Kirby and the Forgotten Land is an absolute delight of a game, from its opening moments until the credits roll. HAL Laboratory’s first mainline 3D entry in its long-running, Nintendo-exclusive series isn’t quite in the same class as the Marios Galaxy and Odyssey, but it puffs its perfectly cute cheeks out with near-endless imagination, swells its chest with entirely earned pride at being so special, and floats on a breeze of cool calm that fully takes the player away from the brutal realities of the everyday and into enthralling fantasy landscapes.
The game begins with our pink puffball protagonist whisked away from his home of Planet Popstar to some strange world full of Earth-like landscapes bearing the impact of some kind of apocalyptic event. Already, the tone is a mixed one – this is a Kirby game, so the colours dance vividly (especially on the OLED screen) and the music sparkles with catchy earworm qualities, but there’s something disquieting about these levels, scattered as they are with shattered structures and abandoned abodes. Roads are cracked, walls and streets reclaimed by a spread of bright green and rainbow blooms. And all around, beasts roam, ready to attack, to kill. And in the middle of all of this, the curious case of many hundreds of missing Waddle Dees.
Because it’s not only Kirby who’s arrived into this alien environment – the Waddle Dees, widespread inhabitants of Popstar and disciples of Kirby’s sometime enemy King Dedede, have been transported too, and an alarming number of them have been captured by the aggressors of the game, the Beast Pack. And so begins our adventure with Kirby: a quest to rescue the trapped Waddle Dees and return them to the safe hub area of Waddle Dee Town; to discover the leader behind the Beast Pack and give them a walloping; and to find some way to return to Popstar. Alongside Kirby floats a new character, the large-eared and chinchilla-like Elfilin, who appears to be native to this world; and a co-op partner can join in on any level too, playing as a bandana-clad and spear-wielding Waddle Dee, who’ll simply be chilling back in Town when not called upon.
Kirby and the Forgotten Land follows the moment-to-moment gameplay formula laid down by this series way back in 1992’s debut offering, Kirby’s Dream Land – you inhale enemies and objects to turn them into projectiles to fire towards other adversaries. Suck, store, spit. Kirby can jump, as all good platforming heroes should, and retains his ability to float for short periods, important for crossing dangerous terrain in levels and reaching semi-hidden secret areas. When an enemy possesses a particular characteristic, such as being able to throw bombs, breathe fire or plump themselves up into a spiny sea urchin-like ball of needle-sharp death, Kirby adopts its abilities once swallowed – and every ability in the game can be upgraded in Waddle Dee Town by discovering its relevant blueprints and parting with both star coins and special star-shaped stones, which are won by completing bonus stages in each section of the game’s gorgeous overworld.
Upgrading these abilities a few times over makes completing the main game pretty effortless even on its “more challenging” Wild Mode difficulty setting – but anyone who is struggling with a tricky boss or testing level full of deadly obstacles can switch at any time to Spring-Breeze Mode, which gives you extra health and more time to complete those star-stone-rewarding bonus stages. By the time I rolled credits on Kirby’s new adventure, after around ten hours of play, I’d levelled up the fire ability to a state where many bosses could be cheesed with ease, via either a constant plume of pink flame or a swooping dragon-like attack. These huge enemies are made easier still with a double health bar being available for just 300 star coins once Waddle Dee Town is rebuilt to a certain level – the more Waddle Dees you save, the more stores and facilities, challenges and collectibles open up. It’s a place to earn coins by doing jobs or competing at the boss-rush colosseum (oh hey, Meta Knight), buy capsule toys to fill out your collection (these are also hidden in levels), and fish, if fishing is your thing. The town’s mini-games aren’t too much to get excited about, but they’re there and welcomed, plus Wise Waddle Dee will fill you in on your stats so far and give you hints on where to find upgrade blueprints.
The big new feature in Forgotten Land is Mouthful Mode, where Kirby inhales something massive, many times his size, and stretches his skin around it, contorting and twisting his body to become… A car, or a vending machine that fires drinks cans at enemies, or a set of stairs that can tip over onto oncoming baddies, or a traffic cone that can kill giant turtle beasts that are wearing buildings as shells, obviously. The first few worlds of the game introduce new Mouthful Mode opportunities with such regularity that it’s a thrill every time one presents itself – a light bulb, a scissor lift, a rollercoaster. It’s not quite like Super Mario Odyssey where an incredible Cappy-based ability will be introduced in a level and then never seen again, as all Mouthful Modes repeat as the game progresses; but the way they’re used, often in conjunction with other environmental elements to present briefly perplexing puzzle sections, is dazzlingly smart and showcases the developers at HAL having an absolute ball with the possibilities they’ve given themselves.
