How does a woolly Yoshi Amiibo stand up? It's something that Eurogamer's Wesley Yin-Poole likes to ask me when he thinks he is being funny. The truth, of course, is that there is more than wool to the little toys - a structure hidden beneath the surface. Yoshi's Woolly World, the game that those toys work with, is similar. Its exterior hides something else as well, although the answer to what lies beneath is a little more complicated.
If Woolly World looks somewhat familiar then you're probably thinking of the similarly charming Wii platformer Kirby's Epic Yarn. Indeed, the two share a developer in frequent Nintendo collaborator Good-Feel (who also worked on Wario Land: The Shake Dimension).
Like Epic Yarn, Woolly World's levels feel like they have been stitched together like tapestry, each area a patchwork of fibres, zips, pockets and buttons that players can interact with and romp over, marvelling at how surfaces and objects unspool and untie themselves at a touch (or lick) of Yoshi's tongue.
Much of the gameplay is centred around you exploring this aspect by picking your way through side-scrolling levels often by unpicking the very levels themselves. And even if your path is clear, the world is so full of collectibles and secrets that it's easy to get stuck in an area you already know your way out of, simply trying to figure out how to reach something in plain sight.
Woolly World's first group of levels even plays similar to Epic Yarn, Yoshi maneuvering his way past knitted obstacles and crocheted creatures, which you can either jump on to defeat or gobble up to earn wool for your collection (more on that later). But the game is at its best when it is at its most surprising - when it suddenly switches Yoshi's standard platforming sections for more inspired moments. In Good-Feel's earlier game, Kirby could transform into a car, parachute or submarine. In Woolly World, Yoshi can rearrange his stitching in a similar manner, to knit himself into a free floating umbrella or other items. But such breaks only offer brief excursions from the platforming norm.
And it is in this platforming norm that the game begins to show its true colours. By mid-way through the game's second world, its difficulty has ramped up noticeably. Underneath Woolly World's woven exterior, it turns out, lies a surprisingly demanding platformer - one that quickly tasks you with mastering Yoshi's finicky floaty jumps and combining it with other necessities. Pretty soon you'll be gobbling up enemies while in mid-air, firing them back at opponents, aiming just right to get that item you need to progress.
In my playthrough of the first three worlds I tried to record as complete a run as possible, but doing so was hampered by the fact that any collectibles you have picked up in a specific section are reset when you lose a life. That would be fair enough if checkpoints did not feel so sparse that often large sections or earlier stages of a puzzle need to be repeated when I had fallen only at the final hurdle.
This is especially a problem when backtracking is needed as well - more often than not, in order to pick up more of the woollen projectiles that Yoshi carries around with him. You can hold around a half dozen of these wool balls at any one time, which bob along behind you like a line of bouncing ducklings. But they run out fast, and you constantly need a good supply to spit out and aim at the environment, knit platforms in specific places, knock down flying enemies, trigger secrets and dismantle traps.
Maintaining this stock of wool can sometimes be a challenge, although more can be created by gobbling up enemies and, er, doing whatever Yoshi does to eject them out again. You can also get more wool at a small number of sewing baskets dotted around a level. But this resource is too easy to run out of, and the baskets you need are often a ways back from where they are needed. It means that you can can come to areas where if you fail a shot and have gobbled up all the enemies around, trekking backwards is then required.
But the sections where I was really left bemused was when the way forward was hidden behind scenery without any obvious clue where to look, and only by trial and error did I find the main path. Such hidden areas are fine for secrets or collectibles, but when jumping against random walls is needed to finish a level, something isn't quite right.
It's easy to focus on these things but harder to explain why they aren't as damning as they may sound. Back to that exterior, then - the disarmingly good-looking world that Nintendo and Good-feel have woven for you to explore. Wrapped in that coating, the game is still a joy to play - even if you might find yourself giving up on all the collectible-grabbing to get to the end of levels faster. Seemingly in preparation for such criticisms Nintendo has added a "Mellow Mode" where Yoshi has wings, and can float through levels making the whole experience a great deal easier.
Just like its knitted Amiibo companions, Yoshi's Woolly World offers a charming exterior that covers a solid structure and plenty of technology - but there's more to the game than its soft and cutesy looks. Its difficulty may be loved by some, although niggling gameplay issues cause the attraction of its levels to slightly unravel.
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