Version tested: Wii
Plenty of games promise to tell you a story, but Kirby's Epic Yarn is one of the few that literally does so. The game opens with an avuncular man narrating the tale of Kirby's descent into Patch World. There's no voice-acting cast. Instead, like story hour at the local library, the narrator just changes his voice as he reads the lines of each character: a bit squeakier for Kirby and a bit more serious for Kirby's new friend, Prince Fluff. It's a perfectly analogue intro to an analogue game.
Nearly everything in Patch World is made of stuff you'd expect to find in your grandmother's sewing bag: buttons, beads, felt, patches, and countless threads of yarn. Yes, deep down, it's all pixels. Epic Yarn makes it easy to forget that, though, because the fabric of the game is so tactile. Plush parts of the ground give way a little when Kirby walks across them, and yanking on a loose thread makes the attached landscape scrunch up, accordion-style. My favourite effect is when Kirby jumps behind the background, and his figure pokes out as a moving lump in the felt scenery, like a cat scurrying around under the bed covers.
An early cut-scene breaks the news that Kirby's trademark ability – aggressive inhalation of his foes – won't work in Epic Yarn. Because he's just a loop of fibre while he's in Patch World, any gulps of air pass right through him. What may strike long-time Kirby fans as a fundamental change turns out to be inconsequential. Kirby's shtick was always more about transformation, anyway – sucking air was a means to that end – and the little pink dude can still reincarnate himself in new forms, like an acrobatic dolphin or a spaceship complete with tractor beam.
The structure of the game is nothing extraordinary. It's a platformer, and an easygoing one at that. When you fall into a trap or get hit by an enemy, you lose some of the beads (i.e. currency) you've collected on that level, the same way that Sonic's rings fly everywhere when he takes a knock on the head. Except, even if you run out of beads, there's no way to die. You just dust yourself off and keep going. The truth is that most players will be able to breeze through, as Epic Yarn is rather easy.
Challenge doesn't enter into the appeal here; the fun part is exploring the visual and kinetic surprises invented by the developers (which include an outfit by the ridiculously appropriate name of Good-Feel). Practically every stage has a "wow!" moment in which some new bit of crafting kit appears and adds an unexpected dimension to the patchwork tapestry.
Whether it's a zipper that Kirby can pull back to reveal a hidden passageway or a towering "cake" made from fluffy polyester stuffing, Patch World perpetually endears itself to the player with adorable new details. Every time I was delighted anew, I thought that surely this time, the game had exhausted its bag of tricks. I wasn't prepared for such a virtuoso show of creativity.
The most inspired twists come when Kirby metamorphoses into one of his countless alter egos. The game often changes along with the hero, so for instance, when he becomes a dune buggy, the level seamlessly turns into a fast-paced off-road rally. Likewise, Dolphin Kirby has to out-swim a speedy woollen angler-fish through a narrow obstacle course. These quicker stretches provide a welcome complement to the game's usual lazy rhythm.
Not all of Kirby's alternate forms hit the mark. His appearance as a train, which requires the player to draw "tracks" on the screen with the Wiimote, is an awkward exercise that feels like nothing more than an attempt to justify the Wii's motion-sensing technology. In fact, with just a few tweaks, the entire game could easily work with the Classic Controller. Epic Yarn instead toes the Nintendo company line, which maintains that holding the Wiimote sideways is an acceptable configuration, despite its too-small directional pad and ungainly candy-bar shape.
The co-op mode, though, shows that the Epic Yarn team was willing to learn from Nintendo's past mistakes. In any stage, two people can play together (locally) on the same screen as Kirby and Prince Fluff. Each character has essentially the same freedom and abilities. In certain sections, the game merges the team into one unit and splits the control scheme between the two controllers, forcing you to co-ordinate your moves. Team play rarely suffers from the claustrophobia that plagued New Super Mario Bros. Wii, nor is the second player a vestigial appendage as in the Super Mario Galaxy series.
Epic Yarn doesn't have the aural pleasures to match its eye candy. Each stage has its music track stashed away somewhere as a hidden treasure – if you find the tiny felt CD, you can listen to it again later. The tunes are too innocuous, though, for this to serve as an enticing reward.
A home-decoration side game is another non-starter. You can fill Kirby's flat with little items of furniture you find during your quest, but this poor man's Animal Crossing is a diversion only for the easily amused.
The game that kept coming to mind as I played through Kirby's Epic Yarn was not any of the past Kirby entries, but rather Little Nemo The Dream Master, an NES game from 1990. Both titles featured fantastical settings with loveable heroes who could take on a variety of new forms. (Some of Nemo's magical costumes included a gorilla and a hermit crab.)
Little Nemo, however, was a notoriously challenging game (even by the standards of the NES era), while Kirby's Epic Yarn rolls out its embroidered welcome mat to every calibre of player. That ultra-accessibility does mean that there are points where the game flirts with monotony, as the basic push-and-pull of the action doesn't evolve too much from start to finish. The flip side is that practically anyone can pore over every stitch of Patch World – and it's a visual masterpiece that will reward the attention.
8 / 10
Kirby's Epic Yarn is available now in North America. It will be released in Europe in early 2011.