To make it simple and short: Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze is one of the best 2D Jump&Runs you will ever play if you can handle the high difficulty.
It’s Donkey Kong’s birthday but just when he, Diddy, Dixie and Cranky want to start, the Swowmads appear on the horizon and attack the island with a giant ice dragon. DK and his crew are blown away by the wind and the entire island is completely frozen, while the flagship of the Snowmads flies up to the top of the mountain of DK island and marks it its territory.
That is the story, make your way through five thematically different islands and finally take back your home. It works and while the Snowmads are no Kremlings, they have enough personality to potentially be a recurring enemy in the franchise, I think with a bit more characterization the Snowmads could actually rival the Kremlings.
The gameplay is where it’s at. This is a 2D platformer. Unlike 2D Mario, you don’t have a time limit to go through the levels and the levels themselves are much more detailed and much longer than the ones from Mario, including multiple checkpoints. I like both level designs but just be aware that the backgrounds are exploding with detail and every level looks different. Each level offers new innovative designs and plays differently.
You control Donkey Kong for the most part who doesn’t have any special abilities. You can jump, hit the ground hard and roll around to attack and gather speed. That doesn’t sound like much but the level design makes up for it.
By picking up and breaking a Kong barrel, Donkey Kong can get help from his partners. Each partner gives him two additional hearts which you really need in this game. Diddy Kong extents the time Donkey Kong can stay in the air by jumping, Dixie Kong gives him an upward boost when jumping and Cranky Kong can bounce on his crane, making it safe for Donkey Kong to jump on spike traps, gain more height when jumping and jump on spiky enemies.
Unlike Donkey Kong Country Returns, there are also underwater levels now and this is the first time in the entire series that I actually enjoyed underwater levels, partly because the controls finally work fine for me. The partners even bring different abilities when being underwater, Diddy can give you a huge speed boost straight ahead, Dixie gives you more swimming speed and the ability to swim through strong water current and Cranky can hit enemies with his crane.
Still I can’t stress enough that this game, despite sounding simple, is much more complex than that. The controls are easy to understand but similar to Super Meat Boy, the level design is the true challenge. This game is incredibly difficult and while it is unlikely that you will get a Game Over thanks to the game drowning you in extra lifes, you will die, a lot.
There are a total of ten secret exists in the game with one final challenge level per island, if you collect all the four KONG letters in each level. These levels will test your frustration limit, not because the level design is unfair but because there are no checkpoints and one mistake usually results in death. When you die, it’s almost always your fault except for the rare moments in the game when the developers decided to be absolute dicks with the KONG letters. The puzzle pieces unlock images and panoramas. I would recommend to just go for the KONG letters and unlock all the levels that way, trust me, it will be worth it.
There is also the co-op mode. It makes the game easier if both of you have a decent amount of skill regarding 2D platformers but if you don’t then you will see tons of Game Overs (each death takes an extra life, if both of you die, you loose two lifes) and you will start to hate each other.
Finally there is the special move that is useful but I never considered using it outside of boss battles.
The music is nothing but fantastic and I consider this soundtrack, made by David Wise, to be one of the best in gaming, the songs always fit the levels perfectly.
The graphics look very good. The art design will continue to have a unique look, the backgrounds look fantastic, the fur-physics of the Kongs look very nice and the levels are extremely detailed. However I couldn’t help but notice that in terms if being visually impressive, the very first level does a poor job to show you what this game will look like.
It’s a fantastic 2D platformer with an amazing soundtrack, an extremely high difficulty, artistic graphics and features some of the most innovative and unique levels you’ve ever seen in any platformer to date. Finding the secret exits to unlock alternative levels is also very comfortable as long as you keep a close eye on the surroundings and the game is almost never unfair.
What could have been improved?
The final boss has some wonky hit boxes, rarely some Kong letters are one-shots before a checkpoint that seals off your way back, forcing you to restart the entire level and despite looking like a nice child-friendly game, it is not. Do not underestimate the difficulty in this game! If you’re a parent then this game is NOT for a child with a low frustration level, keep that in mind. No matter who will play this game, you will face a hard time and you will die a lot.
I also think that Diddy Kong should have a better ability or at least extent your jump for a longer time, as Diddy is just a slightly more controllable Dixie Kong in the air and nothing but a speedrun tool in the water.
I’ve basically said everything there is to say about this game. Wonderful soundtrack, fantastic level design, perfect controls, lots of content and it’s really challenging. However the lack of characterizing the big villain (the final boss is not even close to the likes of King K. Rool) and some questionable collectable-placements prevent this game from being an absolute must-play.