Adorable, pink, marshmallow-like Kirby, mascot of HAL Laboratory’s Kirby series, has always been greedy. He unhinges his jaw, swallows enemies whole, and absorbs their powers. His latest adventure, Kirby Star Allies, offers a twist on that formula: Though he can still devour his foes and copy their powers, Kirby can now throw Friend Hearts at them, converting up to three enemies at a time to his cause. And this effectively saps the already comforting environments of Dream Land—with their bright color palettes and chubby, smiling foes—of any danger. It makes an already easy game even easier.
This affable approach is a bit too generous when it comes to single-player, as your A.I. allies will clear out obstacles for you, leaving you to simply scroll from one side of the screen to the other, a task made even easier by Kirby’s ability to indefinitely float. In an ironic contrast, the actual couch co-op is rather stingy with the controls: What the first player does, goes, and if the other players fall too far behind, they’re simply teleported to the leader. That’s certainly one way to avoid being dragged down by the weakest link: by creating a single-player game that offers only the illusion of shared control.
Time and again, Kirby Star Allies fails to commit to its innovative partner mechanic. The majority of the game’s levels are banal, requiring players only to get past a series of foes. And having allies makes this simpler, especially since elemental characters can strengthen cohorts bearing weapons. But this creates a negligible difference in terms of gameplay. Meanwhile, the best parts of the game, those that require powers to be combined to solve environmental puzzles, are mostly and inexplicably optional.
Kirby Star Allies, which never gets beyond the difficulty of a tutorial, is constantly demoing ideas desperately in need of a performance space. Figuring out how to combine the party’s abilities is the crux of the game and brings classics like The Lost Vikings to mind. Could there be a more giving moment than when one teammate holds a parasol aloft so that the fuse you’re trying to light doesn’t fizzle out, or when a friendly Plugg opts to charge your bomb with electricity, so that you can roll it down to an otherwise inaccessible switch? And yet, even if you turn off in-game hints (and you should, as they’re essentially solutions), each self-contained puzzle room provides you with the exact copy abilities you’ll need, reducing creative interactions to a dull process of elimination. That obviousness is at odds with the bright humor produced by mixing abilities: See, for instance, the way an Ice character can work with a Rock character to make the latter into the world’s most adorable (wall-breaking) curling puck. It’s a shame these powers don’t feel more essential, more integrated, into the game itself.
Really, it’s a shame there isn’t more game to the game itself. Levels are scarcely ever longer than five minutes, and there’s only about 40 of them, many of which—especially in the last zone—are just recycling assets, including bosses, from earlier areas. That length can be stretched if you’re stopping to admire subtle things like the way, say, that each character dons some sort of swimwear—like an inflatable tube or snorkeling goggles—when they jump into water. But this is a review of Kirby Star Allies, not an appreciation of a Kirby Fashion Show, so despite the beauty of the clockwork scythes and falling asteroids, it’d be far better if they served a more dangerous function.
You can defeat bosses in dozens of ways, with fiery whips or frigid yo-yos or the swift and colorful stroke of a paintbrush, but the effects of all these moves are largely the same. A sword may handle differently than a broom or hammer, but the game doesn’t require mastery of these abilities, only that someone—you or an A.I. ally—mashes the attack button. (The one exception, a showdown with the armored Big Mama, is a highlight, as you have to use a cutting skill to slice off the baddie’s vulnerable arms and subsequently ignite the limbs using a fiery attack.) When all is said and done, Kirby’s powers are diluted when spread out across four players, yielding a more carefree experience. Meaning that in the case of Kirby Star Allies, sharing isn’t caring.