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Best acquaintances forever.

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    Kirby Star Allies

    Rating: 3.5 – Good

    Best acquaintances forever.

    Kirby needs better friends. His friendships with Meta-Knight and King Dedede have been tenuous at best over the years, both having tried to kill him multiple times. A turncoat spear-toting Waddle Dee may be the closest he’s gotten, but even that guy won’t tell Kirby his real name beyond “Bandana Waddle Deeâ€? which is like if you had a hat-wearing friend you only knew as "Hat Human". The yarn princes and talking paintbrushes that take a liking to Kirby all live in different dimensions. In Kirby Star Allies, the pink puffball has had enough. He’s going to force everyone to be his friends whether they like it or not, using the power of mind-control hearts. It’s a bitter loner kid’s fantasy straight out of a horror movie. (Yes, I can compare the Kirby franchise to the horror genre. Just look at any of its final bosses.) Now the fourth Kirby game to use this engine, which perfected itself with Planet Robobot, Star Allies tries to find new ways to keep this formula interesting for Switch. By going all-in with co-op, however, Star Allies cuts some corners with the adventure aspect.

    A giant heart-shaped space crystal begins spewing out light and dark hearts that rain across the galaxy. The dark hearts corrupt those they touch, hitting the usual suspects like Dedede, while the light hearts apparently give their recipients the power to hypnotize everyone into being their mind slaves. One of these lands on Kirby’s noggin, sending our little pink psychopath on a rampage as he goes to investigate what’s happening at the Dedede hangout, where he’s on the guest list at this point. As the tutorial unfolds, Kirby encounters a generic Blade Knight enemy. He’s eaten tons of these over the years, and stealing his cute little Link hat and sword does not satisfy him the way it used to. Instead, he’s going to have the Blade Knight do his bidding. By tossing a heart at it, the Blade Knight begins following Kirby around like a zombie, slashing down foes and absorbing hits (sometimes even dying) to aid him. This is the twisted and often-brilliant central gimmick of Kirby Star Allies.

    Oh sure, you can still swallow enemies and absorb their powers, and even newcomers will have no problem grasping these mechanics. For instance, swallowing a fiery foe will grant you flame abilities, letting you burn grass and breathe fire. Absorbing ice baddies will let Kirby skate, freeze enemies, and cool off flaming blocks. Star Allies adds a few new abilities, like the staff, which can not only poke and prod foes, but lets you pogo-stick enemies from above. Spider Kirby gives the long-running Como enemies a bigger purpose, and allows you to create webs to spring allies upward. Kirby games have always referenced previous entries, but Star Allies goes especially hard for Dream Land 3 nostalgia, with the broom ability making a long-awaited return, as well as some of its characters. Star Allies subtly takes elemental damage into account, like the water ability taking out fire foes quickly.

    The series has experimented with power-mixing a few times, with limited success, but thanks to the ally system, this is its most fully-realized version yet. An elemental ally can power up a physical weapon like a sword or yo-yo, and being able to throw around icicle spears and flaming ninja stars feels great. These are incorporated into puzzles as well, as a normal rock or hammer ability may not be able to pound a sideways post, but an ice-powered rock in the form of a curling stone can. Previous Kirby games of this vein have ended their stages with cinematic abilities, like gigantic weapons or power-absorbing mechs. Star Allies will often have Kirby and three partners form a chain to become a rolling ball, a “Friend Trainâ€?that can run up walls, or hop on a star that fires at obstacles space-shooter style. These are enjoyable, but aside from the Friend Star, there is not much to them other than tapping the jump button. I would argue Planet Robobot’s mech armor was the only one of these sequences where you were not watching the game play itself, and it’s disappointing to see Star Allies fall back on that.

    Perhaps more significant, though, is how Star Allies takes a step backwards in stage design. Stages in the last few titles housed three hidden collectibles that were necessary to open bonus levels. It worked well but was getting predictable. Instead of building on that, though, Star Allies nearly throws out secrets altogether, only featuring one hidden trinket per stage – a large puzzle piece – and locking its secret stages behind a single switch that never takes much effort to find. The large puzzle pieces are often in plain sight too, and there was exactly one of them that I did not find on my first attempt through a stage. A big appeal of Kirby stages has always been making repeat visits to worlds and discovering new things by playing around with different abilities. By eliminating exploration and making each stage a matter of getting from Point A to Point B, not only is the longevity of Star Allies is drastically cut short, but the worlds become forgettable, and there are no unique stage archetypes you have not seen before. I expect more content from a $60 Switch game than a $40 3DS game, not less.

    Even Star Alliesâ€?more common collectibles, the small puzzle pieces, are nowhere near as cool as the character-specific stickers and keychains from the 3DS titles. Collecting enough of these pieces will put together artwork of past Kirby games, which is neat, but does not have the same impact of feeling like you are completing a collection. Luckily, the main draw of Star Allies, the co-op, saves it from being a forgettable entry in the series. You have been fighting these enemies for decades, and now you finally get to play as them. I still stand by my bold statement that Return to Dream Land is the best co-op platform game experience out there, and while I would not place Star Allies above it, having such a wide variety of characters to play as sweetens the deal. Single players can still get in on the action too, as Kirby can hop on a friend’s back, allowing you to control that friend.

    Kirby Star Allies is an entry that perfects some elements of past Kirby titles, while watering down others. The friend mechanic is a nice shake-up to the formula, and it gives these characters some new freshness in the process. Power mixing works better than previous attempts, giving the game new possibilities for puzzles. Sadly, the game squanders the potential for lots of puzzles, with only one key collectible per stage that is either obviously located, or placed in a room where the game actually gives you instructions how to solve the puzzle. This also gives players less incentive to explore stages, making the adventure a shorter one than previous titles despite having the same amount of stages. The co-op works well, and there are some side-games that are a fun way to kill a few minutes. But Kirby has always been Nintendo’s guinea pig to try strange new ideas, which is why having standard games like this alongside titles like Canvas Curse, Epic Yarn, and Mass Attack works. This particular engine has now run its course, and it’s time for another wacky experiment.

    Rating:   3.5 – Good

    Product Release: Kirby Star Allies (US, 03/16/18)

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