A spherical humanoid form quivers with exhaustion in the shadow of broken and crumbling skyscrapers. Mixed in with the debris of a ruined civilization and scattered all around our pink hero are the corpses of his painfully adorable slain foes, a pack of Awoofys.
What the heck did I just play?
Jumping from Elden Ring to Kirby and the Forgotten Land turned out to be a more graceful and thematically appropriate leap than I ever would’ve imagined for Nintendo’s ever-smiling, all-consuming mascot. The new Switch game plays like vintage Kirby — you consume and absorb the powers of your enemies to survive combat and solve puzzles — but there’s an unexpectedly dark twist.
The titular “forgotten land” is a filthy and overgrown post-apocalypse littered with visible remnants of a lost, seemingly modern human(?) civilization. Every level you run through unfolds in the midst of rundown residential neighborhoods, rusted-over bridges, and abandoned shopping malls. It all feels simultaneously familiar and alien. It definitely does not feel like your typical cheery Nintendo paradise.
It sure plays like one, though. For those new to the Kirby experience, Forgotten Land works like many other 3D-era Nintendo games: You run through a series of levels, using the tools and clues you find to solve environmental puzzles, uncover secrets, and tangle with an assortment of colorful enemies along the way. What’s the Kirby difference that sets him apart from his Nintendo friends Mario and Yoshi? An insatiable appetite.
In his standard pink ball form, Kirby’s giant mouth can inhale many of the foes coming for his hide with the push of a button. In some cases, he just ends up with a mouthful of baddie that he can spit out with lethal force. But with a specific set of enemies, swallowing one allows Kirby to transform and utilize their abilities.
Eat a safari hat-wearing, gun-toting Bernard (as in Saint Bernard, another dog you need to murder sometimes) and you get to become the rootin’ shootin’ Ranger. Chomp down on the mole-like Digguh and you become a living Drill, able to burrow and travel underground, and, by extension, attack or destroy things from below. Kirby can’t do much more on his own than perform floaty extended jumps and inhale things, but dining on his enemies sets you up to toss bombs, fling boomerang blades, and breathe fire.
You can even upgrade these so-called “Copy Abilities” to make them more powerful by hunting through each level for upgrade scrolls. They’re usually tucked away behind a secret door or in some out-of-the-way chest. You’ll also have to pay for upgrades using gold you collect as you play, along with “rare gems” that can only be earned from “Treasure Road” bonus levels, which are bite-sized puzzles built for specific Copy Abilities.
All of this powering up is secondary to Kirby’s main quest in Forgotten Land: Rescuing an entire town’s worth of missing Waddle Dees, all of whom disappeared under mysterious circumstances. There’s around 10 of the little buggers to be found in any given level, and locating them all — a process that often includes poking and prodding every stray corner — is a focus through the entire game.
Jumping from ‘Elden Ring’ to ‘Kirby and the Forgotten Land’ is a more thematically appropriate leap than I would’ve imagined.
Each Waddle Dee you save automatically heads back to the ever-expanding village Kirby calls home. It’s where you’ll go between levels to upgrade Copy Abilities, fight for rewards in a battle arena, and take on an assortment of gold-earning mini-games, like fishing or serving food at a lunch counter.
Looming over everything is the central mystery of “what the heck is going on with this place??” The game does have a narrative explanation for Forgotten Land‘s downer of a setting. But those answers don’t come quickly; you’ll need to conquer a whole gauntlet of worlds before any real picture starts to take shape. So while there is a story, it’s not the thing Nintendo uses to keep players on the hook from beginning to end.
That responsibility falls instead to the gameplay, which, once you look past Kirby’s funky transforming powers, feels like a more combat-centric take on the 3D era of Mario games. But where Mario’s foes are all threatening and vaguely monstrous (in that forever wholesome Nintendo kind of way), Kirby deals with a very different kind of threat.
Just about every enemy you face in Forgotten Land is a recognizable member of our IRL animal kingdom. And most of them are drawn in a way that’s very cute.
Look at those things. I don’t want to kill them. I just want to be their friend! A sweet-seeming Awoofy is the first enemy you meet in Forgotten Land. I didn’t even realize it was an enemy initially, and that hesitation cost me my first life in the game.
It’s a moment that really establishes a vibe, and the vibe is this: Kirby is a heartless, ever-grinning sociopath who has no compunctions about killing anything that gets in his way, even if that anything is the softest-looking cartoon floof you’ve ever seen.
For all the deranged personality Kirby and the Forgotten Land exudes, however, it’s a surprisingly empty experience. The lengthy gauntlet of levels finds its share of standout moments, particularly when bigger Copy Abilities that never appear in the upgrade shop show up. Being able to eat and become a car or an oversized traffic cone isn’t just for show; these abilities are necessary for solving some of the major puzzles that pop up from level to level.
There’s nothing beyond that to make levels really stand out, however. Sure, there are distinct differences that set apart an abandoned shopping mall level and a dead city’s wrecked downtown — enemies, puzzles, look, and feel vary from place to place — but the actual process of play never really deviates from a basic set of ideas. Pick up on what Forgotten Land is doing through its initial stretch of levels, and you’ll be ready to conquer the entire game.
For all the deranged personality ‘Kirby and the Forgotten Land’ exudes, it’s a surprisingly empty experience.
Nowhere is this more clearly highlighted than the many boss fights you’ll endure before the credits roll. While some of them are one-and-done battles, most of the bosses you face in the early stages of the game repeat again and again as you reach later levels.
They don’t change much, either. The armored, shield-bearing Wild Edge appears early on and then many times after that, but its behavior and attack patterns never change. Sometimes Forgotten Land mixes things up by pitting you against two bosses in one fight. But the small rotating cast gets old very quickly.
By the time you get to the final stretch of levels, which includes a boss rush-style gauntlet where you have to fight a whole lineup of the biggest baddies in quick succession, the luster has worn off. While Forgotten Land‘s eventual climax is appropriately epic and marked by some unique moments, the final leg before that is anything but.
Kirby doesn’t get to star in his own games too often, and it takes some time for the novelty of swallowing enemies whole and absorbing their powers to wear thin. The inherent weirdness of a family-friendly publisher like Nintendo delivering an unnervingly happy grimdark story also helps keep things moving for a time. But it’s not enough.
In between a great start and a blockbuster finish are miles and miles of same-y dullness. Another level, another lineup of Waddle Dees to rescue, another tiresome gauntlet of repeating enemies, bosses, and even puzzles. There’s a Kirby game somewhere in here with all the wonder and whimsy that makes Nintendo’s greatest hits stand out, but it’s buried far beneath a surprising amount of repetitive padding.
Kirby is as charming as he’s ever been, and die-hard fans will undoubtedly find plenty to like here. But all the extra padding too often makes the simple pleasures of devouring your enemies and absorbing their destructive powers for your own use feel like an unwelcome slog.
Kirby and the Forgotten Land comes to Nintendo Switch on March 25.