I’m going to be up front here, I did not enjoy my time with Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze. That being said my issues with it are more a matter of disappointment than frustration. I already knew this was going to be a direct follow-up to 2010’s Donkey Kong Country Returns and that alone somewhat took the wind out of my sails because despite DKCR being a good game, it certainly was not revolutionary. I had hoped that this second game would change up the formula in some meaningful way, even if it was going to stick to the classic platformer style, but sadly that wasn’t case and what felt like nostalgia in the first game, here just feels like stagnation.
So let’s talk about what I liked in DK: Tropical Freeze first, because it does do a couple of things quite right. One important thing it does much better than its predecessor is its villains. Rather than the enigmatic Tiki masks from the last game, we get an invading army of arctic creatures known as the Snow-mads who act as a nicely thematically opposite force to DK’s warm tropical nation. They take over Donkey Kong island and fling DK and his friends off to one of the neighbouring atolls. You then have to fight your way from isle to isle, defeating the generals of the Snow-mad army along the way, to get back to the DKC and reclaim your home. It’s a nice solid motivation and the Snow-mads act as a wonderfully consistent force for you butt up against, it almost takes me back to the days of good old King K. Rool and his horde of kremlings. I mean obviously this was never going to be a game that was heavily story focused but it’s nice nonetheless to have a semi-coherent narrative in place.
The other thing I really liked about this game was the presentation; it’s not that much different from what we saw in Returns, but they’ve refined it in great ways. The fur tech on display looks great and gives the Kongs a nicely fuzzy look and all the enemies are really well detailed, you can see every feathered pressed flat on a penguin’s back. The environments are also super dense with lots of background stuff and a really good variety between each world. You’ve got the starting traditional jungle area but you’ve also got a savanna and the alps and a bunch of other fun areas to explore. They’ve also incorporated some really nice big set pieces which add a lot of flavour to the levels. The music is also just perfectly done, lots of great original pieces that nicely swing from peaceful and relaxing to tense and excited. There’s a particular piece actually in the second world called “Windmill Hills” that was just so relaxing that I came back to it whenever the game started to frustrate me.
Alright now onto the bad stuff and more specifically the gameplay; actually bad might be a bit strong, instead let’s just call it woefully unchanging. You see mechanically Tropical Freeze is nearly identical to Returns, the only big difference is that in addition to Diddy, you also have Cranky and Dixie Kong along for the ride as companions. Cranky will allow you to pogo around on spikes and enemies and Dixie will give you a nice extra bump during your double jump as well as a boost while swimming. But while they will augment your abilities in some fairly interesting ways, they are never necessary and feel like a vestigial addition to the original formula. That formula by the way is-in and of itself-feeling rather out-dated as it ignores a lot of the major improvements that the platforming genre has seen over the last few years, things such as mid boss fight checkpoints and removing the concept of lives. They try to make up for it by showering you with resources but that only creates a false sense of success. Of course it looks like you’re doing well if you always have 50 extra lives but that’s neglecting the fact that every tricky death spot tends to have a nearby extra life for you to grab or gives you enough bananas to earn one. There’s also a distinct lack of flow to the gameplay as the focus here seems to be split between finding collectibles and precision platforming, that’s not necessarily a bad thing mind you but when compared to the fluidity of other modern platformers like Rayman Legends, it just doesn’t feel very fun. It’s also worth noting that the game is pretty damn difficult right off the bat and much of that challenge derives from trial and error. Random obstacles will pop up out of nowhere and the only way past them is to die and try to remember not to die there again. I’ve never found that style of platformer very much fun, the challenge should come from presenting the player with a fair but very tricky path to navigate and then expecting them to be coordinated enough to time it all out perfectly. Not giving the player any sort of fair warning regarding obstacles makes what should be a fun test of skill become a frustrating test of patience.
The most baffling thing here though is the fact that the game doesn’t take advantage of the Wii U in any way whatsoever. The visuals while nice and crisp don’t really feel like anything that couldn’t have been done on the 3DS and the gamepad screen is never used unless you’re full on playing the game on it. That’s right, the Wii U’s flagship feature doesn’t make its way into this game at all, in fact when you’re playing the game on your TV the gamepad screen goes completely black, they don’t even bother putting stats on the damn thing. To use Rayman for comparison once again, the Wii U version of Rayman Legends heavily relied on the second screen and broke up the pace by switching up gameplay with fun touchscreen based levels. I could ask why no such innovation was done here but I actually have a better question: why is this even a side scrolling platformer to begin with? It made sense for Donkey Kong Country Returns to be a classically styled platformer because it was DK’s comeback and as such needed to trade on nostalgia, but that isn’t the case here. We got our nostalgia fix in the last game, so the sequel is where they should be changing things up. This is especially disappointing when you consider that the developer behind this game, Retro Studios, are the same people who so masterfully turned the Metroid series on its ear with the Metroid Prime games. We know that they can successfully take a traditionally 2D series and re-invent it into something new and wonderful so to see them continuing to retread Rare’s old ground is disheartening.
For as nice as it looks and for as technically competent as it is, Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze acts as basically no more than a stand alone expansion pack to Donkey Kong Country Returns. The few mechanical changes made here are very minor and it just simply doesn’t offer anything truly different to its predecessor, it’s pretty much just a ton of new levels and a couple new Kongs to play with. Now obviously a lot of this comes down to personal opinion and if you really liked Donkey Kong Country Returns then I’m sure you’ll enjoy Tropical Freeze because it’s simply more of that, but if like me you were hoping that they were going to do more than just add a couple of ice cubes to the DK cocktail, you’re going to be severely disappointed. In the end I’m giving Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze a 3 out of 5 stars; I liked the new villains, it’s well presented, and it’s technically competent but it feels just too much like the last game.