 3 game, and… Thomas the Tank Engine fan film? Gah! I’m getting distracted. Let’s just get on with the review.
Kirby and the Forgotten Land (Kirby Discovery) Review
Platform: Nintendo Switch
Developer: HAL Laboratory
In typical fashion, Kirby Discovery kicks off with Kirby chilling in the naturalistic utopia of Dream Land before some messed-up-hoopla comes in and ruins Kirby’s tranquil days. This time around the messed-up-hoopla takes the form of a trans-dimensional portal that drags Kirby, a bunch of Dream Land critters, and a bunch of stuff from Planet Popstar into the titular Forgotten Land. A civilization more than a little similar to the real world, but one that has been abandoned decades ago and reclaimed by a mixture of nature, indigenous wildlife, and an influx of invasive species from Dream Land.
Immediately, this raises questions about what happened to this world, which, as to be expected from a modern Kirby game, is left by the wayside for the majority of the time, leading the player to just accept this as a quirk. But then, right as the campaign comes to a close, the ever-elusive lore of the series is expanded upon with some flavor of sugar-drenched sci-fi horror. As has been the rule since ‘93. It is a formula that would warrant criticism, for being such a back-heavy narrative. But is is oft the case, the ending here evoked a sense of epicness or intensity that I didn’t actually mind by the time the credits were rolling.
As for how the adventure itself plays out, this is the first fully 3D Kirby outing, so let’s begin with that angle. Something that I think has prevented a 3D Kirby game from being made is the fact that most major Nintendo IP has discernible differences between their 2D and 3D offerings. Mario, Zelda, and Metroid all have considerably different gameplay styles and structures depending on if the entry is 2D or 3D. And while some titles blur the lines more than others, such as Super Mario 3D World and Metroid: Other M, there are enough differences that you could understand why someone might like the 3D entries and not like the 2D entries.
But when presented with ways to differentiate 2D and 3D Kirby, HAL effectively shrugged and decided that the best move was to not reinvent the wheel and pursue a more direct adaptation. Kirby Discovery is a level-based affair where Kirby needs to traverse through linear stages populated by enemies, obstacles, gimmicks, bosses, along with a large amount of secrets and side objectives. All of which is lumped into a handful of themed worlds and rendered through the lens of a fixed camera angle that the player can only nudge outside of major boss arenas.
Throughout my playthrough, I kept going back to how the title is closer to the likes of Crash Bandicoot than it is to Super Mario 64 (starting at the literal first second of play). Which I think speaks volumes to the fact that Discovery is effectively another Kirby game but with another dimension added on. While this could be disappointing, it is also easily the most refreshing and distinct Kirby title released within the past decade, and one that routinely impressed me with its quality.
Let’s start with the series’ stable copy abilities. While the quantity here is the lowest it’s been in a ‘mainline title,’ with only 12 copy abilities, including sleep and crash, all of these copy abilities have multiple versions, or rather evolutions. These evolutions add more to each copy ability, give the game a progression curve where Kirby gets progressively more powerful, and allow the developers to play around with familiar concepts by remixing them. Such as the giant sword, chain bombs, or the time crash power.
It makes the copy abilities feel like parts of an arsenal that is upgraded over time, though I don’t think it is quite the most balanced arsenal. With tornado and drill both being situational and notoriously awkward to use in more combat oriented segments, namely boss battles. While the
gun manacaster ranger is not only the best ability because of its range and solid damage/speed, but it has some of the best hats in the game. Still, I would be lying if I said that these weren’t the most well utilized copy abilities in the entire series, having a good amount of tech and strategy for players to make use of throughout their playthrough.
However, copy ability evolution is more of a secondary innovation next to the signature feature of this game… which was definitely inspired by Super Mario Odyssey. Mouthful Mode allows Kirby to thrust his stretchy bubble-gum-like body over mundane objects, like lockers, arches, and most notably cars, in order to allow him to do things he normally could not in specific instances. Instances that hit pretty much every design tenant that is often attributed with Nintendo first party titles.
Everything feels deliberate. The gimmicks are paced well enough that you don’t forget about them, appearing once, then going away for just long enough for the player to start missing them. They are simple yet avoid feeling repetitive or derivative. The amount of variety feels optimal. And there is something deeply adorable about these concepts on both a conceptual and presentational level. They manage to take the idea of Kirby eating a set of stairs and not only used it to create compelling puzzle sections, but they managed to make it look cute as all heck!
The gameplay as a whole manages to capture this wonderful blend of child-friendly playfulness, while housing just enough challenge and higher level mechanics that both allow and incentivize the player to be cool. Explicitly through the objectives for each stage and the post-game battle gauntlet, but implicitly with the abilities granted to the player. Not only does Discovery follow the Super Star approach to copy abilities, where abilities have multiple moves, it adds another level to combat with the introduction of dodge and parry mechanics. Abilities that not only look cool, but are the most advantageous ways to beat bosses, and have a low barrier for execution, with simple inputs and a generous reaction window.
There is definitely a lot to love about Kirby Discovery. Though I, predictably, could not help but latch onto a handful of relatively minor things that I believe prevent this game from being as brilliant as it could have been. My first gripe centers on how every stage in the game features a list of optional objectives, but the game does not tell the player what these objectives are as they begin the stage. Instead, they need to stumble upon the objective, clear the stage to learn of one secret objective, or seek outside resources to learn of these objectives. While I enjoyed these stages and thought there wasn’t a single bad one in the bunch, this struck me as a crummy way to encourage replay value. When information is obscured, it is far too tempting for me to look up the objectives to each stage before I played them. Kudos to IGN guides by the way.
