I write this as someone who is immune to twee. The tedious, contrarian part of my brain sees cute and screams: It's a PLOY. I look at those adverts with talking cats and hiss: you're a marketing scheme. I'll listen to you go on about that time you put a hat on your Nintendog and then roll my eyes dramatically until I stop getting invited over to your house. This is my jaded fatal flaw, my heart of darkness.
And so as someone typically immune to twee I can hand-on-heart admit defeat. Kirby's Epic Yarn has taken an adorable axe and broken down the ice barrier that encased my otherwise indifferent and cold heart of stone. Looking into Kirby's eyes I think...maybe... maybe I could love again.
Why the sudden change in heart? Kirby's Epic Yarn is more than superficially pleasing. Instead it's highly creative in design, with its visually impressive and cutesy qualities forming the base for legitimately interesting platform elements.
Kirby has lost his trademark ability. He can't inhale enemies like he used to. The game - which is oddly Mighty Boosh-like in premise - introduces you to Yin-Yarn, an evil wizard made of yarn who enters Kirby's world and begins sucking up its inhabitants through a sock he wears around his neck. Now everyone is made of yarn, Kirby himself is just knit-work, and his primary way of interacting with his surroundings is to fling a loose thread to unravel his foes and throw objects. His other ability is transformation. Kirby will morph into a car with a tap of the D-pad, doubling his speed. If he hits water he turns into a fish while other levels require for him to become a space ship that will beam up yarn to fuel explosive blasts or a train that will follow tracks you lay out for it using the Wii Remote.
Cute, yes. The entire world is like what everyone wishes their grandmother's house looked like. Cushy and full of patchwork, Kirby's Epic Yarn builds levels out of cupcakes, whipped cream, pillowy ground and felt backgrounds. Adorable, obviously. Stop playing for a few seconds and Kirbs starts skipping rope using his own yarn. He'll even jump through doorways and into the background of the scene, leaving only a round lump that you can spot moving behind the felt of the scene. Epic Yarn sweats charm; it's made of it. To be fair so are a lot of titles, but this one proves its worth in how it reigns in that charm and uses it bolster gameplay.
Patch Land is made up of eight different worlds. You get your standard water and lava levels, a Christmas-driven Snow Land, a candy filled Treat Land, a Space Land that looks like a series of Daft Punkian music video sets sewn together, and then a triumvirate of cuteness in the form of Quilty Square, Grass Land and Dream Land. Each land behaves differently. One level in Snow Land puts you up against an enormous coil of wrapping paper that rolls down the scene in what's essentially a spin on your traditional platform-or-drown water level. A level in Space Land has Kirby working his way between switches that turn on and off gravity: on when he needs to float to higher areas, off when he needs to break through yarn-crates to get into side-passages. Another in Hot Land, the lava zones, transform Kirby into a fire engine who works his way right across the screen by putting out fires that block his path.
It's not a hard game, in fact it's built entirely for a casual player's pallet. If you fall off a platform and into the depths or if you are hit by an enemy you lose some of the beads you collected on that level - beads that lend to your final score. Run out of beads and you still won't die or end the level, because all in all Kirby is essentially a walk-right-to-win platformer. But it's what it does in that basic structure that makes it interesting.
Kirby can affect the landscape by yanking on loose threads attached to parts of the environment, scrunching up the felt landscape so that platforms are pulled in closer to one another. He can pull open zippers that make up part of the scene to reveal hidden passageways or items. He can platform his way to the top of the sky, peel the moon off of the felt backdrop and reveal the sun; turning night-time gameplay with napping enemies into a bright beach scene. Adorable, yes, but also functional.
If there's a hint of difficulty it's in finding all the collectables in each level. The goal is to collect beads, along with three treasures that are hidden in faintly-harder-to-find regions; a task that can adopt a social edge in local co-op when you bring a buddy on board to play as Prince Fluff, Kirby's friend and counterpart. Either player can toss the other to a higher platform, and occasionally combine forces to manoeuvre through certain tasks. When Kirby transforms into a train, for instance, the other player will be tasked with drawing tracks for him to follow.
The treasures you pick up are used to decorate your apartment in what's basically an ongoing style-athon mini-game. Giant teddies, space clocks and chandeliers are the kinds of objects you'll find in each level, which you'll fit into an apartment and use to attract tenants. Immediately after one moves in you'll be able to play mini-games with them: fun albeit innocuous stuff like Zeke's Hide and Seek that has you once again platforming through a level as quickly as possible while trying to spot Zeke peeking out of bushes.
Call it family friendly if you're bobbing for nebulous advertising nuggets - it keeps with the tendencies of any traditional platformer and it even seems to seek out a solidly casual audience by being as accessible as it is. But it's one of the most creative examples of casual gaming. And if unlike me you're immediately swayed by the primary colours and cakes and big baby doe-eyes that are featured in this game then you have a veritable feast of the senses. Cynicism or not Epic Yarn is achingly good looking - and it is more than just a pretty face.