Kirby and the Forgotten Land: Early Impressions

Image from Den Of Geek

Prepare to temper your expectations, folks.

Kirby’s formal debut on the Nintendo Switch came four years ago with Kirby Star Allies, but that game got a lukewarm reception for feeling safe and uninspired in the wake of franchise-redefining releases like Super Mario Odyssey and The Legend Of Zelda: Breath Of The Wild. Players were looking for a game that pushed the boundaries of what a series could be, which is why so many people (myself included) were so excited when Kirby and the Forgotten Land was announced last year. The game would be Kirby’s first true foray into 3D, and the crumbling, grown-over civilization that served as the game’s setting hinted at a deep, dark story hiding just below the surface.

I’ve been a huge fan of the Kirby series since the days of Kirby’s Dream Land, and after freeing the Roselle in Triangle Strategy, I dove headfirst into Kirby prepped and ready to absolutely love his latest adventure. After playing through the first few worlds, however, I discovered that I only kinda-sorta liked the game, and I was ready to go back and replay Triangle Strategy before I even made it to the first boss fight. It’s not a bad game by any means, but it’s nowhere near what I expected either, and that’s likely where most of my disappointment stems from. If you’re planning on trying this game, you’ll want to do it with your eyes wide open: This is a refinement of the old Kirby formula rather than an earth-shattering new one, so don’t expect to be bowled over when you dive into this forgotten land.

Let’s start by talking about the forgotten land, shall we? From a graphical perspective, the game generally looks and plays pretty well (and some of the textures, such as the leather on Weapons-Shop Waddle Dee’s hat, are outstanding), but there are noticeable and consistent frame drops for enemies that are far away from you, and there was even a moment coming out of a tunnel where the game suddenly slowed to crawl for a few seconds. The bigger issue for me, however, is the level design: If you heard “3D” and your thoughts immediately jumped to “open-world,” prepare to have your hopes dashed. The levels all have a linear layout that’s much more reminiscent of Super Mario 3D World than Super Mario Odyssey, and given how small and constrained they feel, even calling them “3D” feels like a stretch. The dense overgrowth and debris invite you to explore the areas, but you’ll find yourself forever bumping into invisible walls and ceilings when you do. There are certainly secrets to find and each level’s Waddle Dee checklist encourages you to search for them, but for the most part you’ll see everything the level has to offer the first time through, and playing through them again to find one or two trailing Waddle Dees was more of a chore than a joy. There are also optional Treasure Road challenges that help you upgrade your copy abilities (more on that later), and while they were shorter, I found that the “target times,” despite their minimal rewards, encouraged me to retry them and optimize my path and my strategy. Overall, unfortunately, I would say the levels are “meh” overall, and none managed to stick in my memory for too long once they were complete. (One positive thing I can say, however, is that the music tracks here are great, conveying an upbeat and confident tone as you boldly explore a fallen civilization.)

I’ve got similarly mixed feelings about Kirby’s moveset in this game. For the most part, he’s springy and responsive and plays about how you would expect, but there’s been one major nerf to his moves: Flight is limited to a set height above the ground you jumped from (hence the invisible ceiling comment in the last paragraph) and is no longer infinite (you’ll slowly fall back to earth after a set period of time). I’m not really sure why these changes were made: It’s true that infinite flight could allow players to skip many obstacles, but that’s been something players could do in past Kirby games as well, and it would have opened up more potential exploration options that could have taken advantage of the game’s 3D environment. Instead, Kirby plays a more ground-bound game here, and feels less distinct as a result (every platform protagonist can run and jump, but taking to the air is what makes Kirby…well, Kirby!). The good news is that copy abilities are still present here (albeit not as many as in past games), and you now have the option of upgrading the abilities to more-powerful versions if you have the right collectibles, which adds a bit more power to Kirby’s kit. The abilities that are here are generally pretty good, but Sleep still feels like a troll even if it does restore your health, and I kind of wish Needle had more movement capabilities that weren’t dependent on sticking enemies or blocks. The new ability additions are Drill, which lets you move around underground and attack from below (it feels a bit awkward at times, but it’s generally decent), and Ranger, which gives Kirby a gun and lets them aim freely around the screen (it works pretty well here and doesn’t feel out of place, even if aiming in 3D can be a challenge sometimes). Overall, I like the additions that were made, but the flight restrictions don’t make any sense and and make the game feel less Kirbified.

The game’s major gimmick is “Mouthful Mode,” where Kirby swallows a massive item and gains its powers, such as the speed and ramming power of a car or the can-flinging power of a vending machine. It reminds me of the various robot transformations in Kirby: Planet Robobot, but the fun factor of the mouthfuls is much more variable: Sure it’s fun to zoom around as rusty hatchback, but going up and down as a scissor lift or hopping around as a staircase? The mouthful sections are also a lot shorter here, so often they boil down to moving the item the equivalent of a couple hundred feet. I’m hoping the game unlocks more of its transformation potential as the game goes on, but the early returns are iffy.

Each world consists of a couple of standard levels, a few Treasure Road challenges (some appear automatically, others are hidden and hide to be searched for), and a culminating boss at the end. (The bosses are generally decent, and I appreciate that unlike previous games, going in with a copy ability can be just as viable as waiting for the consumable stars to appear.) The goal for much of the early game is to save as many Waddle Dees as possible by clearing levels and completing other challenges, which will then populate and slowly build up your home base of ‘Waddle Dee Town.’ It’s a cool idea and eventually leads to some interesting options, but the early-game options are a bit underwhelming: You get to rewatch some of the cinematics, you get a house you can decorate with collectible figurines, you get a ‘Dee-livery’ service that lets you enter codes found either in-game or via Internet giveaways, you can buy health recovery items and play a simple Overcooked-esque game to feed hungry Waddle Dees, and you can obtain or upgrade copy abilities. That last one is really the only one I frequent with any regularity, and while you’ll eventually add battle arenas and fish ponds, don’t expect to spend a ton of time there, at least at the start.

Overall, I wouldn’t say there are any dealbreakers in the early stages of Kirby and the Forgotten Land, but there isn’t much to compel the player to keep playing either. Kirby still kinda-sorta feels like Kirby and the copy abilities are generally useful and fun, but the story is vague and slow to ramp up, and the levels invite exploration but really don’t allow it. It’s a capable platformer but nothing more, and while Kirby has a habit of getting both dark and epic in the end, in the meantime we’re left with a game that takes some effort to stay interested in. I was really hoping this game would join the ranks of the franchise-defining titles we’ve already seen on this console, but as Alan Jackson would say, it’s got a long, long way to go.

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