Developer: HAL Laboratory, Inc.
ESRB: E – Everyone
It's been a while since I played a proper Kirby game — although not for lack of choice. The series has seen steady releases for a while now, but they always seem to skirt by my area of interest. If you were to ask how I find Kirby in general, I'd acknowledge a series that's fun, but never engaging enough to keep me strapped in.
If anything, the Kirby I know best is an experimental one — rolling on a rainbow rope in the stylus-operated offshoots. Better yet, ask me what I know about racing on star rides, or Kirby as a fighter in Smash Bros. Now we're talking. I reckon that Kirby's been through so much experimentation that as a player who's not in love with Kirby's roots, what do I have to look forward to every time he goes for a walk down memory lane?
That said, Kirby: Planet Robobot is almost as new an experience for me as it may be for longtime Kirby fans. It certainly feels that way, at least, as Planet Robobot is the first traditional Kirby game in a long while that finally held my attention beyond a fun diversion. This gets me wondering that if Kirby's finally clicked with me, then how stoked must series veterans be about Planet Robobot?
My money's on "max," stoked to the max.
So things are cool in Dreamland, until a robot spaceship plunks down to start mechanizing the place. This kicks off Kirby's new adventure in planet Robobot, where Kirby's power-grabbing abilities are taken to what feels like a new level of flexibility. This, in part with some multi-plane level design, helps breathe new life into what had always felt to me like a series that was just shy of realizing its potential. Using powers used to feel a bit locked in to either two or three functions (breathe fire, fire dash, what else can fire do?), whereas Planet Robobot gives Kirby more variety in each version of himself — a flexibility that's more reminiscent of how he controls in Smash Bros. than a traditional platformer may grant.
It could just be that my memory's bad about how Kirby games play, but a quick romp on the most recent DS game I remember doesn't offer the fine control that the circle pad grants. In Planet Robobot, just about everything Kirby can do feels more fleshed out, be it maneuverability, range of attack, or variety and moves.
A large part of this is due what what feels like an overhaul of Kirby design, which again I'm going off memory, but Planet Robobot feels more inventive and varied throughout most of the game. Firstly is the actual robot mecha suit that Kirby can control, which not only has Kirby's ability to assimilate enemy powers (in a souped up form), but also grants access to different areas by means of light interaction and puzzle solving.
The robot suit is also noteworthy for not being a sloppy, clunky mess to operate. It glides around just as quickly as Kirby could manage, with some finesse of its own in combat and platforming. It the design team thought a giant metal robot should be any less nimble than Kirby on his own, it would've dragged any robot areas into tedium. Instead, the robot suit is a cool treat just hanging out in certain areas, waiting of you to hop in and break stuff. If you ever loved grabbing a vehicle in Halo, this is the joy of operating a giant tank of armor in Kirby.
The second half of Planet Robobot's success is the level design itself, which developers have taken to accommodate their goal for each area. Levels now exist on planes both in the foreground and background, which allows them to incorporate some interesting environmental puzzles, but also maximize an area's size without moving in a linear fashion from left to right all game. Secret areas are teased in the background, incentivizing exploration, and pacing is handled deftly with robot sections appearing at what always feels like the right time to mix things up.
At around 7 hours, I'd finished what the game referred to as 48% of the available content, and knowingly without having found all the extras in each level. Considering how much I enjoyed the main game, I'm looking forward to rounding out my completion, but has also to look forward to additional modes of play which are unlocked upon finishing the game's story — a level rush mode and set of 3D mini games.
What Kirby: Planet Robobot does have in common with its predecessors is the ability to keep giving. There's a traditional wealth of content to dive into, and as usual, it's all worthwhile. I'm always taken with how dense a Kirby game turns out to be, and with Planet Robobot, it seems to go even beyond the adorable art direction and animations bringing life to the world. For instance, one of the featured collectibles are stickers — a commodity which can be applied to Kirby's robot (one for the right and left shoulder each). lending players customization to stamp their personality on the game.
The soundtrack is generally enjoyable, and while certain tracks are forgettable, there's nothing annoying to ruin the mood. The only thing to really gripe about on the sonic side are the technical hangups of what the 3DS cart is capable of storing and the hardware of rendering. I'd say the same for visuals, bu it's far easier to eek by with strong art, and not to mention Planet Robobot's exceptional use of the 3D screen functionality.
Another nitpick would be that at times, there were noticeable frame drops and slowdown, but they occurred rarely and generally with a great deal being rendered onscreen. As a rule, disabling 3D is the easiest means of alleviating technical strain on the 3DS, but for the great majority, I enjoyed Planet Robobot just fine at whatever viewing experience preferred.
Kirby: Planet Robobot was a pleasant surprise, no doubt, but especially as someone who could generally look at a Kirby game and take it or leave it. It's one thing to please fans, but to win over indifference is kind of a big deal to me. I'm not sure what the future holds for Kirby himself, but hopefully the experimentation in Planet Robobot isn't the last we'll see of bringing new ideas to a traditional platformer. If not, page me when we get a sequel.