Immensely challenging, invariably creative, and fully packed with great content
When it came out in 2010, Donkey Kong Country Returns had a pretty tough challenge to face. Not only was it supposed to revitalize a major Nintendo franchise that had been trying - and failing - to find a direction in which to follow after the gargantuan Donkey Kong 64, but it also had to live up to the natural juxtapositions it would draw to its mother series: the stellar sidescrolling trilogy of Donkey Kong Country. As it turns out, in spite of a few hiccups, Returns rode its consistently exquisite and occasionally frantic level design right towards greatness, delivering the ultimate 2-D platforming experience on a generation that saw a fantastic rebirth of the genre.
Due to that resounding success, Tropical Freeze arrives with Retro Studios already fully validated as a company that can create a remarkable Donkey Kong game. However, as the second installment of the Returns saga, it encounters expectations of heights that not even its predecessor had to deal with. After all, if the first games of each series served as some sort of great rehabilitation for the character, the sequel of the original Donkey Kong Country, Diddy's Kong Quest, was a towering peak for the franchise and the sidescrolling gameplay as well. Tropical Freeze, therefore, naturally paves the way for comparisons to Donkey Kong Country 2 on the quality of its gameplay and the leap it represents in relation to the Wii's finest 2-D affair.
In its plot, Tropical Freeze does not stray from the Donkey Kong norm. A group of wild humanized animals invades DK Island to rob the family of their horde of bananas for no apparent reason other than serving as the welcoming trigger to start a crazy adventure. In this case, the beings are the Snowmads, a troupe of arctic creatures that come to transform this tropical paradise into a frozen tundra.
Although the Kong's home island has been turned into a snowy hell, the game switches back and forth between wildly distinct scenarios by making players start exploring nearby islands to clear the threat little by little until they can return to their point of origin, where the Snowmads decided to build their freezing base of operations. Consequently, the adventure takes place in a dense jungle, an autumnal meadow, a expansive Savannah, and in other creative locations.
As Donkey Kong progresses from left to right on the game's stages, Tropical Freeze unveils the extreme detail that was put onto its backgrounds. They are often a flooring technical achievement for featuring so many dynamic layers on which a tridimensional world comes alive, and they invariably amaze due to the fantastic artistic work that was put behind each and every scenario element.
In fact, the work with the worlds and scenarios is so ridiculously meticulous that by paying attention to the backgrounds it is possible to string together a storyline of what exactly are the Snowmads doing on that specific location. In one of the worlds, for example, as players advance from one stage to the next they will witness how the Snowmads have built a complex system of harvesting fruit from the fertile land and processing it into juicy goodness. It is downright amazing, and as far as storytelling through images and animation goes, it is unparalleled.
As great as that is, it is merely the shell of what Tropical Freeze offers. The real meat here is in the gameplay, and it is hard to say Retro could have done it any better. Donkey Kong is now accompanied by three family members: Diddy Kong, Dixie Kong and Cranky Kong. While on multiplayer mode it is possible to control each individually, when playing solo gamers are forced to control Donkey. Wwhenever a barrel holding one of the other Kongs is cracked the companion will jump right onto DK's back, doubling his energy to four hearts and lending him a helping hand.
Diddy's jet-pack will allow players to rover in order to land jumps more safely, Dixie's ponytail also permits for more controlled jumping while also having the added benefit of giving players some extra altitude on the beginning of the “flight”, and Cranky uses his cane to protect the duo from spikes and jump higher. Although clearing the levels can be done with whatever Kong you prefer, or with none of them if you want extra challenge, certain items and locations can only be reached by using a specific ability, so it is important to know how each partner behaves so that you choose the appropriate one when finding a barrel.
The stages themselves offer a grand variety of ideas and platforming concepts, with each presenting a new creative mechanic and taking it to great lengths during their course. The game includes some great Donkey Kong traditions, such as vines, barrels, mine carts and rocket barrels (introduced on Donkey Kong Country Returns), and brings back a few other elements into the mix, like Rambi the Rhino, our good old animal buddy wrecking ball; and water levels, which – contrary to popular belief – are incredible on Tropical Freeze.
