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SummaryYes, you will die a lot. But you probably won't care.
The GoodYou will die a lot. It is frustrating. So why is it still fun? I can think of three main reasons:
1. Early levels are quite easy, much easier than the early levels in New Super Mario Bros. Wii and Super Mario Galaxy 2, for example. There are hard levels and there are easy levels. Just ignore the hard levels (use the skip level feature) and have fun replaying the easy levels over and over again. That's what I'd do.
2. It's not really more difficult than, say, most games in the Mario series or most games in the Zelda series. It's not more difficult than the previous Donkey Kong Country games either. The Nintendo franchises have always been this difficult. My point is, it's not that "this game itself" is difficult. People who complain about its difficulty are quite possibly the ones who bought it for their kids. This game is not really meant for kids. (Rayman Origins and Kirby's Epic Yarn are.)
3. It's exceptionally easy to earn lives. Every time you die (lose a life), you typically will have earned three more lives. I accumulated a shocking number of 75 lives in two hours. Replay the early stages over and over again and you will get as many lives as you can possibly want. So, what if a level takes 100 tries to beat? I don't really mind. The levels are meant to be played through dozens of times, and you are supposed to play them so many times that you memorize the location of all the enemies and powerups and such. This is not an RPG or a shooter game in which you are constantly moving forward. No. You are constantly thrown back to the beginning of the level, or a checkpoint in the middle of the level. You have to make an effort and be careful about your each jump.
When you die, the things you collected aren't gone. The KONG letters are gone, but the other stuff -- puzzle pieces, coins, bananas, lives -- will all remain.
The checkpoints here are almost like a Metroid Prime save room, recording all of your progress (including the KONG letters you collected prior to the checkpoint), except that it only stays in the RAM memory -- you can't turn the console off and load that progress later.
The puzzle pieces can be acquired one at a time (much like collecting missiles in a Metroid game). The KONG letters (all four) must be collected in a single run (the checkpoint makes this much easier, since you restart from the checkpoint when you die).
Everything is big and shiny. Your character is big. The objects that you interact with are big. Everything is clearly visible and easy to interact with (unlike in New Super Mario Bros. Wii, where the opposite is true). The objects in this game make sense. When you perform a move on an object, you know what to expect. When something is happening on screen, you know what it is and how it affects your gameplay.
Donkey Kong is moderately powerful. He can take two hits (Mario can only take one). His advanced form can take four hits. He can knock enemies unconscious (Mario can't). Generally, Donkey Kong is much more maneuverable and stronger than Mario. There are health powerups all over the place. You feel that you're in control (while in a Mario game, you feel that you're being bullied and crushed all the time).
The moment you *finally* collect the KONG letters is an "OH-MY-GOD" moment. The moment you finally, FINALLY collect a hard to reach puzzle piece is an earth-shattering moment. There are many moments like this. The level design is often "hard, but doable if you have the patience to try 20 times".
The location of the KONG letters and the puzzle pieces are very reasonable. Well, there's some really amazing level design to be found. I was able to find almost all of the KONG letters and 90% of the puzzle pieces without consulting a guide. They are not hidden in ridiculous places. They are big and shiny and they are eagerly waiting for you to collect them. I genuinely feel that they are.
And the good stuff just keeps coming. Who would have thought that the best "traditional" platformer of our generation is actually a workout/fitness game? You need to shake the controller with both of your arms to perform Donkey Kong's important moves. The Time Attack mode is great workout for your muscles. Right now I can feel the arm muscles that this game helped me develop.
The BadSome KONG letters or puzzle pieces are impossible to collect. The Time Attack mode is ridiculous. Only the professional speedrunning people can beat those.
And yeah, there are plenty of bottomless holes, just like in Mario games. There are plenty of "quick deaths" (things that kill you immediately even if you're at full health). If you don't want that in your game, go play an RPG or a Metroid game instead.
The controls are sharp, but some of the moves are totally unpredictable. Sometimes you jump higher the normal, and sometimes you do a rolling jump. What's that all about? :-(
The boss fights are stupid. Typical Mario-style boss fights. Just die eight times and skip them.
The Bottom LineFrom what I've read, 99% of the negative commentary about Donkey Kong Country Returns is that it's too difficult. You will die all the time. It's impossible for a human to beat these levels and you have to use the "skip level" feature in this game a lot.
Yes, that's most certainly true. Aware of that fact, I still believe that Donkey Kong Country Returns is the best traditional platformer today. It's miles better than Rayman Origins, Sonic Colors, New Super Mario Bros. Wii, Super Mario Galaxy 2, and many others that I've played on the Wii.