Kirby Star Allies Review: An Afternoon with Kirby & Friends
Kirby Star Allies is the most recent entry in the mainline series of Kirby platformers developed by HAL Laboratory. It brings back into the spotlight the four-player local co-op last seen in Return to Dreamland, and brings main-series Kirby into the HD era at last.
There was some excitement surrounding this game before release. The same can be said about any Kirby installment and indeed most Nintendo games, but the buildup was palpable. A bright and shiny new game in the series for the console/handheld hybrid that every kid on the block has AND it has cute little Kirby-critter co-op? People had every right to be excited.
Add to that the high-quality demo released about two weeks before the game came out as well as Nintendo's recent announcement of free content updates shortly after release, and Star Allies seemed like it was going to make us all smile so hard that our teeth fell out. And while the game we ended up with is quite good, I was a bit underwhelmed by the experience as a whole.
Let's go over just why exactly I felt this wasn't quite enough stuff from the tough pink puff.
C'mon Grab Your Friends
Let's start with the good before I start getting critical (because making fun of Kirby in any way makes me feel like the bad guy).
The setup for Star Allies is the same basic thing as every other Kirby adventure (not to be confused with Kirby's Adventure). A massive evil threat has entered Kirby's life and disrupted his sleepy little hamlet, and now he has to fight his way through a colorful cast of baddies in order to bring peace back to his world and reclaim naptime. Simple, cute, and we know what we're all in for -- let's save the world and get some cake to celebrate!
On the subject of presentation, the game looks wonderful. I was aware that the game was locked at 30 FPS before I played this, but it didn't hamper my enjoyment of the visuals whatsoever. While it isn't the best-looking game on the Switch graphically, it still looks quite good, and the tasty mixture of detailed backgrounds, vibrant colors, crisp animations, and sweeping orchestral music all help to make Star Allies a treat for the eyes and ears.
When all the stars align and the pieces all fit together, the game can be a true sight to behold.
But cutesy presentation so sweet that it'll give you cavities is only half of Kirby's shtick. What about the gameplay?
It is, again, your typical Kirby setup, with copy abilities, the usual array of themed stages to run through, bosses and mini-bosses, and a few mini-games and harder post-game modes to unlock after beating the main adventure that fans of the series should be familiar with by now. The biggest differences revolve around what's been done to mix up the returning co-op feature, which the game is heavily built around.
Kirby can now throw "friend hearts" at any enemy he encounters that possesses a copy ability that he could normally absorb, and it will turn them into a friend who will fight alongside him, a "Star Ally" if you will. Every enemy-turned-friend has the full ability move-set that Kirby himself would have if he had swallowed them, giving them full combat and problem-solving versatility, and human players controlling these friends can also throw friend hearts, giving them control over what they turn into just like Kirby's normal copy ability.
The other major addition is the ability to combine and enhance certain copy abilities through the power of teamwork. Certain copy abilities have elemental properties like fire and ice which can be applied to many other copy abilities in order to raise their strength, defeat special enemies, and solve various puzzles. There are also a few special moves to be found by mixing and matching different abilities, and while there aren't too many super crazy combos to be found, there is some incentive to experiment with what you've got.
Chef Kawasaki's been letting this one stew for a while.
And in regard to the copy abilities themselves, I think Star Allies may have one of the best and most well-rounded selections of copy abilities that I've seen in the series so far. HAL achieved a nice balance of new, old, fun, cool, and practical.
Old fan favorites like Plasma, Chef, and Beetle return to my delight, with the unfortunate exclusion of others like Wheel, Mirror, and Spark. Every new ability is a knockout, from the combat variety of Spider to the practical uses of Staff to the ludicrous amount of advantages in Cleaning. I enjoyed every new ability immensely and wish that every Kirby game could have this many new abilities that are this good with every installment. Don't even get me started on Artist.
Where the Game Drops the Ball
There are three major issues I had with this game that brought it down for me, and I feel they're pretty simple issues to explain: the game's overall difficulty, length, and how safe it played its content and ideas. Let's start with the game's difficulty because that's always an interesting debate when it comes to Kirby games.
And I know what some people are going to say: "Oh come on, it's Kirby, it's supposed to be easy, you can't complain about that." Well, that's just it. Kirby games are easy, yes, but they're still usually engaging on a moment-to-moment basis, and Star Allies is not only even easier than most standard Kirby games, but its gameplay in general feels much more streamlined.
