The jungle is once again alive, thanks to Retro Studios’ release of Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze, the follow-up to its well-received and incredibly difficult series reboot, Donkey Kong Country Returns. This time around, however, there are no voodoo masks. On top of that, a few familiar Kong family members have chosen to venture out of the woodwork to join their pals Donkey and Diddy on their latest adventure. Still, the core remains the same, and the difficulty hasn’t changed much.
Tropical Freeze begins during a festive celebration. It seems to be Donkey Kong’s birthday, and he’s not alone in celebrating it. Unfortunately for him, though, his fellow apes aren’t the only ones who will be paying him a visit on this special day. Ships are on the horizon, and things are about to drastically change.
This time around, the baddies are Norse-inspired creatures, with penguins making up most of the roster. They’ve come from miles, and are looking to set-up shop and form a new residence on Kong Island. In their minds, they’re unstoppable, especially given their penchant for weather-based magic – something that is shown right from the get-go. You see, before making landfall, they begin to transform the island from afar, changing it from a tropical paradise to a frozen glacier.
Forced from their homeland, Donkey and Diddy, plus classic allies Dixie and Cranky, must battle their way from island to island in an attempt to rectify the situation. This is expectedly done through Super Mario Bros. fashion, as each new location is not only themed but also happens to be presented as a map with dots delineating its stages. Then again, this is a Nintendo platformer, so it’s par for the course.
One of the best things about the six worlds that make up Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze and its 8 or so hour-long campaign, is that they’re not all based on uninspired themes. Don’t get me wrong; I’m a longtime fan of Mario’s. However, that series’ focus on reusing elementally-themed worlds — including water, ice, desert and fire — is becoming old hat. Due to its name, Tropical Freeze is unsurprisingly heavy on environmental designs, but it’s not full of them. You’ll encounter some weather-based variations, but will also enjoy some slightly creative thinking through an autumn-inspired landscape and one that is infused with different types of food. Sure, they’re not incredibly different or unbelievably creative types, but they at least differ from the norm, albeit slightly.
Each world is comprised of at least several stages, a shop (run by Funky Kong) and a final boss battle. While the boss battles boil down to an assortment of above-average but unspectacular memorization and avoidance challenges, the main levels themselves offer some variety, though admittedly not enough. There are your run-of-the-mill designs, wherein Donkey and company must make it from point A to point B in traditional platforming ways, and there are also the series’ trademark mine cart challenges and rhino-riding scenarios, which are generally quite fun. Those are joined by a hefty amount of underwater encounters — complete with ever-important air bubbles and evil fish — and new takes on the rocket barrel concept, wherein one must avoid obstacles by changing altitude. I can’t say that I ever thought anything bad about a stage after completing it, but there weren’t many unforgettable ones either.
What’s mentioned above describes the problem with Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze – its lack of unforgettable content that could be defined as a ‘wow factor.’ I don’t like using that term much, but it’s necessary here, because although Tropical Freeze is a very solid game that is seemingly bug free, there’s just something about it that keeps it from being great. That feeling I get when I’m playing something spectacular just wasn’t there with this one, and it’s too bad, because I grew up adoring the first three Donkey Kong Country games and couldn’t get enough of them. Unfortunately, like its most recent predecessor, this iteration doesn’t contain as much magic as those titles did back in the 90s. I wish it did, though.
The truth is that I find this game hard to review. That’s because even though it’s far from bad and is quite well-made, there was just something about it that kept me from having a blast. That’s not to say that I didn’t have fun though, because I did enjoy myself with this one. However, I never took the mental leap from thinking, “This is a very solid, but unspectacular title,” to, “This is an amazing game.” That’s OK, though.
In truth, I could probably get away with just saying that Tropical Freeze lacks a wow factor, but I want to be as open and detailed as possible about my thoughts. Perhaps that wow factor would’ve been more variety and less repetition within the stages themselves, or fewer cheap deaths during vehicle sections and boss battles. The gameplay, though, is very solid and is thankfully devoid of floaty physics. Donkey and his allies move as they should, whether they’re jumping, swinging, climbing or swimming. In fact, the three unique partners’ special abilities (Diddy’s horizontally-flying jetpack, Dixie’s hover and float-capable pigtails and Cranky’s pogo cane) all factor in heavily, and end up becoming crutches. Granted, if you want to find every one of the hidden puzzle pieces and K-O-N-G letters in each level, then you’ll happily abuse them.
Whenever I had the option to choose which secondary Kong to pick-up, I almost always went with Dixie. The reason was that her hair was simply too helpful to pass up. If a coin was just out of reach, I could spin her tails and elegantly float upwards to grab it, and the same was true of hidden areas, which were always helpful when it came to boosting my lives counter through banana collecting. Furthermore, being able to float saved me from quite a few falls.
Visually, Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze is a treat. Shown in high-definition for what is pretty much the first time, DK’s fur looks great and so, too, do the environments, allies and enemies that he encounters. As with most Nintendo games, colour is a big part of this campaign, and it’s put to good use. There’s a lot of detail to be found and though I know it’s cliche, it must be said that things seem to pop off of the screen as a result. Going further, there are a select number of great-looking stages where the usual colour schemes are altered to allow for more of an emphasis on the contrast between light and dark. Therein, the characters and parts of the environments are shadowed, with only accent colours showing.
On the sound front, things are also top-notch. This sequel’s soundtrack makes great use of remastered versions of classic Donkey Kong Country songs, while introducing some of its own from time to time. I thoroughly enjoyed listening to some of the melodies that were regularly blaring during my childhood, and was also impressed with the game’s sound effects. As such, there’s nothing to really complain about here.
In conclusion, Retro Studios’ latest is a beautiful, great-sounding, finely-tuned and challenging platformer. However, its lack of a wow factor and repetitive mission structure keeps it from being great. Still, Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze is well above-average, and is definitely worth playing through, especially if you’re a big fan of its genre or happen to have history with the franchise. It’s just not the masterpiece that we were hoping for.
This review is based on the Wii U exclusive, which we were provided with.
Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze is a very solid game that could've been great if its developers had utilized more outside-of-the-box thinking during development. It's tried and true, but suffers from over-use of the "safe approach."