Friday, November 27, 2015

Yoshi’s Woolly World (Wii U) Review

I have a nostalgic attachment to yarn and knitted woolen blankets. My Nana loved to knit. I have fond childhood memories of giant bundles of colorful yarn that she used to knit me blankets; handcrafted tapestries of dark blue and light blue and green. There’s a level in Yoshi’s Woolly World called “Up Shuttlethread Pass” which features a backdrop of knitted blankets woven together to form of a patchwork of pale blue and green intermixed with snowflake and sequin decorations. A light fluffy snow falls and the whole scene is accompanied by a profoundly emotional piece of music. I was immediately struck by this level upon starting it, but it wasn’t until I was about halfway through it that a certain chord in the music stopped me in my tracks and I simply stopped and stared at the screen: the knitted surroundings, the colors, the snow, the music…I was immediately struck with images of my Nana (who passed away just a few years ago) and all the Christmases we shared together. I suddenly felt the need to rub my eyes and a pervasive sense of tranquility embraced me throughout the rest of the level.

Yoshi’s Woolly World is a warm knitted blanket on a cool autumn day. It’s a very comforting game, and that’s not just because it’s made out of blankets. When one boots it up from the Wii U’s main menu, they are greeted with an image of Yoshi and his lovable canine pal Poochy embracing each other while a lovely and inviting acoustic guitar melody plays. To me, this start-up screen is saying “It’s gonna be all right” and “See? Not everything in the world is so bad”. Between its endlessly charming handcrafted aesthetic, pleasing control scheme, and inventive challenges, Woolly World is a heart-warming, endearing experience that is as relaxing or as taxing as you want it to be. And it reminds me of my Nana. And it makes me a little teary.

I can’t call Woolly World’s aesthetic entirely unique because it is a spiritual successor to the delightful Kirby’s Epic Yarn for Wii after all (which was also developed by Good-Feel, the most appropriately-named video game developer in the world), but Woolly World’s visual design still stands apart from that game, presenting a more three-dimensional and all in all different take on the whole “handcraft” look than Epic Yarn presented. I love this game’s art direction and it is clear a huge amount of effort went into it; in fact I suspect it’s the main reason for the game’s rather lengthy development time. Besides nailing the look and feel of yarn and fabric throughout, so much so that I feel like I can reach out and touch this game and my TV screen would feel soft to my hand, I love how much creativity went into representing a world made out of handcraft. Windmills appear as giant wool socks adorned with buttons, lava flowing down a volcano is represented by a scarf slowly unraveling from a giant spool, and my favorite: distant hills in the snow world are representing by giant smiling winter hats. That the game subtly simulates flowing water with simply a few strands of yarn, some sequins, and some shadows is nothing short of genius artistic design. Sure, Woolly World may contain many of the clichéd environmental themes that Nintendo loves to overuse like grass land, desert land, and snow land, but I’m not even mad because the wonderful visual design breathes new life into these tired tropes. If the endearing art design doesn’t draw you in, perhaps the pleasing and varied (if at times a bit understated) soundtrack, another area of the game that clearly had a lot of effort put into it, will.

Even though some of the environmental themes are familiar, the original and inspired level designs that appear throughout the entire game all the way up to the final level were a consistent surprise. Some of my favorites include a level where the player “walks” a wireframe Chain Chomp, knitting it up into a roll-able ball that can pounce baddies and be used to solve puzzles and unraveling it so it can follow Yoshi to new places; a rollercoaster ride of sorts involving giant curtains sliding down curtain rods (just try to imagine it); and a festive nighttime snowscape where Yoshi must knock piles of cottony snow out of knitted trees to progress. The yarn motif is more than just aesthetic; the artistic choice is woven into the game design at every step, from the way enemies and obstacles behave to the way Yoshi unravels and knits the world around him, to a parade of clever level gimmicks that make great use of the theming.

Despite so many fresh elements that have been newly acquired, the main framework of Woolly World is mostly a hand-me-down from the original Yoshi’s Island for Super Nintendo. This isn’t necessarily a negative, as that original game is a brilliant, inspired platformer and Woolly World inherits its springy, responsive control and engaging, exploratory level design. That said, perhaps the influence is a bit too transparent at times and this does lend of sense of banality to certain aspects like the very familiar progression structure of the game. This can’t hurt an experience as otherwise creative and endearing as Woolly World too much, but I do wish the Yoshi platformer series wouldn’t be so afraid to tear the traditional fabric of the original SNES classic every once in a while.

I will say that going for 100% completion in Woolly World is a lot more tolerable than in the original Yoshi’s Island, which is important considering the game is chiefly designed with exploration and collection in mind. Some tedium occurs when missing “that one thing” in a level and some of the bonus levels are pretty annoying, but there’s nothing here that I found to be as screamingly frustrating as attempting 100% in the original. Woolly World is ultimately whatever you want it to be though: want to float through the game care-free? Turn on “Mellow Mode”. Want to simply see all the levels? Just go for collecting all of the flowers. Or you can go for everything like me, which was a fair and satisfying challenge. Woolly World’s design is smart. There’s no intrusive timer rushing me along, there are no useless “lives” here, the “Mellow Mode” option is probably the least intrusive “Super Guide” option I’ve seen Nintendo implement yet, and there’s just all in all freedom here to do what one wants.

Put plainly, Yoshi’s Woolly World is a warm and inviting experience you are almost guaranteed to enjoy no matter how you play it. Play it with a friend. Play it with a lover. Play it by yourself with a blanket and a warm cup of tea. It will make you smile. It will make you feel cozy. It will remind you of your Nana.

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