Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze Review
Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze is a hardcore platformer for long time veterans of the genre. When this game was stuck on Wii U and available to only a few lucky gamers, I talked about it like it was a tragedy. It was my favorite game on the Wii U for several reasons, and I couldn’t be happier that it finally has an opportunity to reach a new audience.
Storytelling Through Level Design
Tropical Freeze is about a group of aggressive snow animals called Snomads that have frozen over Donkey Kong Island and taken it hostage. Rather than hit the player over the head with cutscenes between every world to tell the story, the game begins with one cut scene that shows the Snomad’s arrival, and that’s pretty much it outside of small pre-boss battle cutscenes. Where Retro Studios focused its storytelling prowess was level design.
There are six regions in the game, and each one has a distinct setting. World one is a jungle much like the frozen over Donkey Kong Island before its arctic blast, but one could imagine this island somewhere in the Bermuda triangle. There are plane wrecks littered throughout the levels, and these pieces of broken planes make up many of the obstacles that Donkey and crew must "ape-up."
This is one of the various ideas that makes DKCTF so special, every mechanic or platform in a level matches the aesthetic tie-in to the level design while it functions as an obstacle for the player. Detailed background animations allow the player to see why everything is in its place.
The variety of unique environments is another strength to Tropical freeze. World two is called Autumn Heights and is a whimsical area no doubt inspired by the Netherlands. It’s chockfull of reds, oranges, yellows, and whole lot of windmills.
Juicy Jungle replaces the former factory worlds of older DKC titles. Those old factory worlds were full of blacks, browns, oil and fire, and by the end of them, I was always exhausted from the dull color palettes. But here, Retro made the switch to vibrant purples and greens as Donkey Kong and friends navigate a large juice factory.
Finally, The Kong’s quest comes to culmination as they return to their home island to find their home jungle has been frozen over by the group of Snomads who chucked them off their island in the first place.
Just Plain Fun
The storytelling through level design is one of the games biggest strengths, but none of that would matter if it wasn’t any fun. Thankfully, I’m happy to report that this game is a blast to play.
Rather than playing as Donkey Kong and one other buddy throughout the whole game as in games past, Retro decided to add three Kongs in the mix. Diddy, Dixie and Cranky Kong are all playable, but only in certain areas or levels of the game, and only as an asset to Donkey Kong until you beat the game at 100% and unlock hard mode. Each Kong has a strength that comes in quite handy; Cranky can use his cane as a pogo stick to avoid spikes, Dixie can use her pony tail to helicopter up and over dangerous pits, and Diddy uses his jetpack to glide through the air for short bursts.
Each ability has its uses in certain areas of the game, and some secrets can only be unlocked with Kong buddies. This makes multiple playthroughs on a few levels necessary if you want to unlock every level the game has to offer.
A New Kong Has Arrived!
The re-release on Switch brings us the arrival of Funky Mode featuring Funky Kong. This is the default mode on this version of the game, though you can switch to the original and play as DK at the beginning of the game.
Funky Mode is a smart way of implementing an easy mode without making players feel guilty for choosing it. I want to re-stress that this game is freaking difficult for non-platforming veterans. In Funky Mode, the player controls Funky Kong who has five hearts compared to four if you have DK and a buddy. Funky Kong can also hover through the air with his surf board, swim super-fast, and land on spikes, which effectively makes him an amalgamation of all the previous Kongs into one. His physics are also a touch different than Donkey Kong, which makes him a bit tough for veterans of the game to master, but he is very fun to control once you get the hang of him.
He is also an absolute beast in speed runs, which are worth watching if you have an interest in this game. One cool feature is that you can access speed runs from the level select in-game and watch them on your Switch.
DKCTF is great, but that doesn’t mean it is perfect. The boss fights throughout the game are a kind of double-edged sword. In one respect, they are quite innovative, and they have great animations. Yet, they also take way too long to defeat, and if you die, you have to start from the beginning of each one. It can be extremely frustrating to face off against a boss for 15 minutes and die on his last phase. As players get better at the game, they will learn how to beat the bosses in much shorter time frames, but the first time through is rough.
I’m the type of player who likes to complete a game I love. You know, get every collectable and complete every challenge. If that is the type of player you are, let me warn you that Retro has made this game near impossible.
Every level has a set of bonus rooms hidden for the player to find. To beat the game with all the puzzle pieces you must complete these bonus rooms, and they are obnoxiously repetitive and dull. Each bonus room is based around the concept of collecting 100 bananas and it usually involves jumping on a trampoline of some kind. After doing it hundreds of times, it gets old.
On top of collecting every puzzle piece, you also have to collect all four K-O-N-G Letters in each level, beat all the hidden temples, and do it all again on hard mode (which is the same game but with one heart and no power ups). That means you must beat every level without taking a single hit, because in hard mode there are no check points. My file is currently sitting at 112% out of 200%, and I don’t know if I will progress much further.
The difficulty curve was one of the biggest setbacks to the game’s initial release on the Wii U, but that has been wiped clean by the addition of Funky Kong; an innovative addition that makes the game easier without making the player feel like they aren’t accomplishing the feat of beating the game on the standard difficulty.