Alright, I’ll admit it. Underneath my grim and rough exterior, beyond my love for sci-fi shooters and action titles, from time to time I like to play a good-natured, brightly colored platformer featuring a lovable Nintendo character. Kirby’s Return to Dream Land, featuring everyone’s favorite pink ball of friendless, is the latest Wii game that offers such an exciting adventure. Is it filled with intrigue, life lessons and lots of collectible stars and power-ups? Well, mostly.
Kirby’s Return to Dream Land starts out as Kirby, hanging out with his friends, witnesses a strange magical rift open up in the sky overhead. Suddenly a flying ship comes crashing down into Kirby’s neighborhood, and, upon further investigation, Kirby and company meet Magalor, an alien in dire need of Kirby’s help repairing his starcutter, the Lor, in order to return to his home dimension.
Thus begins Kirby’s quest across the world of Pop Star to recover the five pieces of the Lor while dashing, jumping, floating and swimming his way through the game’s various worlds. Return to Dream Land has the usual standard assortment of platformer environments, like an ice world, a forest world, and a water/beach world, but they’re all very richly detailed and have a good mix of combat and jumping puzzles. Your enemies are legion with tons of lizards, birds, eye-ball creatures, swordsmen and robots standing in your way.
Thankfully, Kirby’s trademark “Copy” ability makes a big comeback in Return to Dream Land, and it’s probably one of the better parts of the game. Inhaling and swallowing an enemy instead of spitting it back out as a starry projectile of death sometimes grants Kirby a special set of abilities. Eating up a dragon lets Kirby breathe fire, or on the flip side, inhale a snowman and Kirby will be able to breathe ice. There are a bunch of humorous references in the copy abilities also; you’ll turn into a Kirby-version of Link from The Legend of Zelda, complete with spin attack if you inhale a swordsman, and a punching-type enemy turns Kirby into a martial artist whose moves I’m pretty sure are inspired a little by Street Fighter. It’s fun figuring out what each of the copy abilities can do and how best to use them in combat (some are much more useful than others), and in a few stages they’re essential for getting over some of the environmental puzzles. The “water” copy ability lets Kirby destroy lava blocks that might be hiding an extra life or an Energy Sphere from view, as an example.
Occasionally you’ll also come across special enemies that give you super-sized versions of the copy abilities, which more or less let you rampage across the level, destroying everything and everyone in your path. I was definitely not expecting anything of this magnitude, and I was laughing hard the first time Kirby pulled out a giant cleaver and promptly carved his way through a half-dozen enemies and the hillside behind them. These sequences don’t happen enough to break up some of the monotony in other parts of the game, but they’re definitely a highlight.
There are also several optional “void” levels hidden in the game, which usually appear after using a super-copy ability to wreck some important-looking part of the environment. These void levels pit you in a race against time as you scramble through a monochrome world while a giant purple wall of nothingness erases the level behind you. The end of each void level has a fight against a Sphere Doomer, a giant red or grey bird thing that flickers around the screen throwing energy blasts around. These stages are an interesting break from the bright, color-filled levels in the rest of the game, but getting through them and beating the Doomer guarding the exit can feel like a chore.
Along with the ship pieces, you’ll also be able to pick up Energy Spheres that are hidden throughout the normal and void levels, they’re not entirely vital to the plot and are mostly for unlocking the bonus skill challenges or the two mini-games. Titled Ninja Dojo and Scope Shot, the mini-games give you a chance to get a little more use out of the Wii Remote. For Ninja Dojo you’ll be flicking your wrist like you’re throwing a Frisbee to hit targets with a ninja star, and Scope Shot lets you blast away at enemy robots using the Wii-mote like a laser gun. The mini-games are a fun distraction, but as there’s only two of them, they feel like something that’s been tacked on last minute.
Probably the biggest detriment to Return to Dream Land is an issue with repetition and the nagging feeling there’s a lack of challenge in some of the various stages. Health power-ups are just about everywhere and you’ll rack up plenty of extra lives pretty easily. Poor Kirby can bite the dust if he takes too many hits, but death is more or less a temporary set-back rather than anything to be concerned about, especially since there’s also an unlimited number of continues should your life counter hit zero. At worst, you’ll end up restarting at a previous checkpoint or at the start of the stage. Besides the occasional fall off the screen to my death thanks to poor timing or judgment of distance, I was able to jump through a good chunk of the stages with just a few bruises, and didn’t really worry about my spare lives until the start of the fifth world.
Each world has its own boss to defeat in order to recover a piece of the Lor, but none of them pose much of an obstacle until maybe about the fourth or fifth world. Most of the time, it’s just a simple matter of doing as much damage as fast as possible and then on to the next level. Planning or timing attacks didn’t really enter into it until past the mid-game.
There are also several dozen sub-boss fights throughout the game, but you’ll end up fighting them over and over a half dozen times or so. It was kind of disappointing that there wasn’t much variety, especially since there are literally dozens of regular enemies that could’ve had their own version of a sub-boss. Even the Sphere Doomers in the optional levels don’t seem to switch up their strategy until about halfway through.
Kirby’s Return to Dream Land is a mostly good game that starts out strong, but then starts to drag its feet before finding its footing again in some of the later stages. The challenges of getting through a tricky environmental puzzle or past a boss can be hit-or-miss, but it’s countered somewhat by the variety of the abilities Kirby can pick up, and the different ways you can work your way through a stage using them. There are not many extras to look into besides collecting the energy spheres, and, unless you’re a completionist, you may not spend a great deal of effort collecting everything.
Bottom Line: Kirby’s Return to Dream Land is a good, solid platformer with several fun quirks, but has an issue with reusing the same gameplay elements for some of the stages and a rollercoaster-style of difficulty level.
Recommendation: Kirby fans will enjoy Return to Dream Land and, if you can overlook some of its flaws with repetition, it’s a fun game worth at least a play through.