|Release Date||March 25, 2022|
The Kirby franchise is a weird one. In a world of bullet hells, soulslikes, and twitch platformers, the pink puff has stood as a bastion of the “casual gaming” market. Kirby has always provided a fun, gentle platformer that everyone in the family can enjoy, while still catering to more dedicated gamers with additional challenging modes.
It’s that balance of casual and intense that’s always drawn me to the franchise. I’m far from what you’d call a Kirby fanboy, but I’ve played most of the major entries in the series. So when, as if in response to Elden Ring punishing every player that dares to look at it sideways, Nintendo revealed Kirby and the Forgotten Land, I understood the hype. Kirby, at long last, entering the third dimension, and in style at that! A post-apocalyptic setting is a perfect fit for the pink boi; that blend of cute and bleak is a hallmark of the series. So how does Kirby’s first fully 3D adventure pan out?
Violent Content: The final form of a couple of the later bosses could be disturbing to younger players, with glowing eyes and strange and violent powers
Spiritual Content: Those final bosses are possessed by an entity and glow with a mysterious power from their eyes and body.
Kirby and the Forgotten Land finally brings the puff into the third dimension in a mainline game. It feels weird to say that a franchise that’s older than I am has just now gotten its first 3D entry, but HAL Laboratory hasn’t really been known for innovation when it comes to their flagship series. For a while, it felt like they were more interested in shoving random gimmicks on top of their solid platforming core than they were in actually giving us something new. So while it may feel a little odd to rave about 3D environments in 2022, they are a welcome addition to the series, though definitely a few years overdue.
Kirby and the Forgotten Land opens as many Kirby games do: with our hero peacefully waddling in a field. Without warning, a vortex opens above him, sucking everything off the face of Planet Popstar into its gaping maw. Kirby hops aboard a Warp Star to try to outrun the vortex, but it’s no use. As he’s pulled into the portal, he twists and turns into strange shapes, on his way to an entirely new world.
When Kirby wakes up, he’s on a shoreline surrounded by dense woods. The Kirby franchise has always been pretty, and this game goes to show how perfect the series is for showing off what the Switch can really do. As hardware ages, developers get the hang of its quirks and learn how to best optimize it. And it’s for this reason that I’m actually glad it’s taken HAL this long to make a true 3D mainline Kirby game, because this game is GORGEOUS. Colors shine, water glistens, and sand particles fly up as Kirby’s feet kick them about. The whole game pops like a vibrant painting, and it’s just a pleasure just to look at it.
That graphical fidelity in turn allows the titular Forgotten World to shine in all its splendor. Dilapidated cityscapes unfold before you like Hyrule in Breath of the Wild, with the noonday sun gleaming over all of it. A frozen London-esque town sparkles in icy glory. A derelict oil rig reflects off cerulean ocean waves. Far from being a downer, this apocalypse is downright VRBO-ready. Every level is a treat to explore, and it’s always fun to see what the game has planned next. The levels are themed by world, but there’s good variety within each world. You’ll go from a crowded downtown to a shut-down subway tunnel to a shopping mall all in the course of a few levels.
And, impressively, it all looks sharper than just about any game I’ve played on the Switch. It’s no secret that the Switch is underpowered when looking at its same-generation brethren, but Kirby and the Forgotten Land goes to show that there’s a lot to be said for art style. Everything looks crisp and clear, even on a 4K TV, and that holds true when downscaled to 720p for handheld mode.
All this, however, makes one flaw glaringly obvious. HAL managed to siphon every bit of graphical flair they could out of the Switch’s hardware, but at the cost of framerate being dependent on distance to the camera. Enemies and landscapes more than a few feet away from Kirby drop to a frame rate that leaves them looking more like a Wallace & Gromit cartoon than a 2022 Switch release. It doesn’t impact gameplay at all, but it’s definitely jarring to have the game open up a beautiful world to you, only for everything remotely distant from you to look like it’s struggling to keep up.
But the polish goes beyond just the graphics. Kirby’s gameplay has been in need of an upgrade for a while, and thankfully, this is what really makes Kirby and the Forgotten Land worth playing. While it keeps the linear progression of previous entries, the fact that it does away with the traditional 2D scope of the game opens up a surprising amount of exploration. You’ll always be moving from a start to an end, but there will be plenty of side paths, hidden areas, and more waiting for you along the way.
