[29 November 2010]
PopMatters Associate Multimedia Editor
If there is such a thing as too adorable, Kirby might be it.
The unapologetic sugary sweetness of Kirby is both attractive and resistant, depending on your age and possibly your gender. This is not to say that older male players should be hitting the back button on their browsers right now out of shame. However, as the Game Overthinker once spoke passionately about, there’s nothing embarrassing about adoring the little pink marshmallow (“A Kirby Confession”, The Game Overthinker, April 2, 2008). As with Kirby’s previous titles, Epic Yarn marries its cutesy-poo aesthetic with some fantastic platforming and puzzles, creating what is one of the most rewardingly unique Wii titles of 2010.
The development story goes that Good-Feel designed Epic Yarn as an original IP, but it was decided after early build testing that a recognizable franchise character was needed to tie together the gameplay. How this changeover worked into the implementation is not as seamless as one might hope; I might even call it poorly stitched together, except I’m quickly running out of sewing puns as it is. In the opening cutscenes, a paper cutout Kirby swallows a bad bit of tomato from a knitting needle-wielding villain named Yin-Yarn, after which Kirby falls into a piece of Patch Land, which apparently “feels like pants.”
Yes, the script is at times so weird and exploitable that you kind of feel sorry for it but that in turn lends Epic Yarn part of its charm. The other major component, of course, are its adorable visuals. You could as effectively claim Kirby had landed in LittleBigPlanet (with Stephen Fry’s scrumptious narration suspiciously absent) and come up with much the same experience. But if it were possible, Epic Yarn manages to be even cuter with less than LittleBigPlanet‘s offerings. There is no build mode nor online community to speak of, but for the childlike craftsy look, it unquestionably ties into the craze. Everything is bright, stylized, and if possible, made of chocolate and sprinkles. I think I developed a few cavities just from playing it. Also, I seem to have suspiciously taken up knitting.
Swapping out Kirby’s suction and absorption abilities for a more textile-based array of powers, the essential gameplay is still as accessible as always. Controls can be picked up even by the most uninitiated, and one of the greatest flourishes of Epic Yarn is the versatility in offering multiple solutions to many of its puzzles. You won’t need to master all skills, but you’ll be adequately trained in them before completing even a quarter of the story mode, such is the intelligence behind each obstacle-laden level.
Being designed with young and beginning players in mind, Epic Yarn does a generally good job of balancing its hards and softs. It’s impossible to die, but it can also be exceptionally difficult to get a great score. That being said, if there’s one real criticism that I have of the game, it’s that its level sequences do a rather poor job of providing a smooth gradation of difficulty. Players start out with a rather simplistic obstacle course for the first few levels or so, but then the scale starts to vacillate wildly, spiking in difficulty and then descending to what I could only describe as “gimme” levels. While it won’t cause the experienced player to hurl his Wiimote against a wall, for young and beginning players it seems to present the user with more brick walls than are warranted.
One boss earns my particular ire. Squashini, the jack-o-lantern magician from Toy Land, has a set of circulating attacks telegraphed by a slot machine, but the boss stage itself offers very few hints about how to solve the attacks. One especially, the hat trick, had no pattern that I could suss out at all, leaving me to spend something like four times the amount of time defeating it as I would any other boss. And that would include several boss stages that showed up after it.
We write a lot nowadays about the principles of game design in providing players the right amount of guide posts. It’s a difficult balance to strike between holding a player’s hand and leaving them mired in an unproductive loop, but neither extreme (the golden path in Fable III on one end and Absolute Virtue from Final Fantasy XI on the other) tends to come out looking very pretty. While a challenge should always be a welcomed thing in any platformer, challenge should never bear out of bad construction alone. There are places in Kirby’s Epic Yarn where better prep, better signalling, or both are needed to streamline the play experience.
That being said, as set pieces, all the levels are individually strong. The bosses are a bit too much of an afterthought and could have benefitted from better development, but they aren’t enough to mar the overall play experience. Just keep in mind that if you are buying this for the young gamer in your family, you might be asked to help out on a level of two.
Which brings us finally to the two-player co-op. While not as easy to drop in and out as in the Lego games, the two-player mode in Epic Yarn does make a great deal of the platforming easier, especially as one player can use the other as a projectile. It can nevertheless get a little bothersome as puzzles start to expand vertically as well as horizontally and players must remain on a considerably small patch of screen or else face a loss of control for a while. Arguably, as there’s no single puzzle that absolutely requires two people, the co-op mode may start to feel perfunctory. While it’s unquestionably fun to muck about levels with a friend, it definitely seems far more useful as a carrying device, allowing a more seasoned gamer to lend a helping hand for someone more inexperienced. The absence of any online co-op is sorely felt, as well.
Gorgeous visuals, charming music and sound effects, versatile gameplay, and strong replay value nevertheless make this a great winter contender. The absence of a fine-tuned gradation of difficulty may frustrate young players just as the preschool style might turn away some older players, but you can’t really resist something this cute, can you? Despite being frayed around the edges, Kirby’s Epic Yarn is long, colorful, well-woven, and won’t shrink in the wash.