The story is kept traditionally simple. Donkey Kong's birthday party is interrupted by a cold threat coming from the invading Snowmads tribe that swiftly takes over the island and sends the Kongs flying across the ocean. It is now up to Donkey Kong and his friends to make their way through six islands to reclaim their home. Much like Donkey Kong Country Returns introduced the Tiki tribe in place of the original Kremlings, this game also features a new set of villains that includes animals such as penguins, owls and even polar bears.
The general structure is similar to its predecessor for the most part. Each of the six islands has around six required levels and a boss fight to move on to the next one. Additional levels can be unlocked by finding hidden exits or collecting all K.O.N.G letters in every stage of a world. Puzzle pieces return, too, and finding all of them in a level will unlock various game art and music in a gallery. Unlike the K.O.N.G letters, puzzle pieces don't have to be collected in a single run and remain in one's possession after a death as long as the level is finished. These collectibles are often cleverly placed or hidden, and playfully invite the player to explore the detailed environment.
The most noticeable additions are Dixie Kong and Cranky Kong that - much like Diddy Kong - now serve as partners for Donkey Kong. They all come with unique abilities and are very handy and fun to use. Some levels are built around a specific partner while the majority of them allow the player to choose which partner would benefit them and their play style the most. Another new mechanic is the Kong POW attack which can be triggered with any partner after collecting 100 bananas, killing any enemies on the screen and turning them into extra lives with Diddy, and banana coins with Cranky. Dixie's Kong POW produces golden hearts which, in addition to healing any lost hearts, provide an additional hit when collected at full health. Dixie's version in particular is very useful, but it should be noted that it's completely optional, and purists can easily opt to ignore it instead.
When it comes to their individual abilities, Diddy provides a slight horizontal extension to Donkey Kong's jump with his jetpack, while Dixie does the opposite by twirling her long hair like a helicopter to achieve some more height. They might seem fairly similar in theory, but in practise, one of them can be a lot more helpful depending on the situation. Cranky plays completely differently by bouncing on his cane - similar to Scrooge McDuck in his recent DuckTales Remastered outing. This can be used to bounce on spiky terrain or objects that would otherwise be damaging, but it is also a huge boon for speed running, as Cranky's bounce will retain any momentum, allowing highly skilled players to blast through levels for some very impressive clear times.
Speaking of momentum, that is one area the platforming in this game focuses on. Donkey Kong feels very heavy in comparison to other 2D platformers, making it crucial to extend jumps by performing a roll right before the leap. Learning to bounce off enemies to gain some extra height is extremely useful, too, and required in many cases, especially if Donkey Kong is by himself. These two aspects of the controls create a very different feel, but it's all extremely tight and satisfying to control.
The level design is top notch and full of great ideas when it comes to both gameplay and the presentation. Some of the more standout levels take place in the Alps, inside a hurricane or in a burning forest. The environments feel very interactive and serve as more than just fancy backdrops. For example, in the burning forest, one has to use crumbling tree branches as platforms while trying to put out the fire to progress. The platforms in the hurricane level consist of flying debris with random objects caught up in the storm, and lightning strikes that have to be dodged. The camera is also occasionally used to provide a 3D view of certain segments, such as blasting through barrels. A few simple but lovely looking silhouette levels make another appearance, as well.
Two particular types of levels, where the player takes control of a mine cart and rocket barrel respectively, are also in this game, and while they are still really fun to play, they have been made a bit more forgiving by giving both vehicles a second heart to allow for one more hit, as hitting anything in the previous game resulted in instant death. Checkpoints in general are fairly placed throughout levels, and allow for plenty of challenge without much frustration. Those who do need some extra help will want to pay Funky Kong a visit, who now runs the store in place of Cranky Kong. The Super Guide found in Donkey Kong Country Returns has been replaced with a variety of helpful items, such as portable partner barrels, green balloons that prevent a death by falling into a pit, or extra hearts for either the characters or the vehicles. Squawks also returns and helps with finding puzzle pieces by making noise when the player is near one.
Much like the stages themselves, the boss encounters manage to impress in every way. They're well thought out, exciting and very satisfying to beat, easily surpassing the ones found in the previous game. Learning the boss patterns is rewarding but not a guarantee for victory because they will switch up their attacks as the fight goes on, and perform completely new and sometimes unexpected moves. They can last more than just a few minutes, too, making victory much sweeter, especially when compared to the length of many bosses in Mario platformers.
The Time Attack mode is very addictive and well done. It is possible to change the default partner for the level to the desired one for obtaining either a bronze, silver or gold medal. A play of a level can easily be uploaded to the online leaderboards and viewed at any time. Anyone who would like to see some advanced strategies from players, compare their times to those of friends, or just sit there and watch in awe will surely appreciate this feature and it is quick and smooth to access, too. Any ties are also broken by a heart icon next to the time, signifying that no damage was taken during that particular run.
If there is one thing that deserves a special mention, it is definitely the soundtrack. David Wise is still one of the very best in the business and delivers unparalleled atmospheric, dark and lonely feeling pieces. Some remixes of classics from the original Donkey Kong Country trilogy will no doubt make older fans very happy but most of the soundtrack is brand new and every bit as good. The overall selection of musical styles is also perfectly balanced, opening up with mostly upbeat themes in the early parts of the game, slowly mixing in more atmospheric and emotional pieces, and going all out with them once the end of the journey draws near. It is, quite frankly, so good that only a proper sound system or great headphones can do this soundtrack justice.