It hit me last night. As I was playing a bit more Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze before penning my review I realized just how maddening this game can be. I lifted my GamePad up in the air after yet another untimely death and I almost threw it across the room. It was then that I just closed my eyes and took a deep breath, realized it was an expensive controller, and then I tried the level again. It’s this love/hate relationship that makes Tropical Freeze such a rewarding experience and after spending the last 5 days with it I am here to tell you all about it.
The big ape is back and his home has been invaded and frozen over by a new group Viking-like characters who really like the cold. But don’t let the whole “tropical freeze” idea fool you as there is more than just ice and snow to challenge your platforming skills as you are still in a tropical paradise for goodness sake. For those that have played past Donkey Kong games, from the SNES all the way to the Wii and 3DS, then you know what to expect. For those who haven’t, well, prepare for a platforming experience that will test your might.
I think the first thing worth noting here, as you can tell from my introduction, is that Tropical Freeze can be very challenging. This is a platforming game that you must have patience for as you face some very tough levels. The six islands that you initially make your way through are filled with various enemies, perils, and some well laid out secrets. You’ll be jumping, rolling, swimming and running in so many different directions that you’ll really never have any time to rest throughout the whole game. The only way I found myself remotely comfortable when sitting down was when I was playing using the Off-TV mode, as when I played on my TV I was always on the edge of my couch. The game’s difficulty ramps up at a consistent and somewhat fair pace the deeper you get into the game, but man can it get tough. In the end Tropical Freeze it is doable but only with patience and persistence.
Adding to the challenge is the fact that Donkey Kong only has two health hearts, which translates into taking two hits from an enemy or spiky environment. For those that played the 3DS version of DKC Returns, and enjoyed the “New Mode” with extended health, you won’t find it here. Sure, you get two additional health hearts when you grab a sidekick, but regardless you’ll find your heath depleting in no time, especially in the later levels. There is a item shop where you can use in-game coins you collect in each level to purchase extra lives, additional hearts, and even a balloon that saves you from a fall, but each of these are a onetime use item and they are only good for the level you use it on as they are not permanent. Regardless, they are useful and may help you get through a specific level you are having trouble with.
Something that really impressed me is the available control options. You can opt to play the game using the GamePad, GamePro Controller and even the Wii Remote and Nunchuk. Motion controls are ‘out-the-window’ too. Tropical Freeze also allows you to choose using the analog stick or the d-pad depending on your preference. I found that in some levels I preferred the analog stick while other levels I preferred the d-pad. You can switch between the two while playing, so this was a handy feature to exploit. For those looking for some GamePad specific features, you’ll only find the ability to play Off-TV as there is no touch screen features added. For some this may be a disappointment while others will enjoy the fact that the game is “gimmick free”.
Fans of Donkey Kong will be happy to know that there are three sidekicks making their appearance this time around. Diddy Kong is back along with Dixie Kong and Cranky Kong. Their specific special abilities make each level take on a different feel. From Diddy’s jetpack, Dixie’s helicopter ability (higher jump) to Cranky’s cane bounce (like a pogo stick) that allows you to jump onto thorn vines, each character allows you to master each level in a different way. I found secrets that I believe I may have not found without one character’s special ability over another. Given that you usually can pick from one of the three, it allows for experimentation as you go through the levels.
And what would any platform based game be without boss battles? Tropical Freeze has a boss for each area and they each require that you pay close attention to their movements and attack patterns, and figuring out each will allow you to vanquish your foe. That being said, each boss battle plays out in multiple stages with each stage adding more to the mix. You’ll most likely burn up a lot of lives for each boss as figuring out their attack/movement pattern will take some time, and the multiple stages adds something new into the mix when they occur. Given how many times you’ll have to ‘hit’ a boss in order to beat it you’ll find each encounter longer then you’d expect. Again, patience and persistence is what is required here, but you’ll feel ‘on top of the world’ when you beat each one.
Tropical Freeze offers up a local cooperative experience, but to tell you the truth I was not too thrilled with it. Given the crazy nature of the action and how precise you need to be at times, having two players play at the same time can be quite a distraction. Add to this the fact that the second player is locked into one specific sidekick and you take away some of what makes this game what it is. In the end gamers may try some co-op now and then, but it is far from a selling feature.
Completing Tropical freeze should take you anywhere from 10-15 hours depending on if you search for everything on each level or if you just try to get from A to B as safely and as quickly as possible. You’ll want to search though as secrets fill each level. From finding all the letters to spell KONG, finding all the puzzle pieces in each level, to finding the one secret area within each level that challenges you to collect all the bananas in the section within a set time limit, there is a lot to do and some items take some incredible platforming skill. There may be more levels once you finish the game too, but I can’t say too much given what we can and cannot tell you, so be aware of this (nudge, nudge, wink, wink).
If I had any one complaint, and it’s one that sticks out clearly in my mind, it is that as you make your way through each level and find a need to back track any length, the enemies you beat once before are back. It didn’t make any sense to me to have the same enemies I got through and vanquished come back. Sure, it’s not a huge issue, but just something that I found not only strange, but kind of ‘pain-in-the-ass’ as there was no need for it.
Level design has always been a staple of platform games and Tropical Freeze doesn’t disappoint. I was worried about recycled levels from the Wii game, but alas my worries were put to rest as I played. From lush tropical forests, to mountainous areas that looked like the Swiss Alps, to the underwater sequences that filled the game, there is a lot of variety in Tropical Freeze. Even the traditional mine cart level sees a bit of a change as there are instances where you find yourself piloting a hollowed out log through a sawmill and some waterways. All the games levels are bright and vibrant too, be it on your TV or when playing Off-TV on the GamePad.
Aside from the level design, Tropical Freeze continues to impress in the visuals department. Although some may say it’s just an HD version of what the original DKC Returns on the Wii should have looked like, there is so much more. Donkey Kong’s fur has an amazing level of detail and you’ll even notice that it sways in the wind and when he moves. Animations are incredible and Donkey Kong and all his sidekicks move with fluidly and grace. Special effects are aplenty too from transparencies and water and ice effects to some great looking lighting. There is also a lot going on from the foreground to all the way into the background. The Wii U’s power is put to good use here and fans of DK will be happy with what they see.
The sound wraps up a solid presentation package. From the traditional grunts and squeals of DK and his sidekicks, the familiar ‘click’ of jumping on a foe, to DK pounding the ground to stun an enemy or to find a secret. As for music, I was somewhat impressed with what I heard and how all the melodies played into the experience. One such notation was when riding the famed DK Rhino. The music played normally and when I broke open a crate and started riding the Rhino an added track or two was mixed into the music that was already playing. All in all gamers will find the music adds to the flair of an already pretty good game.
At the end of the day Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze is a solid game for those willing to take up the challenge. With some great visuals, complementary sound, and some classic yet controller throwing inducing gameplay, this game manages to do a lot of things right. That feeling of greatness when beating a particularly troublesome level is a reward in itself. Where Tropical Freeze seems to miss a beat or two is in its implementation of cooperative play, which personally I could do without. Platform gaming fans would be silly to pass this one over; however, the rest of you may want to “proceed with caution” as although it is a very good game, it is far from being an easy one to master.