Gripe number two centers around how the developers can be a bit devious with their secrets. I respect this level of subterfuge in a more open 3D game, or something with a more exploration-driven design like The Great Cave Offensive in Kirby Super Star Ultra. However, it is another matter when this is done in a linear stage-based 3D game, where the camera often works against the player, obscuring secrets behind hidden alcoves, or in areas that are off the beaten track. I get the appeal, but in a game with loads of invisible walls, I found it hard to mentally grapple with the idea that there are places where I was supposed to explore. Because the camera keeps telling me to go straight.
While gripe number three is a larger bit of criticism that has more to do with the structure of the game. In addition to 33 stages, and 7 post-game stages, Kirby Discovery features 57 bonus challenge stages, known as Treasure Road. Isolated challenge rooms where the player uses a copy ability or mouthful ability in an obstacle course that lasts no more than 3 minutes. Complete with target times that reward the player with… coins that can easily be collected in any stage. While these are all good fun that clue the player into the mechanics of Kirby’s abilities, part of me wishes that these were meshed together into 15-ish stages set in the same environmental template as the rest of the world. Instead of 57 remixes set in abstract voids with repeated tilesets.
Why do I say this? Well, it has to do with how these Treasure Road challenges are presented. They typically crop up upon completing a regular stage, urging the player to complete them, rather than continue to the next proper level in the world. Treasure Road stages do not take long, but they do break up the momentum of the campaign, especially when the game tells you to clear two back-to-back.
The pacing of the campaign is further bogged down with the animations that play when navigating between stages. Specifically when a new stage is unlocked, when Waddle Dees are rescued, and when the player goes to upgrade their copy abilities back in the loosely used hub area. None of these things take long, but they all take a few seconds, and they all happen after the majority of stages.
It is tedious to watch the game confirm what I did right after I saw the results screen. The sight of Treasure Road challenges opening up quickly resembles the sight of new tasks being assigned to me on a workflow platform. And the whole copy ability upgrade process feels just needlessly complex. Maybe I’m just old, but I much prefer finding an upgrade for my player character, and immediately using that upgrade. It’s a lot more direct than finding a schematic for an upgrade, going back to the shop, spending materials to craft the upgrade, and then equipping the upgrade.
None of this ‘ruins the experience,’ but these factors were nagging reminders of how the game could be made ‘better’ in what I think are ‘obvious ways.’ Which, come to think of it, tends to be the tune to basically all of my criticism of more mainstream games. The pieces that the game is assembled with are pristine, but it sometimes feels as if they connected them using leftover screws, half a roll of clearance gaffer tape, and/or children’s crafting paste.
Moving onto something more positive, let’s talk about the presentation. Kirby Discovery is an utterly gorgeous title that routinely left me awestruck with its environments and consistently impressed me with just how much character lies within the animations of every critter that litter its lavishly layered lands. Every world has a cavalcade of new, unique assets. Every stage manages to have its own visual identity, making it hard to get them mixed up. And the fixed camera is used to great effect, emphasizing the sheer size and spectacle of the environment with its deliberate framing and lighting. Thus making it one of the most photogenic platformers I have seen in the past decade.
Now, in my mind, I can see what the developers are doing. They are able to achieve such visual feats precisely because the camera angle is fixed. It means the developers don’t need to bother themselves by making things like ceilings, a fourth wall, or detailed backdrops, because everything 30-ish Kirbies away is slathered in depth-of-field-based jelly. It is still an impressive feat that allows the game to maintain a high level of fidelity. With the only compromises being the aforementioned fog of humid goop and a few awkward instances where enemy animation speeds are halved when they are far away. Which is still pretty darn good for a game running on a 5-year-old tablet.
However, what I find so enticing about the game’s visuals is based more in the art direction. This regular contrast between the realistic and the fantastical. While the game never attempts to capture a truly photo-realistic look, there is a stark difference between the cartoony character models and the more grimy environments. While the setting may be shaped in a fantastical manner, most textures and materials are all ones meant to be reminiscent of ones in our reality. It simultaneously gives the world a familiar yet alien feel to it, and made me view these environments as discernable places that, at least at some point, served a greater purpose and played a role in a grander story. A story that lives within the player’s imagination, because that’s probably more interesting than anything that could be written in detail.
The soundtrack captures a similar degree of lavishness, with the score being both incredibly robust for a 10-15 hour game, and capturing a sense of grandeur that I haven’t heard in a Kirby soundtrack before. It is a grand score that plays with genre and style, crafting a diverse catalog of songs that attribute a lot to the tone of their respective environments. Tracks have an impressive amount of instrumentation, giving at least the impression of an orchestra with all the layers there are. Every song has a strong melodic background, allowing them to better stand out from one another. In fact, the OST is so good that I’ve added it to my rotation of ‘writing music.’ Though, I’m definitely going to need to curate it a bit.
To dredge up a phrase I have not used in several years, I found Kirby Discovery to be an ‘almost brilliant’ game. A title with wondrous highs that routinely impressed me with its finely honed design, creativity, and audiovisual splendor. It is a game that I want to sing the unfettered praises of. Unfortunately, I found myself reminded of pacing or structural quirks every ten or so minutes. Despite this, it is a wonderful step forward for this series, an excellent transition to 3D, a prime showcase of how much potential the series still has after 30 years of releases, and probably one of the highest quality 3D platformers released in the past few years.