Developer: HAL Labratory
Platforms: Nintendo Switch
Released: March 16, 2018
Copy supplied by publisher
Kirby is the journeyman of Nintendo franchises, in that each game — and there are a ton of them at this point — can be relied on to be of a certain quality, though few have been truly outstanding outside of classic puzzle titles like Kirby’s Star Stacker and Kirby’s Pinball Land. Kirby’s always been at his best when the adorable pink puffball is in handheld form, as evidenced by the series’ hot streak in recent years on the 3DS, highlighted by standout titles like 2014’s Kirby Triple Deluxe and 2016’s Kirby: Planet Robobot. The newest game in the series, Kirby Star Allies, marks the franchise’s first appearance on the Nintendo Switch, a console that knows a thing or two about great handheld gaming experiences. Sporting bright, beautiful visuals and a co-op focused gameplay formula, Kirby Star Allies has the right ingredients to be a standout 2.5D platformer on the Switch, but its lack of ingenuity and anything resembling challenge makes it one of the most disappointing first-party releases on Nintendo’s hybrid console to-date.
Like most Kirby games, Star Allies has something resembling a story but it’s entirely surface level and doesn’t warrant any sort of lengthy discussion. Like most Nintendo titles, gameplay is king and the core concept at the heart of Star Allies is, well … hearts. More specifically, Kirby still has the ability to absorb the powers of enemies he swallows, but he can now befriend those same enemies by tossing a heart their way, which ropes them into a four-character team. These teammates not only help Kirby out in combat, but can combine their abilities to achieve a variety of power-ups. For instance, if Kirby is wielding a sword and has a teammate with fire abilities, he can raise his sword in the air, in which case that teammate will automatically apply flame damage to Kirby’s sword. With dozens of different powers in the game, much of the fun in Star Allies comes from experimenting with different combinations, with some puzzles requiring specific powers to solve.
The downside of all this is that, outside of puzzle solving, there is barely any benefit to powering Kirby up with elemental abilities, which include fire, wind, electricity, and ice. Enemies are total pushovers and require very few hits to take down to begin with, and even against the various boss enemies, it really doesn’t matter all that much because in most cases, all you need to do is spam the attack button for a minute until they fall. Rinse and repeat. Of course, no one comes to a Kirby game expecting an overly difficult experience, but Star Allies is overly generous with health and lives to a fault, so that it’s practically a challenge to actually die in combat.
Fortunately, there are moments that break up the monotony of too-easy combat and basic platforming that make up the majority of Star Allies’ level designs. Every so often, Kirby and his buddies can come together for various group team-up sections, such as forming a bridge to escort A.I. allies to a specific platform or, in one of the game’s most delightful sequences, assemble into a runaway choo-choo train. Moments like these feel inspired and make the best use of Star Allies’ cooperative focus, but it’s just too bad most of the core gameplay doesn’t provide much entertainment.
Also, for a game seemingly built for co-op play, Star Allies doesn’t really benefit all that much from swapping out A.I. for actual player-controlled characters. Additional players can jump in and out at any time, but Player 1 (Kirby) is the only one who gets to control the experience. Other players are restricted in what they can do, as they can only get so far away from Kirby before being unable to move on and must rely on Kirby to throw a heart on a new enemy if they want to play as a different character. That being said, for parents with young gamers, Star Allies could very well be one of the least stressful experiences on the Switch, so I could see its co-op offerings playing really well with that audience.
In addition to the main story mode, Star Allies features two mini-games that are separated into their own modes in the game’s main menu. The better of the two is Chop Champs, which challenges one to four players with chopping tall trees down as quickly as they can. Each player has one tree to look after, but the challenge comes from the dangerous caterpillars and spiky balls that line the sides of the trees, requiring players to constantly switch back and forth between each side of the tree while they’re chopping. It sounds simple, but becomes quite challenging and addictive in practice and is arguably one of the best things going for Kirby Star Allies.
The second min-game is Star Slam Heroes, a sci-fi-themed home run derby contest that is so mindless that it’s honestly not even worth trying out. Seriously, just stick to Chop Champs.
Looked at as a whole, Kirby Star Allies is a competent, if unremarkable entry in the ever-expanding Kirby franchise. Truth be told, Kirby games are typically not very challenging affairs, as they are aimed at a younger demographic, but previous Kirby games (Kirby’s Epic Yarn comes to mind) have been easy too, and still brought a lot of fun new ideas to the table for this to not be much of a concern. Kirby Star Allies, on the other hand, just treads water and if Nintendo revealed that they released it just to fulfill some “one Kirby game a year” quota, I wouldn’t at all be surprised. That being said, Star Allies isn’t without its charms and even if it does feel like it was developed by a studio on auto-pilot, it’s a polished experience that is sure to please fans of the franchise. However, if you’re just looking for something new to play on the Switch, there are plenty of better options available right now and honestly, there’s probably going to be another, better Kirby game in another year or so anyway.