Return to Dream Land gets everything right, but it does not excel at anything
In the midst of the relatively recent Kirby revival started by Nintendo, fans have seen the charming pink ball go through some rather exotic transformations that nearly turned the series on its head. In Canvas Curse (and its sequel), Kirby lost not only his ability to rob enemies of their powers, but also his limbs, taking away from him the biggest part of his functional mobility; in Epic Yarn, still lacking his traditional sucking skill, he was given a thread to be employed as a whip in order to deal with enemies made of cloth; finally, Mass Attack divided the character into one wacky ten-unit army that swarmed foes like a pink and more cuddly version of a Pikmin squad.
After such a rodeo of quirkiness, Nintendo decided it was time they went back to basics by crafting a Kirby game that, aside from looking like a traditional puffball platformer, also played precisely like one. And that is what Kirby’s Return to Dream Land is: a smart return to form, one that feels like a warm homecoming and is made even sweeter by the fact that Kirby – in his purest form – had been away from it for so long.
As it appears, strolling through Dream Land has become increasingly dangerous during the past few years, for once again – when having fun with Dedede, Meta Knight, and Waddle Dee – Kirby puts himself in a complicated position when they witness a damaged ship fall at a nearby location. The gang decides to take it upon themselves to help the poor alien life form whose damaged ship has lost five parts. From that point, players know the drill: it is up to them to find those five pieces, which are properly guarded by bosses waiting for Kirby at the end of distinct worlds.
In total, the game features eight worlds, eight bosses, and around forty stages that range from being as easy as pie to as soft as cotton candy. There is some challenge here and there, especially if players are looking to locate the not-so-hidden 120 power spheres scattered through the stages, but the joy of playing a Kirby game is not overcoming a hardship, but being delighted by the straightforward nature of the adventure, basking in controlling the unstoppable powerhouse that is the main character, destroying enemies in creative ways, and enjoying the ride up to the end. Anyone who cannot have fun with a game devoid of major ordeals, will most likely not be engaged by Kirby’s Return to Dream Land – or any Kirby titles for that matter.
As a statement on how basic (in the most positive sense of the word) Return to Dream Land is, the game plays pretty much like Kirby’s Adventure (a classic from the NES era) did. Kirby is one slow floaty character who has the ability to suck enemies up and steal their abilities in order to destroy other foes or to advance through a specific part of a level, which allows for some nicely varied stage-design opportunities.
All of the conventional abilities are here: Kirby can turn into a rock, gain electrical powers, become one spiky ball, spit fire or ice, throw bombs, fly, spin around creating a tornado, wield a sword, use a boomerang, carry a whip, turn into a ninja, sleep, punch, kick and do a few other tricks. There are even some instances where one can acquire super powered versions of some of those abilities to create even more mayhem around the levels, destroying everything in Kirby’s path with the press of a button. And – in the gaming world – there are not many activities that top the satisfaction of causing so much destruction in a cute scenario such as Dream Land.
If Mario sidescrollers are generally considered family games, the Kirby games take that concept to an even more extreme level, because not only are they easier for kids to succeed, but they also beat Mario on the cuteness factor. Kirby’s Return to Dream Land takes advantage of that and, in the spirit of New Super Mario Bros. Wii, brings a cooperative mode where Kirby, Meta Knight, Dedede, and Waddle Dee work together to get to the end of the levels – with Kirby obviously being the only one who is able to copy abilities.
It blatantly makes things much easier than they already are, but while it loses on the challenge department, this multiplayer option clearly beats the lonely single-player mode in terms of laughs and hilarious moments. If there is one thing to complain about regarding the mode, is the fact that if player one falls to their doom, the team automatically returns to the beginning of the area they find themselves in; and if that happens with no lives left, everybody has to start the whole level again. On the other hand, if any of the other players die, nothing happens, and that player can come back to the action as long as the life pool that is shared among all characters is not empty. It is an issue that makes gameplay unbalanced and puts extra pressure on whoever is player one, which goes against the family fun purpose of the whole mode.
By the end of the adventure there is still plenty to get out of the game. Kirby’s Return to Dream Land comes packed with nice extras such as another Story Mode where Kirby has his energy bar nearly cut in half, adding some of the challenge that the regular adventure lacks so strongly; a bunch of amazing challenges built around Kirby’s special powers and cleverly set obstacle courses that test players’ abilities with some of the character’s most unique powers; and some nice multiplayer mini-games that are more than perfect for when players are looking to take a break from the pace of the standard adventure. As it is traditional in all Kirby games, then, Return to Dream Land has a lot of content to up its replay value.
Finding fault in Kirby’s Return to Dream Land is a hard task. It is game with good level design, a large set of enemies, good graphics (featuring somewhat bland backgrounds, yet great character models), catchy little songs, a fun multiplayer mode, decent scenario variety, engaging boss battles, and compelling collectibles. The fact that makes it stand a few notches below other equally good Wii sidescrollers is that while it doesn’t do anything woefully wrong, it doesn’t do anything wonderfully right either. It is a game that doesn’t innovate, rarely surprises, and hardly does anything new or different when it is put side-by-side with the character’s classic adventures.
The fact Return to Dream Land was a long-awaited revival of the traditional Kirby formula quietly clouded the lack of excellence that can be found throughout the game. In the end, Kirby’s Return to Dream Land just does not mesmerize, it simply does its job of entertaining for ten hours and then proceeds to leave the stage while being shyly applauded by the crowd. It walks on a very safe line, and as a Kirby platformer it does what it is supposed to do, but when put in the light of comparison to Donkey Kong Country Returns and even Kirby’s Epic Yarn, other classics of the era, it falls a bit short.