The stages mix a small dash of puzzle solving with loads of challenges requiring precise jumps and moves. In spite of the fact that the first world kicks things off a little bit on the slow side, the game is never very easy, and by the time players reach the early stages of the second world they will have already experienced a number of hair-pulling segments that provide incredible joy when surpassed. Fortunately, aside from a few secret levels on which no relief is available, checkpoints are plentiful and well-placed, finding a nearly perfect balance between being too frequent and too sparse. Therefore, even though there is some frustration due to the the brutal difficulty the game achieves down the line, it is rarely directed at the game's design problems, but at our own inability to surpass the challenges.
Tropical Freeze alternates moments of tranquility on which players are allowed to sit back and ponder what to do next with occasions of lightning-fast insanity on which reactions must be instinctive and perfect, and sometimes it spectacularly combines those two elements on the same level. It is not rare for stages to crumble down, explode, suddenly throw hazards at players and even change camera angles to abruptly shift the view of the gameplay and reveal new ways to play the game.
It is a breathtaking thrill; a roller coaster ride, but it is also a habit that causes the game to sometimes bump into trial-and-error terrain, on which it becomes nearly impossible to get through a challenge on a first attempt due to how fast and frantic it is. Much like it happened on the early Megaman games, which thrived on those tricks, those moments will surely drive some players mad, but to those who are not pleased by trial-and-error those insane designs are fortunately mostly tucked away on optional levels, so it is possible to get to the end of the game without facing a big part (but not all) of Tropical Freeze's delightful brutality.
To those who want to be truly tested and extend the game's length to over twenty hours, Tropical Freeze packs each stage with many collectibles. The four KONG letters are generally in plain sight, but reaching some of them requires either great precision or daring platforming skills. Meanwhile, the puzzle pieces offer a different kind of challenge, as they are very well-hidden behind false walls, on bonus areas or only appear after certain banana trails are completely collected, hence requiring a more exploratory approach in order to be tracked down. Additionally, each world has at least one secret exit that will unlock hidden levels. In other words, Tropical Freeze has a load of extra content.
The original Donkey Kong Country Returns had three core flaws that kept it away from being a flawless game: its uninspired soundtrack, generic boss battles and repetitive bonus areas. Tropical Freeze fixes the first two issues in marvelous ways. The boss battles here are hard and have different phases. The big baddies switch between increasingly complex patterns that need to be learned so that the Kongs can survive a barrage of attacks and land blows safely. Not only that, but each battle is preceded by amusing cutscenes that introduce the imposing fiends in epic ways.
As for the soundtrack, the fact that David Wise is back aboard as the composer means that Tropical Freeze has a great collection of songs that is sometimes up-to-par with some of the tunes featured in the original trilogy. They do not simply work as companion to the gameplay; they spin their own web of atmospheric vibes that take the action happening on the stages to new levels. Wise is able to be cheery, threatening, and blissful when the game requires, and the adventure soars to new heights due to his stellar work.
Sadly, the sole problem that has not been fixed are the bonus areas that reward players with puzzle pieces when cleared. The original trilogy had bonus mini-games that aside from centering around a dozen different goals added more variety on top of that by building the areas according to the elements of the levels on which they were found. However, Tropical Freeze, like its predecessor, has a group of six plain-looking bonus areas that have the very same objective: collect all the 100 bananas before the time runs out. It is a tiny little smudge in the midst of a sea of greatness, but it is nevertheless a disappointment to see so many areas take great steps forward while something so simple and easy to fix like the bonus areas remains forgotten and unchanged.
In the end, the game, unsurprisingly, is not Donkey Kong Country 2: the masterpiece it will naturally be matched against when Nintendo fans look back on the history of the franchise a few years down the line. Yet, if there is one title out there that can put up a fight on that one-sided battle for the sidescrolling crown, Tropical Freeze might be it. It is a struggle that is only decided by the tiniest details, because this sequel manages to be immensely challenging, invariably creative, and fully packed with content. It is a game whose fun borders on everlasting and whose overall qualities evoke a magical aura that few titles are able to muster. It is not quite good enough to win the ultimate platforming battle, but it has enough qualities to find its place on the hall of magnificent games of the Nintendo brand.