I feel like most of these gameplay issues stem from the level design. There have been adjustments made to the typical Kirby level structure to accommodate for the four player co-op, such as larger numbers of enemies and broader, more open pathways in general, but a certain amount of complexity has been lost.
Nearly every obstacle takes the form of a row of enemies or a brief ambush -- usually of typical enemies rather than a mini-boss -- all of which are extremely easy to cheese your way through if you've got three friends with you, real or imaginary. If it's not that, it's an obstacle that involves one or more specific abilities to solve, which are always reliably either right next to the puzzle or just outside the room for you to effortlessly grab and either take yourself or add to your team.
On that subject, the puzzles in particular have really taken a hit. Again, while they were rarely truly difficult, puzzles in previous Kirby games were still diversions that made you think, and one or two could be real head-scratchers. In this game, I think there was maybe one, maybe two puzzles where I didn't immediately understand what I had to do in order to solve it. It's especially odd coming from HAL, who have put out a number of solid and enjoyable puzzle games in the past like The Adventures of Lolo and BoxBoy! (or the recent Part Time UFO).
There were puzzles I would have expected from the first or second world of other Kirby games happening in the final world, and it just started to annoy me after a while how simple everything was. After a while, I felt like I was playing parts of this game on auto-pilot.
This puzzle pops up in the middle of the last world of the game. Unfortunately it doesn't get much more complicated than this.
On top of all that, I managed to beat the main campaign mostly by myself in around six hours, and that was with me doing most of the extra unlockable stages. Those six or so hours were still all fun, but they lacked in really memorable moments or surprises for me.
Compared to the last main installment in the series, Kirby: Planet Robobot, the game is shorter by several hours, less aesthetically unique, and doesn't have any mechanics nearly as unique as that game's robot armor, or even the fully fleshed-out weapon combinations of Kirby 64: The Crystal Shards that Star Allies dabbles with. The new group abilities like the Friend Wheel and Friend Bridge do make for some fun, but they aren't used enough to really take advantage of their mechanics in full.
The boss fights -- while often fun and a bit challenging -- are mostly predictable and consist mostly of the normal series antagonists and scenarios that we've seen so many times before. And while there is no padding in the form of a boss gauntlet (like in, say, Triple Deluxe), a few boss fights are re-fought seemingly for the purpose of just having more boss fights. Level themes and mini-bosses are recolored and reused fairly often, and while the different approach to level progression initially interested me, in the end it didn't do much to help the game or its story hold a sense of cohesiveness.
While this autumn mood is quite pleasant to look at, it's little more than an aesthetic change for a level and a half of the green forest setting that dominated the first world.
The post game content and mini games are fun, and a decent change of pace and upping of challenge, but they're the kind of thing we've seen in one form or another with Kirby for the longest time -- only there's less of it. That really sums it up, honestly; what's here is genuinely good, even great at times, but they just didn't bring enough new stuff to the table, or enough stuff in general.
It's Hard to Really Be THAT Mad at a Kirby Game
I should reiterate that I did enjoy my time with Kirby Star Allies, and I am glad I played it. I'll likely play it again in the future with a full group of friends once they aren't all busy, but even if I had gone through the whole thing with friends, it would have still felt a bit underwhelming to me.
While everything that's here is pretty solid and balanced, and there are quite a few really great high points, the experience as a whole was one of the lesser Kirby games for me. It's definitely more of a Squeak Squad than a Super Star Ultra. It's about as close to a "standard" Kirby game as any other installment in the series has been for a wile.
Can I recommend Kirby Star Allies? Yeah, I'd say so, for sure. But probably not at full price if you're looking for a game that will last you a long time. It's a good game that I'm glad I played, and I'd say is still worth playing, but maybe wait for a price drop or a major content update before buying in.
There are still highlights of course. The copy ability selection is really good this time around, the co-op is a lot of fun when you're all working together, the presentation is pleasant, and I'm not even joking when I say this game probably has the best final boss in any Kirby game. I'm serious, if the rest of Star Allies was even half as creative and fun as the final boss, then this could have been the best Kirby game hands down.
If you're a Kirby enthusiast, you'll still probably really enjoy it, and it's a great game to buy for your kids or younger family members to play with them, but it's lacking in those big surprises and left-field unique elements that characterize Kirby at its best.
Kirby Star Allies is available now for Nintendo Switch. You can watch a trailer for the game down below: