Platforms: Nintendo Switch (reviewed)
Kirby has been a lot of things over the years. He’s been made of yarn, turned into a pinball, forced to roll on rainbow tracks, and more. We haven’t seen a traditional console Kirby game in about seven years. Luckily that’s exactly what Kirby Star Allies, a game about swallowing enemies, copying powers, and fighting bosses, except this time he is taking three friends along for the ride.
An Ability for Everyone
Friendship is the new gimmick of Star Allies. Instead of eating enemies, Kirby can throw hearts to sway them to his side. He can do this to up to three enemies who will follow you around and aid you in battle, much like they did in Kirby Super Star.
In fact, much of Kirby Star Allies can be compared to Super Star. There are a ton of copy abilities to play around with, from simple elemental abilities like fire and ice, weapons like sword and cutter, to plain old bizarre powers like broom and spider. There aren’t many new copy abilities but the sheer number of abilities on offer makes up for that. If you had a favorite ability from Kirby’s history, you’ll likely find it here including yo-yo, ninja, grappler, paint, crash, cook, and more.
Copy abilities also work similar to how they did in Kirby Super Star. Instead of granting Kirby one attack, copy ability grants Kirby pages and pages techniques. Each ability plays remarkably different than the next, from the spider’s ability to create platforms to electricity’s ability to build up static charge and fire projectiles. It’s a joy to simply try out all these powers and find your favorites.
With Our Powers Combined…
Copy abilities seem to be sorted into four categories: weapons, elements, specials, and one-time use. By pressing up, Kirby and friends can trigger “friendship abilities” which allow him and his allies to team up in different ways depending on what categories their powers fall into.
The friendship ability you’ll use most is “combine.” This allows you to add an elemental effect to a weapon. You can turn a sword into a flame sword, bombs into splash bombs, and even the stone ability can change into a curling stone when combined with ice.
Combining abilities changes your techniques and weapon properties. For example, the wind cutter always travels directly upward, which allows Kirby to hit high switches. The flame sword not only cuts ropes, it burns them like fuses which can trigger explosives.
Combining abilities is one of the most enjoyable things you can do in Kirby Star Allies, but it can also be frustrating. There’s no indication of what combinations work so it’s just a matter of trial and error. It’s not clear why you can have a fire sword but not a fire stone. While it has been compared many times to the combination system in Kirby 64, it’s actually not anywhere near as flexible or creative.
The Power of Friendship
Abilities in the special category don’t combine with other abilities but do use a special action when the friendship ability is triggered. These special actions usually create a sort of one-time team upattack. For example, the grappling ability lets you throw your friends. The spider ability creates a trampoline that your friends can bounce off of. The umbrella creates a shield that covers all four friends from attacks, and so on.
One-time use abilities like cook or crash tend to damage all enemies on the screen. When Kirby uses these abilities, he unleashes a devastating attack and returns to normal. However, when Kirby makes allies out of foes with these abilities, his allies gain completely unique move-sets that he doesn’t have access to.
In fact, more enemies can become friends than you might expect. While enemies without a copy ability can’t be turned, bosses can. You can enlist any of the mid-bosses into your aid, despite how exotic their powers might seem. You can even enlist the aid of true bosses like King DeDeDe and MetaKnight by visiting “dream palaces.” These special “dream allies” have their own unique move-sets that are far more powerful than the move-sets of standard allies and they too can combine their powers for more unique effects. Even more dream allies will be made available in the future, featuring familiar faces from games of Kirby’s past.
You might think that a game so focused on working together might be frustrating to play single-player, but you’d be wrong. Nintendo and HAL Laboratories did a fantastic job coding the AI. Kirby’s allies automatically solve puzzles on their own, even if it involves using complex friendship abilities. Pressing up will also automatically make your allies combine abilities if they are able to.
AI allies are very useful in battle. So long as Kirby avoids getting hit, his allies will do the same. If Kirby does get hit, his allies will rush in to save them, which is great for getting Kirby out of a jam but usually causes them to take damage. It’s a decent system that lets success rest on the player’s skill, since AI companions are only ever as good as you are.
The real magic of Kirby Star Allies is its multiplayer. Players can join in with any controller at any time, from a single JoyCon to a leftover Gamecube controller. Just hook up the controller you like, press L and R, and you are ready to play.
The first player controls Kirby and each other player takes control Kirby’s allies. For the most part, Kirby is the center of attention. The camera centers on him and a life is only lost if he dies. He also has full control over the party layout, able to overwrite his allies at any time. This can get annoying if your first player is a bit of a troll, but its fine when everyone works together.