To incentivize that exploration, the game hides various Waddle Dees in every level. There are always between three to five Waddle Dees to simply find hidden in every level, giving away their positions with a telltale “ooh-wa!” But in addition to just finding the Waddle Dees, another three or four are hidden behind missions that Kirby must complete in each level. These range from taking down wanted posters to eating various kinds of foods to beating minibosses with a particular Copy ability. The twist is: you don’t know what these missions are before you do the level. Odds are, you’ll end up completing at least one by simply playing through the level if you’re a thorough explorer. But get to the end of the level, and one of the previously unknown missions will reveal itself. You’ll probably need to play each level at least twice to get all the missions; some of them took me over three or four plays to get EVERYTHING.
This could easily allow the game to get monotonous, but the levels are short enough, and varied enough, that it never feels like too much of a chore to go back and mop up the last few Waddle Dees. In fact, some of the missions are so in-depth that playing a level with them in mind takes an entirely different strategy than before, keeping things fresh. This mission-based format is a perfect fit for the Kirby series. It offers a nice blend between the focused, linear gameplay the series is known for with some of the open-world goals of something like Super Mario Odyssey.
Even the Copy abilities, which have been a staple of the series since the second game, have gotten a bit of a twist. In case you’ve been living under a suspiciously pink rock, Kirby can inhale and swallow enemies to copy their abilities. At first, the game gives you all the abilities we’re used to, including Cutter, Bomb, Fire, and so on. But as you progress, you’ll find various side levels that test your skills with a particular ability by putting you on a timed obstacle course. Finish in the allotted time, and you’ll be awarded a Rare Stone, which can be used at Waddle Dee Village to upgrade your abilities.
These upgrades aren’t merely increases to damage; they build and improve on every aspect of the ability you’re upgrading. It was always a little exciting to see what ability would come next and how I could use it, and it made collecting all the Rare Stones even more enjoyable. The upgraded abilities, in turn, unlock their own challenge stages, giving you a chance to really master them.
But of course, I’m ignoring the elephant in the room. Remember that twisting and turning that Kirby went through on his way to the Forgotten World? Turns out, he’s gained a new ability: Mouthful Mode. Throughout your adventure, you’ll come across various objects that sparkle to life when Kirby approaches them. Inhale them, and Kirby will wrap his body around them and take control in brand new ways. From cars to giant road cones to park gates, the entire world seems to be edible to Kirby, and this allows for some challenges to be specifically designed around these abilities. You’ll be racing down amusement park speedways, gliding over the ocean, and drilling through dilapidated highways depending on which object you’ve found. Far from feeling like a random gimmick, Mouthful Mode allows the game to switch things up often enough that you never really know what to expect. And crucially, it’s not overused, so I never got tired of finding another Mouthful Challenge awaiting me.
Though it may feel a little like I’ve been gushing, there’s still a lot I haven’t even touched on. The soundtrack, like most Kirby games, is phenomenal, really capturing the feel of every stage. The side modes in Waddle Dee Village allow for a nice break from the main game. The post-game content still has me coming back for one more session.
All of this, from the new abilities to the graphics to the excellent soundtrack, makes Kirby and the Forgotten Land one of the strongest first-party Nintendo releases on the Switch. It is the Super Mario Odyssey and Breath of the Wild of the Kirby franchise, and that’s not an exaggeration. If you have any interest at all in Kirby, this game is worth a play. I was constantly smiling at the world I got to explore and all the interesting things in it. It’s pure joy, which is something that Kirby has always excelled at offering. Plus, it’s decently difficult, at least for a Kirby game. True, it’s no Elden Ring, but I did die a couple of times, which is more than I can say for Star Allies.
The only objection I can offer to this game is that if you consider yourself a hardcore gamer in any way, it’s not going to challenge you or make you a more skillful player. But it’s just a lot of fun, and in a world where people are obsessed with metagaming and min-maxing character builds, it’s nice to come back to Popstar and just explore with Kirby. And let me be clear: this is the highest Kirby has ever hovered in his 30-year run.
The Bottom Line
Kirby and the Forgotten Land takes the puffball to new heights in every way, breathing new life into a beloved franchise and innovating at every step.