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SummarySmall Mouse. Big Adventure.
The GoodIn 2009, critically acclaimed game designer, Warren Spector, announced that the first game from his newly founded Junction Point Studios would be a collaboration between his team and Disney starring Mickey Mouse. Even more surprising was that the game was a Wii exclusive, a surprising move on a system with a very poor track record for third-party games. Though many were surprised, as Spector is typically known for more adult games, the dark and moody concept art initially shown at the games announcement, combined with the promise of a potentially great Wii exclusive, turned many heads and made Epic Mickey one of the most hotly anticipated games of 2010.
Sadly, the game only got mixed reviews from the press. Looking at the game, however, I always sensed that there was something special under the surface. I finally decided to play through the game, and found a truly hidden gem, much to my delight.
In Epic Mickey, you play as Disney's famous cartoon mouse as he journeys through the Wasteland, a strange, parallel-universe version of Disneyland that was partially destroyed when Mickey spilled a jug of paint thinner on it. Through 10-15 hours of 3D platforming, Mickey must come to terms with both himself and the Wasteland's ruler, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit for his misdeeds. The story of Epic Mickey is one of it's strong points, a simple, but heartwarming tale of friendship, forgiveness, and sacrifice that is just as affecting as any of Disney's most classic films. Epic Mickey itself could have easily been a movie instead, and you'll get glimpses of that during the game's numerous animated cutscenes, which have a unique Adobe Flash-meets-comic book aesthetic. That said, the two cutscenes that bookend the game are computer-animated, which does seem a bit inconsistent. 2D or 3D however, all of the cutscenes look equally great.
Early in the game, Mickey acquires a magic paintbrush that has the ability to shoot paint or paint thinner, which restore and destroy objects and surfaces respectively. The paintbrush is a multipurpose tool, used both for combat as well as puzzle solving. For example, you might have to paint in a bridge to cross a gap, or thin a doorway to cause the door to fall down and let you inside. While these are rather mundane uses for the paintbrush, there are some really creative ones later in the game.
The paint and thinner also form the game's morality and choice system, a common element among Spector's games. It's a truly strange element to have in a game of this type, but one that makes the game even more interesting to a broad audience. The game's story, bosses, characters, and even your abilities are all affected by how you decide to use the brush powers and complete quests. Whenever Mickey has a quest to complete, he can either take the lazy man's way out using thinner, or he can follow the harder but more morally sound path of paint. A meter in the top left hand side of the screen fills to either blue or green depending on your use of the brush and how you complete quests. When the meter reaches certain points, the game allows you to carry around a brush guardian. This spirit can either point the way to the exit of the area you are currently in, but it can also help in battling enemies. While it might seem a bit powerful at first, by the end of the game you'll almost be begging for more brush guardians, as the game isn't afraid to throw tons of enemies at the player at once as he/she nears the end of the journey.
Another standout feature is the interludes between areas that Mickey wanders through. Each of these interludes is a short 2D platforming segment based on a classic Disney cartoon, ranging from Mickey's first efforts to Sleeping Beauty. The latter is, admittedly, an odd choice for an interlude, since Mickey isn't even a character in that film (as far as I'm aware, Disney loves to hide stuff in their films). One problem I had with this is that they are not skippable if you need to go through them again for some reason. You'll have to trudge back and forth and back and forth across them if the game forces you to return to an earlier area.
Junction Point have made a truly gorgeous-looking game on Nintendo's under powered console. The Wasteland is a simultaneously bizarre and beautiful area to behold, offering a bold and uncompromising vision of Disneyland gone wrong that's not afraid to get a little dark and spooky at times. Rides are broken, floors and walls are cracked or partially thinned out, and the skies are filled with black clouds, even when the sun occasionally becomes visible. Artificial backdrops abound to try to offset the depressing atmosphere, but that doesn't seem quite enough for the forgotten denizens of the Wasteland. Yet the worlds are both vibrantly colored and filled with life, teeming with impressive particle effects lighting, and especially character animation, but tainted with a tinge of melancholy. If you have ever been to a Disney theme park, there's a good chance you'll recognize many of the rides, attractions, and areas in Epic Mickey, twisted to fit Spector's unique vision. For example, Main Street becomes Mean Street, and Tomorrowland becomes Tomorrow City. Painting the world in and seeing the colors pop in front of your eyes, or even thinning it out, is an effect that just never gets old, and you'll most likely paint and thin surfaces all over just for the fun of it, as well as to solve quests and find items.. Sadly, the game suffers from slowdown at times, particularly when many enemies are onscreen. Also, there were some strange interlacing and graphical artifacts that showed up frequently. Yet the consistently amazing art direction makes up for any blemishes in the tech. While it's not the best looking game on the system, it certainly ranks in the top five. Epic Mickey doesn't just look great for a Wii game, it looks great for any game period, something that really can't be said about many titles on the system.
The music in Epic Mickey is pretty good -very much in the Disney tradition. The music heard in the Wasteland areas are similar, but not quite the same as, the music you might hear in the same areas at Disneyland. The music in the interludes are the soundtracks to the cartoons that inspired each of those levels. The music isn't mindblowing, but it is very pleasant to listen to over the course of the adventure.
The BadDespite all of the promises Spector and Junction Point made about gameplay freedom and choice, the game itself is extremely linear. All Epic Mickey boils down to is a series of hubs, one after the other, in which multiple objectives need to be completed (in whatever way you prefer) before moving on to the next. The game wants you to search for hidden collectibles in each hub: pins, artwork, film reels, and robot parts for the other Disney characters, but you only ever get one shot to actually find any of these items. Wasteland is simply not a cohesive, explorable world in the vein of Hyrule or Bionis/Mechonis. You are not allowed to go back and try to find quests or items you may have missed going through areas the first time. The player is essentially locked down onto the game's track for its entire duration like the cars on a Disneyland dark ride, with absolutely no opportunities for trudging off the beaten path and exploring even a smidgen. This forced game progression nearly contradicts the non-linear design that Junction Point was aiming for.
But that is only a minor flaw when compared to the game's camera. The camera in this game seems very loose and follows Mickey around in a lazy and lethargic fashion, only choosing the right angles for you to follow about half of the time. It almost seems as if the camera is nearly ready to fall asleep at nearly any given moment during gameplay.It frequently needs to be adjusted by the player, and there are many times where you'll annoyingly fall through the floor and land in a pool of Thinner because you accidentally thinned the floor beneath your feet. As if that weren't enough, there are many times where you just can't seem to get the camera to adjust to the direction you want, forcing you to take a blind leap of faith in order to move on. The game requires you to babysit the camera so much that it dampens your enjoyment of the incredible art designs and environments, though not to the degree of ruining the game, as many have said.
While you do get to see the consequences of many of your choices in the Wasteland during the game's final cutscene, the actual ending of the game doesn't really change much in the end. You can be a total jerk, completely thinner-oriented, and yet still end up saving Wasteland, despite leaving many characters still unhappy about the states they are in.
Finally, the platforming itself, while not broken in any way, does feel a bit sloppy and haphazardly designed. Most of the platforms are oddly shaped, and combined with the camera, can be very difficult to land on. The jumping control of Mickey doesn't feel quite as tight as it should. It almost feels like Mickey has a bit too much gravity and weight when jumping. In addition, Mickey cannot seem to take too much of a fall, even though he's a cartoon character. I lost countless lives because of Mickey's short fall distance causing him to lose a health unit.