The story is not extensive: the Kongs' banana hoard is stolen again by the Tikis. Enraged, Donkey and Diddy venture out on a trip to the top of their island, battling the Tiki Tak Tribe along the way, to engage in combat with Tiki Tong, lord of the Tikis. The trip sure won't be easy, with lots of different hurdles to deal with...
Thankfully, our two heroes have a nice moveset they can take advantage of, though this time, Diddy Kong can only be incarnated in the two player co-op mode. As DK runs, he can jump or grab things by just pressing a button, he can shake the ground by shaking the controller, blow on things by ducking and shaking at the same time, and roll by shaking while moving left or right. When Diddy is with him, riding atop his back, he can hover by holding down the jump button while in midair, and any hits taken will only drain Diddy's life gauge. When Diddy's life is empty, he gets ‘lost’ and Donkey Kong is left alone again - until he finds his partner crammed inside a DK barrel.
There are two control setups for Donkey Kong Country Returns: the Wii Remote on its side, NES-style, or the Remote and Nunchuk duo. Being a game that imitates the style of the 16-bit games, while taking it to the next level, it would be nice to be able to choose a control scheme that mimics the old gameplay, even more so when the difficulty makes the game more likely to appeal primarily to veteran players who liked the original trilogy, but sadly this the Classic Controller is not supported. Making Donkey Kong ‘blow’ by waggling the Wii Remote doesn't make much sense either. None of that reduces the fun, though, as everything still controls just fine. The Nunchuk and Wii Remote combination proves to be a bit superior, though, as shaking the Remote while controlling Donkey Kong with its tiny D-pad doesn't allow for the same level of accuracy.
In the co-op mode, two players can control Donkey and Diddy Kong separately. While both play very similarly, the noticeable differences are that Diddy can fire peanuts with his gun - a move never available in solo mode - and can always hover with his jet-pack, bereaving Donkey of the ability. To compensate, Donkey can return to his arcade roots and hurl barrels farther than his younger sidekick. At any moment the two can reunite and player one can control things just as in solo mode; for example, if one player is having a difficult time, the two can be combined together and the more experienced player can progress past a tough area before the players separate once more. This two player option isn't as fun as the one in New Super Mario Bros. Wii, but it's a nice addition. However beating the whole game in co-op will prove an even harder challenge, so you may be better off choosing a fellow veteran gamer to accompany you. This is not a casual friendly game by any means, unlike New Super Mario Bros. Wii.
Each level has a bunch of items that can be collected. There are the K.O.N.G letters which unlock bonus levels if they are gathered in every level of a region, which are absent of K.O.N.G. collectables but can get very frustrating; they’re the game’s biggest challenges. There are also a variable amount of puzzle pieces scattered in each level, which will unlock features in the Bonus section when you find them all in a level. These include dioramas, music and artwork galleries. Each level also opens a Time Attack mode once you beat it. Depending on your time, you are awarded a gold, silver, bronze, or no medal, which unlock bonuses in the gallery.
The most prominent aspect of Donkey Kong Country Returns is its difficulty. The levels can get really challenging, and this gets more and more apparent as the player progresses through the game - so much so that it even gets frustrating at times. Retro Studios clearly listened to Cranky Kong, who used to complain all the time in the original Donkey Kong Country about how games were a lot harder when he was younger. Speaking of whom, Cranky plays the role of a shopkeeper this time around. The banana coins collected in the levels will let the player buy items such as extra lives and temporary invincibility potions which can be brought into the levels. Extra heart containers will add an additional heart to the life gauge and will last for as long as Donkey Kong remains in the same level, or until he beats it. Cranky also sells Squawks the parrot, who serves as an alarm that warns the player by squawking when a puzzle piece (or a bonus room holding one) is nearby, and a key to each world that opens up an alternate route to the boss, along with a few levels that are otherwise inaccessible.
A funny thing to note is that the progression through the game is actually more reminiscent of Yoshi's Island than any other Donkey Kong game. The bonus level that unlocks in each world once you have collected the necessary items in that world’s regular levels, the items that can be gathered and used to ease the task, and the world map music variations with different instruments for each region all recall that other Super NES classic.
For the easily frustrated players, the Super Guide from Super Mario Galaxy 2 is back too. After losing eight times in a level, the pigs marking the check points will start waving a flag to indicate that the Super Guide is now available for use. By pressing the + button when stood by a check point, the Super Guide summons Super Kong, a blue and white variation of DK, to help the player by playing in their stead. You can interrupt the auto-play at any moment and start controlling Super Kong, or let him play the whole level from start to finish for you. However, any item Super Kong collects can't be retained, and he will purposefully avoid letters and puzzle pieces when you let him play, so obviously that trick cannot be used to complete everything in the game. If a level is cleared with any help of the Super Guide, it will unlock the path to the next level but the dot marking its location on the world map will remain red instead of turning blue, and the Time Attack mode for that level will remain locked.
Donkey Kong Country Returns is gorgeous - it doesn't make heavy use of fancy software shaders like the Super Mario Galaxy games, but it really doesn't need to. Lush colours are everywhere, and the environments can be seen moving and reacting to Donkey Kong's blowing and shaking, making the whole scenery more vivid. There might be a bit too much of the same type of levels coming in waves though, such as three mine cart levels grouped together, or three barrel blast themed levels in a row. There's always a small twist to keep things from looking exactly the same, but spreading them a bit more would have been a better design choice. The themes used aren't anything revolutionary. Jungle, forest, caves, ruins, factory... It's actually very similar to the original Donkey Kong Country, except the levels themselves don't feel as repetitive because of the switch to real-time 3D graphics instead of tile-based 2D. The music is also close to the original Donkey Kong Country, consisting of remastered versions of past tracks and completely new compositions which blend nicely with the rest of the soundtrack - it sounds awesome and completely like a Donkey Kong Country title from beginning to end. Some of the tribal music even reminds of some tracks from Retro’s earlier title Metroid Prime 3: Corruption. The characters don't have a massive amount of voice work, but those present do the job of conveying their expressions just fine.
The main source of inspiration for Donkey Kong Country Returns seems to be the first Donkey Kong Country. The world exploration feels very linear, contrary to the freedom afforded to players in Donkey Kong Country 3. There isn't much distraction to be found away from the main platform aspect of the game either: no mini-games, no trading quests, no hidden items to collect on the map...mostly just plain platforming, like the first episode, with a bit of item collecting added on top. Rambi the Rhino is the only animal to return from Donkey Kong’s illustrious riding past; further comebacks or additions could have mixed things up well. Unlike Donkey Kong Country, where most bonus level were unique, Donkey Kong Country Returns rehashes the same ten or so bonus levels during the entire game, with the only difference that the platforms seem to be moving faster every time. More variation would have been a plus.