You might think that Kirby would hog all the good powers, but on the contrary, his allies steal the show. Allowing allies to control boss characters and dream characters gives them abilities far more powerful and flexible than Kirby’s. This compensates for their inability to suck-up enemies like Kirby can.
When everyone works together they feel unstoppable. It feels great to discuss with friends how to best solve a puzzle, or to pile on a boss with a slew of unique abilities. While this may make the game easier, it certainly makes it much more fun.
How Easy is Too Easy?
Whether you play in multiplayer or singleplayer Star Allies isn’t all that difficult. Kirby is well known for being one of Nintendo’s easier franchises, but even so this is Kirby’s easiest adventure yet.
Lives flow like water. You’ll have an excess of 40 lives after the first few stages. One has to wonder why Nintendo even bothered with lives if they were going to be this easy to come by. It’s nearly impossible to see the “game over” screen.
Bosses can be treated like a puzzle. They all have specific elemental and weapon weaknesses as well as weak points and attacks that you can interrupt with the right timing. Fighting bosses this way makes them more interesting, but it’s not at all necessary. Most bosses can just be mashed through as long as you have a full party of allies and a half decent copy ability.
Puzzles themselves are fun to complete but are just too simple. They usually require a particular combination of allies and abilities to uncover a secret door or press a secret switch. That’s a perfect design, except the abilities you need are placed right before the puzzle. Even if you accidentally ditch a needed ability, you can just respawn the enemies that grant them and pick them up again. You never have to survive difficult stretches of a level while holding on to a key ability. I picked up every secret in the first two worlds of the game on my first play through without even looking for them.
The rewards for secret hunting aren’t all that spectacular. The best reward is the Dream Palace Switch which gives you access to the aforementioned dream allies. The only other rewards are puzzle pieces, which unlock art to view in the gallery. It’s not enough impetus to aim for 100 percent completion. Besides, you can just as easily earn puzzle pieces by using amiibo.
The Game after the Game
There is some content to enjoy outside the main story. Much like Kirby Super Star, Star Allies comes with a variety of mini-games. These, too, are more fun when played with friends. Otherwise you’ll spend a few attempts trying to beat your high score and forget them.
Another mode has you taking on short platforming challenges with a twist: you can’t use Kirby. Instead you have to choose your party at the beginning a level and stick with it all the way through. This significantly increases the difficulty and the addition of a speedrun clock adds another challenge. This mode even has unique bosses to tackle. It’s a treat to play after you finish the main story.
If you are really looking for a challenge, then you want the game’s boss rush mode. Also unlocked after beating the game, this mode has you tackling the game’s bosses with few health regeneration items. You can choose the difficulty of each attempt and higher difficulties are near impossible. It’s just a shame that you couldn’t also tweak the difficulty of the main story.
Looking the Part
Kirby Star Allies looks like a Kirby game should. It’s full of colorful graphics, bright environments, and cute enemies. Later world maps are particularly impressive, as they pull you back to a cosmic scale. The only issue is that the game runs at 30FPS which makes it look a little dated. It’s not horrible and it doesn’t really affect your gameplay experience in any way. It just shows how weak the Switch is graphically when compared to other consoles.
The music is also fantastic. It’s made up of top quality remixes of classic Kirby themes. Hidden levels even give you a taste of old-school Gameboy chiptunes. There’s nothing about the soundtrack I didn’t like.
A Kirby Game for Everyone
Kirby Star Allies is everything we want from a classic Kirby game. There’s just not enough of it. The campaign can be beaten in about six hours and most of the post came content can be blown through in another two. Mixing and matching copy abilities is fun but you’ll feel like you’ve seen them all about halfway through the game. Solving puzzles with friends is a blast but there’s just no reward for them. There’s nothing wrong with the gameplay, graphics, or music, but there’s nothing that keeps you coming back, wanting to play more.
All of this and the easy difficulty makes Kirby Star Allies more a relaxing experience than a challenging platformer. It’s the type of game you’ll play for an hour or two to unwind rather than binge for hours. It’s not a game that you’ll be dying to get back to but it’s a perfectly enjoyable experience whether you are playing for a few minutes on a commute or gathered on a couch with three friends. It’s a perfectly enjoyable addition to the Kirby franchise. I just hope that Kirby’s next Switch outing gives us a few more powers, a few new mechanics, and a few more stages to play around with.