This is the fifth (or sixth, depending on how you count Donkey Kong 64) game in the fantastic Donkey Kong Country series. You might feel uncomfortable about getting into a series this far in, but I have to say that this game seems to be an especially good jumping in point because it features most of the main characters and many elements of the past, while also bringing the series forward in exciting ways.
The storyline is a fairly good one: Donkey Kong, Diddy, Dixie and Cranky are celebrating Donkey Kong’s birthday when all of a sudden the island is taken over by the villainous Snowmads and our four heroes are blown far away by strong winds. They find themselves on an island they’ve never visited before and have to make their way across it, and various other islands, in order to get back home to Donkey Kong Island. While the story isn’t a huge part of the game, you are shown it in a wonderful high-definition cut scene at the start which will really get you in the mood to play.
As you’d expect of a side-scroller game, every level has you travelling from a start point to an end point and avoiding hazards along the way. I’m sure some people will think that side-scrollers are quite an outdated type of game which don’t allow for much depth, but I certainly have to disagree in this case. This is the first game in the series to be made in high-definition and all of the levels are really beautiful, you see huge scenes of nature in the background and it’s all very much ‘alive’: you’ll see goats grazing on a mountain side or dodos wandering on a beach. None of those details add anything to the game other than to make the world feel very real so as to make the immersion much stronger. Every level is also filled with lots of KONG letters, puzzle pieces and bonus rooms to find, and one or two even have secret exits which lead to new levels so you’ll want to explore every nook and cranny. There are also some levels that see you riding in mine carts or in rocket barrels which mix things up quite nicely. Sometimes, when you are riding in the vehicles the camera angle will change and essentially give you some 3D gameplay, which is an exciting new feature which I only wish had been used one or two more times.
One especially good thing about the game is its soundtrack. This time they brought back David Wise, who had created the music for the first two games in the series and this was a very, very good idea. The music perfectly sets the tone of every stage and provides the game with a strong atmosphere. Impressively, one track from this is the best I’ve ever heard from a video game (listen to it here) and I’m not fickle with my favourites either, for a long time a different track was my favourite, but after years it has finally been dethroned. Thanks to the soundtrack, if there’s a section you find especially difficult, repeating it over and over won’t feel very tedious because you’ll have such beautiful music to listen to.
For the first time ever in this series, instead of just taking control of two Kongs, you get the choice of pairing Donkey Kong with Diddy, Dixie or Cranky. Diddy keeps you afloat a little longer after a jump using his jet pack, Dixie helps you to jump higher than would otherwise be possible with her helicopter hair and essentially gives you a double jump, Cranky meanwhile can use his walking stick as a pogo stick, which means you can bounce over spikes and do extra damage when jumping on some enemies, Cranky can also attack with his stick when you are swimming underwater. I very much like the fact that there are more Kongs available, but I just ended up liking Dixie so much that I used her every time, I expect most people will just pick a favourite and use them too. One thing that is a bit of a shame is the fact that all the other characters only ever ride on Donkey Kong’s back and you don’t get much of a chance to be them independently (the wonderful co-op mode being the main exception.)
On the whole, this is a tremendous game. Long-time Donkey Kong Country fans will certainly not be disappointed; the previous game in the series, Donkey Kong Country Returns, was a very good game too, but it felt much more like a tribute to the first game in the series and nothing more. Tropical Freeze, meanwhile, seems to be a tribute to the entirety of the original trilogy while, at the same time, being a brand new instalment which brings things forward rather than spending too much time looking back. Things like Funky Kong and underwater levels, at long last, make their very welcome return, but there’re so many new things too. I liked Returns because it reminded me of the old Donkey Kong Country games. I like Tropical Freeze because it is a brand new Donkey Kong Country game. The only real downside is that I thought the main story was a bit short, but since there’s a lot to do afterward, it’s not too much of an issue.
(Don’t miss this week’s Finger Puppet Show!)