HAL Laboratory - the studio that has been responsible for Kirby's franchise for many years now - has surprised us once again, at least from an artistic point of view.
After developing creatively stimulating games such as Kirby: Power Paintbrush, the studio has this time opted for the claymation technique (a particular method of animation whereby characters and backgrounds are made entirely of clay) to create Kirby and the Rainbow Paintbrush, a delightful new platformer that sees the return of Nintendo's beloved pink ball, nearly a year after its last adventure on Nintendo 3DS, Kirby: Triple Deluxe.
While this new experience with Kirby has dazzled us with some beautiful graphics, some concerns remain, those that had already surfaced during our time spent with preview builds of the game, specifically those regarding the choice of the GamePad being the exclusive means of controlling Kirby, and all the consequences therein. But we're getting ahead of ourselves.
The plot that underpins Kirby and the Rainbow Paintbrush is very simple, but at the same time it serves as a good narrative engine for our adventure. A mysterious giant hand plunges suddenly from the sky, opening a huge chasm through which all the colours of the world are sucked. Every tree, character and the entire surrounding world - including our heroic ball and its trusty friend Waddle Dee Helper - falls victim of this spell, a spell that turns everything into sinister grey statues. But suddenly, from the same chasm, a little fairy called Elline appears, and, after transforming into a brush and re-painting Kirby and Waddle Dee, frees them from the spell. Together, Kirby and the magical brush start their journey to restore order to the world and defeat this evil colour-sapping threat.
Since our first preview we've been really impressed by the excellent work done by HAL Laboratory with regards to the visuals. The use of the claymation technique fits perfectly with the fairytale element that characterises this game. As in the previous instalments developed by HAL Laboratory - the aforementioned Kirby: Power Paintbrush and Kirby's Epic Yarn - in Kirby and the Rainbow Paintbrush we're treated to another unique angle, one which pervades throughout the world, expressed in the smallest of details. Yet, its clay charm is simultaneously its fortune and its curse, because the player controlling Kirby is unable to fully enjoy the wonderful show that unfolds in front of their eyes. This is down to the - in our opinion questionable - decision to use the GamePad as the one and only control system for the single-player adventure.
Using the GamePad's touchscreen we can draw a rainbow-line that allows our favourite pink ball to roll and move across the scenery. In addition, if executed properly, the line allows Kirby to reach the most unlikely of places in order to collect bonuses and stars, the latter helping our pink friend turn into a giant clay ball, a mutation that is useful for accessing areas blocked by heavy obstacles.
Yet, even if this control system feels intuitive, easy to use and responsive, it forces us to keep our eyes glued to GamePad's screen, causing us to miss out on more than half of the fun and beauty inherent in this game. If this second-screen solution worked fine on DS - as in Power Paintbrush - the application of it on Wii U feels sluggish, leaving us completely unsatisfied. This frustration is heightened when enjoying the game with a second player, as they'll enjoy the game in all its beauty on the big screen of the TV.
Another aspect that, at least in single-player mode, hasn't convinced us fully, is the rather relaxed pace of Kirby's adventure. Even if it's never overly simple and each level requires us to look hard in each and every corner so as to collect as many stars and treasures as possible (the latter intended to unlock figurines and tracks from Kirby's soundtrack) - a mechanism that provides a sort of longevity in the game - Kirby and the Rainbow Paintbrush is extremely linear, where dying (especially if you are playing in single-player mode) is rather impossible.
The pace becomes slightly faster in cooperative mode, where the second player plays Waddle Dee Helper, using the Wiimote held horizontally. What enables this multiplayer mode to have a quicker pace is the level of coordination required between the two players; one player allows the other to move and progress through the level. Unlike the single-player mode, coop isn't particularly immediate and intuitive, and there were some frustrating moments during our experience. However, after a little time with the training wheels on, playing Kirby and the Rainbow Paintbrush with a friend is certainly the funnier and perhaps even more interesting mode, simply because you can then leverage the individual skills of each character (you can see the co-op mode in action below)
Overall Kirby's latest outing proves to be a platform game of undoubted quality, primarily because of the care and originality that's gone into the visual side of the game-world and its characters. Maybe it doesn't shine in terms of mechanics and depth when compared to similar games by Nintendo, but the simplicity and linearity that defines the experience makes this an ideal family adventure.
We expected the same level of care taken over the graphics to be taken in other areas; the addition of small - albeit fun - mini-games is not enough to flesh out a rather miserly offering. Plus it's a shame that Nintendo has not used Amiibos properly. They're used in a very limited manner, with the simple and sole purpose of providing a bonus to Kirby. This bonus can be used during a single level and only for a limited period of time (once a day). It's also worth noting that you can only used Kirby-themed Amiibos like Kirby, King Dedede and Meta Knight.
In conclusion, even if Kirby and the Rainbow Paintbrush is a very polished product in nearly every detail, ultimately it fails to fulfill and satisfy in some key aspects. Our hope is that HAL Laboratory rethinks the concept for the next Kirby-themed instalment, in the process delivering a deeper experience, one that doesn't rely so heavily on the second-screen of the Wii U GamePad. Given the pedigree of the studio, we've every expectation that they can do just that.
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