There's something about Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze that's just a little off. Maybe it's the way Donkey Kong doesn't quite land with the firm-footedness you'd expect from a Nintendo platforming mascot. Maybe it's because, despite the introduction of the likes of Dixie Kong and Cranky Kong as playable characters with new abilities, Tropical Freeze's levels see little in the way of new challenges or designs to accommodate them. Or maybe, just maybe, it's because--despite some fun moments--this is one of the least exciting platformers I've played in some time.
The problem lies with Tropical Freeze's reluctance to stray too far from the formula of its predecessor--or indeed, many a '90s platformer--without maintaining the same levels of quality, and without adding anything meaningful along the way. When we're spoilt with the likes of Rayman: Legends and Super Mario 3D World on the Wii U, Tropical Freeze feels like a step back in time--and not in the good, retro-chic kind of way. None of its levels are bad, but while its competitors mix up elegant puzzles, platforming challenges, and clever new ideas to great effect, here your journey gets very familiar, very quickly.
In the first level, you leap over a few easy platforms, and maybe bash a few baddies on the head. In the next, you might bounce on some sprung platforms to reach some taller ones, or climb some vines to do the same. Later, you might even get a few zip lines loosely slung over some bottomless pits of death. Then the game starts to repeat itself. Sure, the backdrops change, and some jumps become trickier than others, but the mostly unimaginative level design doesn't mix those ideas up in new or interesting ways.
It's all a bit stop and start. Platforms and enemies are laid out in odd ways, making it difficult to establish the sort of smooth, free-flowing rhythm that makes the best 2D platformers such a blast. For instance, you might be leaping across a level, picking up a good rhythm between jumps, before being stopped by a set of collapsing stone walls. In a good platformer like Tropical Freeze's predecessor, those walls would be timed to fall in rhythm with previous jumps and obstacles, letting you zip past them quickly, and make you feel like a platforming pro. But here, no matter how you approach those walls, you're stopped dead in your tracks, making you lose your rhythm.
Dixie Kong's ability to make DK float and jump a little higher, Cranky Kong's ability to give DK a bigger bounce, and Diddy Kong's jetpack are nice additions to the formula, but the mundane level design fails to make much of their new powers and offer up a different challenge. Only the levels unlocked by collecting all of the hidden KONG and puzzle pieces do better.
There are some cheap tricks used along the way too. Thankfully, they're rare, but when they do appear, it's frustrating. Sometimes I'd perform a leap of faith during a particularly tricky section, only to land on an enemy on the other side that had lurked just out of shot. Other times I'd be racing down a zip line, only to find that the visual cues for jumps, like well-placed bananas and coins, were all too easy to miss, causing me to plummet to my death. It's a shame that you can't have the game show you the best path like in Donkey Kong Country Returns; it's very much a process of trial and error when it comes to surviving some of Tropical Freeze's cheaper tricks. Extra lives are plentiful, though, and if you get stuck, you can always purchase more using coins you collect along the way.
Tropical Freeze's vehicle sections fare much better than its standard levels, and help to break up some of the more monotonous moments of DK's adventure. Whether it's riding on the back of Rambi the Rhino and carefully guiding him through destructible blocks and rows of enemies, or zipping through the air on the back of a rocket-powered barrel, these sections are fast-paced and nicely challenging too. Trying to keep the barrel afloat long enough to dodge obstacles and collect bananas is a great bit of twitch gaming, as are later sections where you guide a speeding mine cart along some wobbly-looking tracks.
Boss battles are similarly good fun, thanks to some interesting-looking characters that aren't your usual three-hits-to-kill type of opponent. A battle against a giant owl has you dodging ice balls and throwing bashed baby owls before you're whisked up in the air to dodge projectiles against a mighty storm. Another has you fighting a trio of bomb-throwing monkeys, ducking, rolling, and jumping across the level to avoid their spinning hammer attacks, while also trying to pick up their bombs and hurl them straight back at them.
This is one of the least exciting platformers I've played in some time.
Tropical Freeze can get challenging and feel unfair when you're sent back to the beginning of a long, multistage boss battle, just because of a less-than-forgiving checkpoint system. Practice the patterns, though, and you'll make it through alive. Battles are also easier if you grab a friend and indulge in two-player co-op. While the game doesn't make clever use of the additional player, you'll appreciate the extra help during particularly tough bosses: just make sure you've got plenty of extra lives stocked up.
If the regular levels were as inventive as the boss battles, then Tropical Freeze would be a surefire hit, or at least a game that demands more of your attention. No matter how much I was looking forward to seeing DK in HD, it's difficult to maintain that enthusiasm when the end product plays it so safe: even the visuals fail to make an impact. They're nice enough, but like the level design, the environments are mostly bland. While you could argue that the visual style is true to the series, I think even traditionalists wouldn't mind something with a little more pizzazz behind it. As it stands, this a sometimes fun but mostly uninspired and unimaginative entry in the Donkey Kong series.