Sometimes I envy kittens, not just for their cute and playful nature that instantly gives them the attention of all in the room, but also for their uncanny ability to turn mundane, boring objects into things of endless amusement. Things like yarn. Well, apparently Nintendo want everyone to unleash their inner kitten and have given one of their most storied characters a radical facelift. Kirby’s Epic Yarn is a game that strings together (more puns to come) classic 2D platforming and patchwork design to create something truly epic.
As the game opens, rumors are swirling about a mysterious caped wizard that has the power to turn people into yarn. One day, Kirby is out for a stroll when he notices his favorite food, a tomato. Kirby, always the glutton, begins sucking in air with all his might to eat the tomato. Things quickly start to unravel, however, as it turns out that this particular tomato belonged to the wizard Yin Yarn, who uses a magic sock to send Kirby to Patch Land and transforms him into a bit of yarn. Once there, Kirby meets a boy who turns out to be Prince Fluff of Patch Land, who explains to him that Yin Yarn has ripped the land into seven pieces and that only magic yarn will be able to mend the patchwork kingdom.
The story is presented in the manner of a grandfather reading a bedtime story to his young grandchildren, complete with ‘scary’ voices for the monsters and playful giggles for Kirby and Prince Fluff. While the story does a good job of tying together all the loose strings - why Kirby has lost his classic abilities, the new gameplay mechanics, etc. - it can at times feel overly childish, as if the game was written with seven year olds in mind, which could leave some of the gamers who grew up with Kirby’s other epic games feeling left out. This is unfortunate, because although Kirby’s Epic Yarn may be cute and cuddly on the surface, beneath the pant-like exterior lies a deep, fun and unique adventure.
At its plushy core, Kirby’s Epic Yarn is a rather standard 2D platformer. You jump from object to object until you reach the end goal, avoiding enemies and traps along the way. The game only really begins to differentiate itself when it blends the aesthetic and gameplay seamlessly into one another. Yarn, fabric, string, buttons, patches and everything else in the sewing kit, all serve as enhancements to the classic Kirby gameplay with very few items in the environment existing just for their looks.
The controls of Kirby’s Epic Yarn reflect the presentation, in that they are simple and intuitive, yet offer a surprising amount of versatility. You hold the Wii Remote sideways, move Kirby with the ‘D-Pad’, and use the ‘1’ button to control your whip and ‘2’ to jump. Simple. And yet the gameplay changes often enough with new challenges and transformations that you will rarely find yourself getting bored. The game also presents motion controls in a smart and elegant way, with a few of the vehicles requiring you the tilt the controller to aim or to steer. This is a great, non-intrusive way for a game that uses a classic control scheme to implement some of the Wii Remote’s unique features.
Without the ability to inhale entire beings and copy their abilities, Kirby must now rely on a whip of yarn to do his damage, as well as to clear certain obstacles and reach new heights. This yarn is much more versatile than it seems, as Kirby can now fully transform into a wide range of vehicles and objects to traverse the environment. Everything from a dune buggy, to firetruck, dolphin, surfer, UFO, giant tank and much more are a quick transformation of string away. However, don’t think you can just transform into whatever suits your whims, as most transformations are context sensitive and will only last for a brief portion of a specific level. Still, they go a long way to breaking up the action and making the game feel fresh and innovative all the way up to the credits.
My only real gripe with the gameplay in Epic Yarn is in the difficulty - it’s just too easy. When Kirby gets hit he loses the beads he has been collecting (think Sonic and his rings), however, even if Kirby has no beads and takes damage there is no consequence. Fall down a hole? No worries, a friendly imp will lift you back up to safety. There's no punishment for failure and it just makes the game seem like a grind at times, since you can just speed through an area with no regard for your safety.
The most striking element of Kirby’s Epic Yarn is of course the visuals. I still vividly remember sitting in a hotel room in Los Angeles during the game’s unveiling at the Electronic Entertainment Expo and just being in awe at what the designers at Nintendo managed to craft. Now, several months later, I still get that warm and fuzzy feeling when I see the game's carefully stylized patchwork come to life and bring an entirely new element to a series that is almost 20 years old. Everything, from the sky to the characters facial expressions to the tiniest ripple in the fabric water, received such minute attention to detail that it's hard not to congratulate Nintendo on taking a concept that was already shown off in games such as Yoshi’s Story and Paper Mario and taking it above and beyond anything that has been seen before.
Like the world they live in, the characters are all made of yarn, buttons, patches and anything else that can be sewn together, which creates an animation style unlike anything else in video games. The amount of expressions, actions and motions that these characters go through will charm even the most jaded of gamer. The game is also genuinely funny and well written, with many obvious (and some not so obvious) puns about yarn that will definitely put a smile on your face.
From an audio standpoint, the voice work of the narrator is surprisingly solid; you can really feel the emotion that the reader puts into his lines. Sound effects also add a layer of depth to the presentation; zipper pulls, fabric stretches and tears all sound realistic, really making the player feel absorbed in the presentation. The music, however, tends to be lost in the background and serves more as a mood-setter than adding to the series' already classic beats. Unfortunately, most of the songs tend to be quiet, relaxed and frankly boring tracks that actually go as far as to detract from the experience of the game by making some areas seem less exciting than they should.
Kirby’s Epic Yarn runs a decent length, clocking in at just under 10 hours, with several more hours added if gamers decide to collect all the bonus items and complete the side-quests and mini-games, of which there is a ridiculous amount. Most of these consist of simply helping the inhabitants of Patch Land - namely the local landlord - but also include games of hide and seek, enemy hunts and bead collecting. Each level also has you searching for hidden items to place in your apartment and collection beads that determine what ranking (bronze, silver or gold) you receive at the end of the stage.
The game also features a full two player co-op mode where you and a friend (one as Kirby and the other as Prince Fluff) can tackle any of the game's stages together. This does little to change to the actual gameplay and no particular area of the game actually requires two players, however gamers can pick up and carry their partner through harder areas and use their combined skills to reach difficult treasure troves with ease.
Kirby’s Epic Yarn has succeeded in doing something that not many games before it have. It successfully blends the classic Kirby formula with an all-new art style to create a game where the décor is as much a part of the experience as the controls or gameplay. It’s a hybrid of sorts, which forces you to look beyond the established conventions and into your imagination, wondering what the game will throw at you next to change the way you see the path you just crossed. In this sense, Kirby really is epic.