Wednesday, 16 March 2011

The Happiest Game on Earth - Kirby's Epic Yarn

Yes, I know the US got this game months before we did, but this is new and fresh to me at least!
The Kirby series has something of a reputation. The design has always been cute and endearing; and the game play undemanding, but fluid and enjoyable.

Over time, the games have varied in quality and difficulty, but we just can't hate the little guy, nor the games he appears in. Kirby's Epic Yarn doesn't buck that trend, but instead refines what makes Kirby games so charming and enjoyable, with a unique difference.

Everything is made from yarn. Or felt. Or cotton wool. Justified through a somewhat contrived plot line of Kirby being turned into yarn and whisked away to Patch Land by the wicked Yin Yarn (groan), the developers have gone wild with the art direction, and seamlessly blended it with how the game plays. The levels themselves scrunch up, unzip and unravel as Kirby progresses through each stage, accompanied by the angry looking Prince Fluff as a second player. Each stage is scored by the number of beads you collect, awarding bonuses for not taking damage and collecting items, with a bonus roulette of beads at the end. The score goes towards a ranking at the end of the stage.

Kirby's Epic Yarn is essentially one giant bedtime story - and that goes beyond the alternate interpretation of the game title. The pastel colour scheme, the light-hearted and whimsical concept and a soft spoken narrator for the cutscenes gives the entire package a feel like you're acting out the next Gruffalo or Very Hungry Caterpillar.

This stylistic choice seeps into the game play too. It's impossible to fail a stage in Epic Yarn. While all the staple platforming hazards are present and correct - enemies (adorably animated), crushing ceilings (denim constructed), rising lava (orange silk) - if Kirby collides with them, he'll reel back as his hard earned collectables go scattering. This means that Kirby's story will always end as intended; stages will be completed and bosses beaten. The effect of this is twofold - players who aren't much used to platformers will eventually finish their quest without much frustration, and more experienced gamers can pursue 'perfect runs' of each stage, racking up the highest scores.

As I played, I found that the game provided far more challenge than I had expected. Simply beating the game was a fun, but undemanding experience, so I felt compelled to try something that I almost never do with my games - a 100% completion. The check list of items heading to full completion was a lengthy one - unlocking all the stages, getting a Gold rank on every stage, collecting all the hidden items, beating the bonus challenge levels, filling in the encyclopedias of characters, enemies, and music tracks...

Playing the game in co-op feels like a much more rewarding experience than playing alone. Picking up your ally and throwing them up to new areas or into enemies can make some areas a lot more fluid; though you could argue it makes an already easy experience even easier. Then again, as both players can be damaged, some stages will rob you of all you hard-earned beads as Kirby and Prince Fluff get crushed, burned or battered. If there's a gap in skill between the two players, it can get a bit heated, as one player lags behind, or drops gems often. Go in with a relaxed attitude, or let the soothing piano soundtrack do it for you.

Kirby's Epic Yarn is a very different way of handing a 2D Platformer, but by no means a bad one. The experience may be too cheerful or too unchallenging for some; but hating this game is equivocal to hating fun. Fact.

This article has also been hosted at The Yorker, and can be found here.

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