Developer: Junction Point / Publisher: Disney Interactive Studios / ESRB: Everyone
Undoubtedly the most anticipated game for the Wii not developed by internal Nintendo studios, Disney’s Epic Mickey has a lot to live up to. It’s a long-awaited return to game-making from bona fide game god, Warren Spector; it’s one of the most cherished cartoon characters of all-time; it’s aiming to blend family friendly gameplay with the depth expected from a more hardcore crowd; it’s using a unique gameplay mechanic of painting and “thinning” the game world. Can it really hit top marks in all areas?
Dedicated Disney fans, Disneyland season pass owners, Disney collectors, Mickey Mouse cosplayers, just head straight to the store and fork over your $50. This game was made for you, honors your dedication, and will stir your emotions. Little else needs to be said to that audience, the size of which we’ll no doubt guesstimate from initial sales figures of Disney’s Epic Mickey. The introduction of long-lost rabbit Oswald is fascinating content for the Disney-pedia. More accurately, the game represents a re-introduction after legal woes cast him to the cutting room floor only for Walt Disney to conjure up a big-eared mouse in his place. This “ripped from the 1920s headlines” storyline is the stuff of those aforementioned Disney-fanatics’ wildest dreams. A more casual gamer, particularly a younger gamer, is likely to hear a whooshing sound as the story background flies high over their heads, barely pausing long enough to register that the opening cinematic has real Disney history gravitas.
The fantastic opening cinematic establishes that due to Mickey’s mischievousness, a sorcerer’s creation of a Disney-topia is turned into a Wasteland, and while Mickey escapes back to his world, Oswald is trapped within it. But Mickey, the hero, returns and with the help of gremlins, friends, and enemies he can turn into friends, he can restore the world to its former glory while potentially retaining his beating heart that will allow him to return to his own time.
The journey is long, which means just frickin’ tons of Disney-fan content. It pulls in characters and locations created for Disney’s cartoons up through 1967 and its theme parks across the globe. It’s also pretty deep, with variations in how you play–are you primarily a painter or a thinner?–impacting the outcome, but not always easy to follow.
Using paint to fill in and colorize the world and thinner to erase elements is a fundamentally cool mechanic. As a puzzle-solving device, it’s very cool once you understand what can be painted and what can be thinned. Thin the ground underneath a mountain of rocks blocking your route, and voila, the path is clear. Paint the cogs on a broken mechanism, and suddenly it works again. But it’s more than puzzle solving–this concept sits at the heart of Epic Mickey‘s story. In Mickey’s shoes you’re creating the world and erasing the world around you in order to achieve goals. These changes, and the choices you make, can impact how the later game unfolds. As an example, in one early mission you’re told that some gremlins are held prisoner. For each one that you rescue en route to the exit, you’ll have one less enemy to face. So general exploration is rewarded in more than just the accumulation of the myriad collectible pins and awards. Seeing your efforts to leap around the environment pay off is pretty rewarding, particularly since the actual leaping can be controller-throwing frustrating.
The camera is a constant enemy. Occasionally its sweeps or movements actually help, but for the most part it’s a battle. In fact, I missed the very first jump you have to make in the game about five times due to the sweep of the camera creating a weird directional jump, a situation exacerbated by the level itself being so damn dark. You certainly can’t claim that Epic Mickey isn’t inventive. Some of the level designs and solutions to painting and thinning puzzles lend themselves to appreciative rounds of applause, a “damn, those guys are clever” reaction, though some of the technical issues then bring that euphoria to a startling halt.
Disney, graphics, animation; the expectations are off the chart. And mostly, Epic Mickey succeeds in delivering a wonderful playground for the famous rodent to run, leap, cling to ledges, and swat enemies (using a Wii-mote shake motion). The animation of your protagonist is great, and the detail around the world is suitably Disney-esque…
BUT…it’s so fucking dark. And yes, I dropped an f-bomb there for effect because it…was…so…fucking…dark. I cranked the in-game brightness to max, my TV brightness to near-max, and still the environments that should have been colorful regardless of the brooding, ominous backstory were too damn dark. Maybe my eyesight has seen clearer days, but goddammit, let me see where Mickey is going.
When you can see, when the world opens up in more color, it’s a wonderfully realized creation. The stylized cut-scenes are an acquired taste, but there’s no doubting the expert craft in evidence in the character design. I just can’t understand why the world, regardless of its initial storyline, needs to be so unfathomably dark when players young and old, hardcore and casual, and Disney fanatics, will initially just want to see everything.
With all the character dialogue delivered in subtitles, it’s surprisingly tricky to identify with the heroes, villains, and in-the-middle-grey-toned characters that Mickey meets. The score is unobtrusive, but ramps at the right times so you know when you’re heading to boss encounters. If I described the music as “supporting its source material” it’s a compliment to the source material’s legacy… though I’d have loved to hear Mickey’s voice and a few guest shots for some of the key enemies.
What a bizarre experience. Love and hate, with the hate tempered by design understanding, but still…
I absolutely loved the progress, attention to detail, and passionate commitment to its source material. To the camera swirl and switch, I can only quote Achmed the Dead Terrorist… “I kill you!” (Look it up on YouTube.) Disney fans will adore its fan service, and hardcore gamers will appreciate its puzzles and challenges; younger fans will struggle with its mechanics, and probably miss the deeper gameplay design formats at work.
Such a dual-directed experience makes it difficult to score. For one, I reiterate the opening that it’s a must-buy for Disney fans, and score it nine out of ten. But in all good conscience, given its many other issues, Disney’s Epic Mickey gets 7 out of 10.