Nintendo's famous Kirby hasn't stared in his own traditional platformer home console video game since the Nintendo 64 era, but now the company (along with developer Good-Feel) has finally brought the pink puffball back into the spotlight with Kirby's Epic Yarn for the Wii. Kirby's a little different than the last time we saw him, however. After picking a fight with the stringy sorcerer Yin-Yarn, our hero has been sucked into the realm of Patch Land where everyone is made of yarn... including Kirby's himself! While Kirby is busy in Patch Land, Yin-Yarn is stirring up trouble of his own in Dream Land with the likes of King Dedede and Meta Knight. Aided by yarny native Prince Fluff, Kirby must reunite the fractured (torn?) Patch Land and return to Dream Land to show Yin-Yarn who's boss. The story unspools over the course of one of the most adorable games to debut this season, giving the Wii a unique old fashioned 2D side-scrolling platformer that can be as easy or as difficult as one wants to make it.
While Kirby's Epic Yarn may look like an over-kiddified game for younger players at first glance, do not be deceived. Yes, the story progresses with the aid of a narrator who sounds like he's reading a child's bedtime story and the characters are all made of yarn and sugary sweetness, there's a strong game happening here just under the surface. Our hero has lost the ability to inhale enemies and gain their powers, but he's picked up the power to grab hold of stringy enemies and either pull them apart or spool them up for use as throwable objects. Moreover, loose threads and zippers populate the landscape, allowing him to yank on scenery to move platforms, open holes in the world for fast travel, and other such interactive things. Very little is what it seems at first glance and much of the platforming involves making use of this unique gimmick. Midway through most levels Kirby transforms into a new form such a dolphin, fire truck, or giant robot for self-contained sequences that shake up the status quo to give a little variety beyond just running and jumping.
The basic goal of each level is to reach the bell at the end, and if all one cares about is getting from Point A to Point B then Yarn ends up being quite the easy game. For you see, Kirby cannot die in this adventure. With enough persistence, it's simple to just plow on through to the finish line. This may suit less experienced players, but the real challenge comes from earning gold medals on each level by collecting plenty of beads along the way. Kirby drops a staggering amount of the collectibles when he takes a hit, meaning that anyone going for the gold will have to take care and play Yarn like traditional platformers: with care, caution, and cunning. Adding to the available challenge are side missions such as time trials and other fun diversions that encourage replay of completed levels. There are even extra levels in each section of Patch Land that can be unlocked after defeating each realm's boss for those who want even more. For those who want to go all out, discoverable furniture can be used to decorate Kirby's Patch Land bachelor pad.
The best thing about Kirby's Epic Yarn has to be its personality. The yarn motif is a fantastic visual departure from what one might expect from a Kirby title, and the use of negative space and basic outlines for each character really show how open our favorite gaming franchises are to interpretation. Kirby himself is beautifully animated in his yarn form, appearing more fluid and dynamic than I believe I've ever seen him. While he doesn't speak to us directly (his dialog is handled by the narrator), he does coo and chirp and make all of the other adorable Kirby noises that we've come to expect from him thanks to his appearances in the Super Smash Bros. series and beyond. The soundtrack matches the soft visuals with plenty of subdued piano work, and while most of the songs are original pieces, you'll find new arrangements of a few familiar themes in the new style scattered here and there. On the whole, Yarn is a joy to take in, and there were moments where I'd had my fill of actual gameplay, but would play just one more level to look at and listen to the game in action. This is not a game that teenagers will want to be seen playing, but those who are mature enough to embrace the adorable aesthetic will find plenty to enjoy here (and, of course, children will love it for what it is at first sight).
Speaking of having one's fill of gameplay, if there's one weak spot in the Yarn experience it's that this is a game to play in small bites. The action can get repetitive if played in long sessions, and I found that after playing four or five levels in a row I was ready to move on to something else for a while. Levels are large enough to take several minutes each to complete, and there were times when my interest began to run out and I just wanted the level I was currently in the middle of exploring to end. Think of it as biting off more than one can chew near the end of a meal.
Overall, Kirby's Epic Yarn is a wonderful experience that offers as much as one wants to get out of it. Less experienced players will be happy to just reach the goal, while pros will want to earn every gold medal and unlock every extra level. Its unique visual style and never-say-die emphasis on challenging players to find the most efficient way to complete levels gives a Yoshi's Island meets Wario Land 2 feel to the adventure. I encourage everyone to at least give it a look just for the visual style alone, but it's highly recommended to fans of the 2D platformer genre who are aching for something new and distinctly different.
Thanks to Nintendo for providing a loaner copy of the game for review.