Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Review: Kirby's Epic Yarn (Wii)

So, I was just about to head to the fabric store when I got a message from my friend Zeke; he said he wanted to come over to my place and hangout.  I briefly popped in at the fabric shop and picked up some new patterns before taking the short walk to my apartment.  When I got there, Zeke flew in, paid some compliments to my interior decoration and then pleasantly milled about the space.  I decided this would be a great photo opportunity seeing as I just reupholstered my couch and carefully balanced a trio of pizzas on top of the piano.  I snapped the picture which I suppose I could've kept forever, stored somewhere on the Wii's internal memory.  These Animal Crossing-like circumstances are actually just an aside to the main quest in Kirby's Epic Yarn, but ones that allowed me to literally invest in the game world (with fake in-game currency, mind you).

Kirby's 2010 adventure transports Nintendo's pink cream puff to an enthreaded world of fabric, seams, and buttons.  Instead of inhaling enemies and stealing their abilities, Kirby has a lasso that he can use to unravel his foes.  The lasso is a multifunctional tool that is also used to traverse across the patchwork 2D levels, swinging from buttons, pulling open zippered compartments, and ripping off tabs to reveal hidden items.  The world plays like an exquisitely designed playground.  Individual levels offer a breezy play-space where the largest penalty is having to regather collectible beads strewn around you after getting hit or falling down a hole.  There's something very Montessori about the whole experience.

Accordingly, Epic Yarn has a very kid-friendly visual style that probably makes it appealing to the early childhood set, but shouldn't dissuade adult players from diving in too.  I prefer to think of the game not as "for kids" but rather of a childlike aesthetic akin to a Michel Gondry video.  If the gameplay fell into the overly simplistic and repetitive realm of something like Dora the Explorer where characters pedantically beat mechanics and clues into you until you can recite them backwards and in Spanish, then there wouldn't be anything to vouch for in Epic Yarn on behalf of adults.  Thankfully, this is definitely not the case.  There is challenge in this game, though it is by no means "hard," and most of the trickier parts are optional.  The ease with which Kirby's Epic Yarn opens the world to your availability is one of its greatest assets.

The amount of time I have available for playing games is nowhere near where it used to be, and somehow this "kids" game really understands and accommodates that.  The game's levels are built on a hub system quite similar to Kirby's Adventure (a franchise favorite of mine), allowing you to pop in and run through in short bursts.  The collectibles and medal awards make for impulse retries if you miss something the first time around.  Achieving gold medals and completing side quest challenges are not necessary to progress in the game, but exist for the player seeking to maximize value out of it.  This material is not padding though; individual challenges, issued by tenants of Kirby's apartment building, are clever puzzles that offer something for the player wary of a game without death states.  Tasks like carrying ball-shaped creatures from one end of a level to another within a time limit push you to engage with individual mechanics from the main game in unique scenarios that showcase just how smoothly even the tiniest details have been executed.  The cherry on top is the super friendly UI that lets you hop around the hub world with ease and bring in a 2nd player at the beginning of any level.

Speaking of the co-op player, let's just take a moment to give new character Prince Fluff his due.  My understanding is that this game was originally being developed as a new IP, but creators were made to transform it into a Kirby game.  Nothing against the pink cream puff, but Prince Fluff is really an awesome character design; he's basically a blue, playfully peeved-looking version of Kirby with a sweet crown on his head.  Even though I played through almost all of this game solo, Fluff's existence strongly incentivised me to give co-op a fair shake.  Playing Epic Yarn with another person is probably the ideal way to go since it changes some of Kirby's super powers in interesting ways and means Prince Fluff is always hanging around.

Despite my enthusiasm for this new character, I was surprised by how much Kirby fan service actually resonated with me.  The game makes callbacks to its franchise history effortlessly, peppering recognizable enemies, music, and items throughout (moreso in the final stretch), in a way that co-opts them into Epic Yarn's world rather than relying on nostalgic winks and nods.  Yes there's a cyclops lightning cloud at some point, but it's presented in a matter-of-fact way.  There is a rich world here with some historical backstory probably, but not in a way that's important to enjoying the core gameplay or following the narrative.  This nonchalance made me care about the realm of Dreamland even more since it allowed me to become invested in it through playing instead of being shown outright that I'm supposed to care.

Nintendo has increasingly used Kirby as an outlet to experiment with some out-there, ingenious game mechanics, and Kirby's Epic Yarn is yet another successful turn for the amoebic mascot.  The only disservice of that statement is that it makes the game sound like a bit of an test subject: an interesting concept awaiting implementation in a "full title" somewhere down the line.  Kirby's Epic Yarn is a fully realized vision; the trial and error has been worked out prior.  I have no disclaimers, no excuses, and no reservations about recommending anyone with a Wii play this game.  It's simply one of the most consistently satisfying games of recent memory.

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