Warning: Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze will induce many of the same symptoms found in potassium deficiency. The deficiency causes nausea, irregular heartbeat, and vomiting. Tropical Freeze causes immense anger that may well ignite those very ailments in your body. At times, my heart pounded against my screaming sternum and my stomach riled with rage. Thankfully, these symptoms subside once the game ends.
The amped up difficulty of Tropical Freeze does not, by any means, detract from the overall quality of the game, but players looking for a casual experience should proceed with caution. During my run, I felt somewhat accomplished when I completed a particularly tough level, but that minimal reward was not quite enough to quell my disdain for the difficulty. There are numerous collectibles scattered throughout the worlds, but I steered clear of any completionist goals, fearing the anger that consumed me upon dying over and over in one level or another.
The upside to the intense difficulty is the level design. I can’t recall a platformer with such exquisitely thoughtful levels. Each new area required that I use Donkey Kong in new and interesting ways, and faster paced mine cart/rocket barrel levels were a welcome deviation from the norm. When it wasn’t crushingly difficult, Tropical Freeze was a thoroughly enjoyable experience.
Donkey Kong also brings fresh visuals to the Wii U. Usually, I appreciate either character animations or environments and chide the other, but this game excelled in both areas. It was just as easy to get lost in the lush backgrounds in the distance as it was to admire DK’s strikingly detailed fur. There are a small number of silhouette themed levels that are downright gorgeous. As far as graphics go, the game is airtight. It really showcases the Wii U’s visual potential, especially when considering Nintendo’s proficiency with cartoony design.
Diddy, Dixie, and Cranky Kong join DK this time around as a small cast of playable supporting characters. Diddy’s rocket barrel jet pack adds some distance to jumps, Dixie’s ponytail allows for a higher reach, and Cranky’s cane protects against spikes, acting like a pogo stick. Of the three, Cranky stands out as the least useful if only because his applications are limited. Spiky hazards are not nearly as abundant as they need to be to justify consistent use of Cranky’s ability. Dixie’s extra altitude is very helpful, but the timing is tough to master at first. In general, I preferred Diddy as my companion. His ability controlled well and was the easiest to use in a wide array of levels. I’m sure there are advocates for both of the other Kongs, and those supporters’ opinions are just as valid. It all comes down to preference and play style.
Tropical Freeze is playable in cooperative mode in its entirety, which can serve equally as a blessing or a curse. I played approximately 60% of the game with a friend who is an adept gamer, and it made the experience much more fun. About 20% I spent with a non-gamer friend, which was still enjoyable, but more frustrating. When two players are moving separately across the screen, forced to keep pace with one another, the chance for missteps and mistakes rises exponentially. This brings back the frustration, but not quite to the same degree as single player rage, probably because it’s easy to laugh at one another when you or your partner makes a stupid mistake. My verdict on multi-player is to choose a friend who is willing to accept and embrace the challenge, but remain open to the possibility of frequent failure. One great feature is the ability to put player two on DK’s back, so if one player is struggling, the other can help the team progress. If overly used, this could hinder the experience, but it’s a nice feature when the going gets tough and the tough just can’t get going.
Nintendo platformers (I’m looking at you, Mario and Kirby) are not at all known for their stories, and Tropical Freeze is no exception. It deviates from the standard “anthropomorphic reptiles stole our bananas” trope of the past, but not by much. The premise is simple: Snowmads (ice-themed enemies, thus the game’s title) take over Donkey Kong Island and your quest as the eponymous Kong is to retake your home. It’s really nothing special, but it’s enough to get the Kong rolling, and I suppose that’s all we need. Still, I wish Nintendo would take a risk with a deeper story for such a game. As a loyal player, I’m running on fumes–the formulaic experience, regardless of execution, will only keep me coming back for so long. Strong gameplay and graphics are enough to motivate me now, but I question how long that will last.
Lack of a story is one thing if it is backed up with content, but Tropical Freeze doesn’t exactly deliver here either. Six worlds is a flimsy number for a platformer, even if the difficulty ensures a relatively long playthrough. There are a handful of secret levels sprinkled about each world, but, as I said earlier, I had no desire to trudge through an already tough level again just to find a few secrets. Hardcore fans may be driven by the promise of a few new levels, but it wasn’t quite enough for me. It was also disappointing because I was marveling at the fantastic level design, hungry for more, before the game’s abrupt end. I felt cheated by the small number of worlds; it could have easily used at least two more.
Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze is a mixed experience for the Wii U. It shows off the console’s graphical capability and exhibits incredible level design, but the difficulty and light content may turn some gamers away. If you’re looking for a challenging experience that is at times fun and at times inducing of potassium deficieny-esque symptoms, then this title is definitely for you. If you want a more casual game with similar visual beauty and a few more accessible levels, try Super Mario 3D world.