Kirby Star Allies review: Friendship is Magic

You can always count on Kirby games to be innovative, even within the relatively narrow confines of a 2D platformer. Every game since the first had brought creative new ideas into the fold, going beyond simple sequels to make each game feel like its own unique thing. Kirby Star Allies is no exception, building a clever cooperative game around classic Kirby platforming.

Like most games before it, Kirby’s Copy Ability is central to Star Allies. By inhaling and swallowing an enemy, the pink puff hero transforms into a Kirby-fied version of that enemy, complete with a new look and fresh set of abilities. Copy Blade Knight, for example, and Kirby gains a little green hat and a sword, along with a handful of different slashing attacks; as well as helping fight other enemies, these new attacks can cut grass and ropes, leading the way to secrets and collectibles.

This time around, though, you can befriend enemies as well as copying them; by doing so, you create a party of up to four different heroes, each with a different skill set. You might have, say, Kirby with those sword abilities, the fire-breathing Burning Leo (who can light the wicks of cannons), the hammer-wielding Bonkers (who can hit heavy switches and break certain walls), and the electric Plugg (who can activate electrical devices). With all of those in your party at once, you have all those abilities at the ready. ready to tackle any of a number of different environmental obstacles.

Perhaps more crucial are the “Friend Abilities” that come from combining two others. Most of the weapon abilities can be augmented with elemental properties: Burning Leo can add flames to Blade Knight’s sword or Jammerjab’s staff, Chilly can add ice effects, and so on. With the aid of a wind ally like Broom Hatter or Birdon, the boomerang-throwing Sir Kibble can throw its blade in different trajectories, cutting throw ropes that would otherwise be out of reach. There’s a handful of these different Friend Abilities to uncover and make use of, and doing so is crucial to making your way through the game.

The levels in Kirby Star Allies are all built around finding and using the right combination of abilities to overcome various puzzles in a way that a solo Kirby never could. Fortunately, the game’s designed in such a way that you can’t ever lock yourself out of progress, at least through a level’s main path. You can always find enemies with the appropriate abilities in the lead up to a given puzzle, and most levels are designed around a few key skills. Hidden areas leading to collectibles are more missable, but even then, all the enemies you need can be find within the same level. As long as you pay attention, you’ll find everything without too much back and forth.

Most levels also have at least one “Friend Platform”, which require a full party of four to activate. With these, the group combines their powers, Voltron style, to change how you move about the level. With Friend Circle, the party all hold hands and form a circle, before rolling through the level and crushing anything in their way until they hit a wall. Friend Train does a similar thing, albeit in the form of a train—complete with a steam chimney growing out of Kirby’s head. Friend Bridge has the party form a bridge over a chasm, allowing them to guide a key-bearing Key Dee to a locked door. Perhaps the most interesting of the lot, Friend Star has the whole party jump onto a flying star, and the game turns into a sort of shoot-’em-up until the end of that section of the level.

Beyond a purely mechanical level, Kirby Star Allies has a very cooperative ethos underpinning everything. As cheesy as it may sound, the whole game is built around the idea that friendship is magic, and you see that in everything from the teamwork elements to little visual cues in characters’ animations. To befriend an enemy, you literally throw something called a Friend Heart at them, after which you become best buds. The best example is in how you recover your friends’ health: if you pick up a healing item when your own health is full, you can pass that on to an ally in need by walking up to them—at which point your character will automatically give them a health-restoring kiss. <3

All that being the case, Kirby Star Allies is clearly a game made with cooperative multiplayer in mind. With a Joy-Con each, up to four players can play together; player one takes the lead as Kirby, and the others each control one of the befriended foes. It’s a great co-op experience, too—and I say that as someone who generally dislikes multiplayer games. The friend mechanics encourage teamwork, but they don’t demand perfect coordination; even if you make a mistake, you don’t often risk wiping out the whole team and letting your friends down. It’s a rare balance to make cooperative elements meaningful while still keeping things approachable and leaving room for error, and that’s something Star Allies gets spot on.

People who prefer playing solo don’t need to worry, though, because the game works just as well in singleplayer mode. The AI for Kirby’s allies is surprisingly good; they’ll fight enemies, interact with the environment, and combine their abilities where necessary, all of their own accord. If you want more direct control of an AI friend, you can jump on their back and take the reins, though the AI is good enough that I never really felt the need to do so. Obviously, singleplayer lacks that social aspect, but you lose nothing mechanically by playing solo.

My one concern with how co-op is implemented in Star Allies—whether with AI partners or other players—is around boss fights. With four characters on the screen all doing their thing, fights are visually hectic, often to the point of obscuring the boss’s visual tells. I often found myself dismissing one or two friends before a boss, because even with the loss of firepower, it made things easier to deal with. None of the bosses seem designed with cooperation in mind, either; they’re just four players simultaneously attacking the same boss, which feels like a missed opportunity—especially considering how good the levels themselves are at putting friend abilities to good use.

Kirby Star Allies also falls short in its story. Narrative has never really been a strong suit in Kirby, but the latest iteration of “protect the world from an evil power” comes across even weaker than usual thanks to some particularly forgettable villains. Kirby deserves better.

Even so, Kirby Star Allies is a whole lot of fun. The co-op twist on classic Kirby gameplay works wonders whether you’re playing solo or with friends, and each level is a joy to explore. Collectibles and extra modes (including one where you can play through the whole game as an enemy of your choice) mean there’s plenty to see and do, but it’s the creative platforming and puzzles that’ll keep me coming back to Star Allies again and again.

Recommended

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Kirby Star Allies is developed by HAL Laboratory and published by Nintendo. It’s available now for Nintendo Switch.

A copy of the game was supplied by the publisher for this review.

Matthew Codd

Matthew is a writer based in Wellington. He loves all things pop culture, and is fascinated by its place in history and the wider social context.