At the end of each stage, Kirby will release three or so Waddle Dees from a cage. But there’s so much more to find every time you start a new level. There are further hidden Waddle Dees, some of which are only unlocked by fulfilling secret requirements that only reveal themselves after a level is finished, encouraging you to replay it to save them all. Capsule toys can be found, likewise ability blueprints, and there are often secret areas to stroll or float over to, full of star coins. There’s no timer to worry about, so you can take these levels at your leisure (I mean, when there aren’t boulders bouncing towards you, or Beast Pack grunts closing in from all sides), poking around and exploring each section until you’re satisfied. Sometimes Kirby will become trapped in a squared-off area and have to battle a mini-boss, or a few waves of enemies, to progress; but these are rarely as testing as the end boss of each world, which progress from a very angry giant ape hanging out at a mall to a circus tent-clambering cat with lethal Wolverine-like claws, and more that I am absolutely not going to spoil for you.
What I will say is that the game’s underlying unease steadily rises the deeper you get – and what starts as a colourful platformer with hints of Pokémon alongside its unexpectedly The Last of Us-like inspirations (there’s no way this game’s devs aren’t fans of Naughty Dog’s series) moves closer and closer towards something that’s borderline, well, horrific. Which is to say this game goes to places I never saw coming, even when I was seconds away from seeing such unsettling visions. None of it’s anything that’d really scare small children – the game is rated PEGI 7, so it’s not about to rival Resident Evil for nightmare fuel – but it’s certainly not cute and cuddly in its later stages – whereas that’s the whole mood until the end of the fourth world, when Kirby journeys to a new part of the planet called the Forbidden Island. It’s rare that everything is well in a place with forbidden in its name, huh.
Final boss cleared, a look at my save file tells me I’ve achieved only 70% completion – which is to say that there are further Waddle Dees for me to find, more secrets to discover, and that there’s other content here that I am not going to detail or Nintendo’s lawyers will be knocking at my door (some things are best left as a surprise). So that ten hours to beat the game isn’t the full story at all – I’ve still so much to see and do, but I’m going to wait a while to hit it because the strongest worry I had during my review-period play was that I’d see everything Forgotten Land had to offer way too quickly. It’s a game that’s so fantastic to play around in, such a treat to spend time with, that you almost want to ration your sessions to make it last. I intend to play through the whole game again at a more casual pace, in co-op with my kids, because that adds a whole other dynamic to proceedings – Bandana Waddle Dee is a very useful companion, who lacks any ability-copying powers but sure has some showy moves with that spear of his.
Kirby’s long been there when it comes to Nintendo’s most commonly seen characters – 2022 is his 30th anniversary, indeed. But I’ve never really felt like any one Kirby game has elevated the character and his series to the status of Mario, Metroid, or Zelda. There have been several very good games, covering a wide array of genres, but perhaps no out-and-out classic, a title that went beyond appealing primarily to already invested fans of HAL’s creations. Kirby and the Forgotten Land should be that title, though. It deserves to do for Kirby what Super Mario 64 did for Nintendo’s mascot, and what Ocarina of Time achieved for Link’s adventures across Hyrule. It’s that good, that accomplished, that slick and sumptuous and gosh-darn spectacular, and represents a near-essential addition to any Switch collection regardless of your usual tastes in games.
It’s not perfect – some of the camera angles suck (c’mon, 3D platforming, you’ve had decades to get this right), and not all the copy abilities are all that well explained (though you can quickly enough work them out). But it’s so close, and will be a genuine Game of the Year contender not only for Switch but in the context of the whole spectrum of experiences releasing in 2022. Elden Ring? Yeah it’s great and everything, no doubt – but you can’t transform your Tarnished into a sentient water balloon and explode gigantic poisonous bullfrogs, can you? Exactly.
Pros: glorious looking and sounding, intuitive to play, loads of secrets to discover, rich imagination runs through every single level, so many moments of genuine wonderment and just a little WTF-ness too
Cons: some tricky moments are made trickier by the camera… I guess it’s not Super Mario Galaxy?