Developer: Junction Point / Publisher: Disney Interactive Studio / Platform: Xbox 360, PS3, Wii / ESRB: Everyone / Release Date: Fall 2012
Say what you will about the gameplay qualities and frailties of Disney’s Epic Mickey, for fans of the house that Walt built it was a shrine to all that was good, and much that was forgotten from the Magic Kingdom. The depth of fan service in background material, unlockable cartoons, and commitment to the characters elevated a curious game into stratospheric echelons for those that sought out every secret, and appreciated every nod to nostalgia. The Wii-only release was, according to Disney, a success on the platform for a third-party publisher. Enough, at least, to warrant a return to the Wasteland, backed by stats trotted out by Warren Spector in the launch announcement that in various territories 92-97% of respondents wanted a sequel. I’d have said “yes” to that question, to provide the opportunity to get the camera and controls straight, smooth out the puzzles, and brighten the stage so it felt like a Disney cartoon.
On stage at the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum in the lone star state capital, Warren Spector unveiled Disney’s Epic Mickey 2: The Power of Two. To deal with the title right off the bat, not surprisingly it refers to co-op play. Mickey Mouse remains the core hero of the piece (the one with the real abilities to solve every challenge), but is supported by Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, now in playable form. Spector, as a committed Disney fan, was giddy at the introduction of Oswald (who could have been the Disney Corporation’s flagship character if he wasn’t lost to Universal in a dispute, prompting Walt to create a new icon, this time a mouse, called Mickey). Now the rabbit is playable by a buddy in drop-in, drop-out co-op. He’ll also accompany Mickey through the campaign if you play alone, solving puzzles with his own electrical and helicopter skills powered by a newly created AI system. We played vertical split-screen co-op (no online co-op) through three demo levels to see how the system worked. Responding to comments on the original release, Spector is promising that you’ll receive significantly more feedback on what you’re supposed to do, and where you’re supposed to go.
All of the information and feedback will actually be voiced (no more awkward grunts and subtitled dialogue), using the actual Disney voice actors for all the prominent characters. But even beyond the voice acting is the singing, as Spector revealed that, fundamentally, Epic Mickey 2 is a musical! In the best Disney traditions (so we’re led to believe), characters espouse their motivations and objectives through song. Penned by James Dooley, who wrote all the music for the original game, characters will belt out tunes in classic musical format as Mickey and Oswald fight off a new threat throughout the Wasteland, featuring the new animatronic-meets-blot Blotworx machines.
We only saw one ditty, kicking off the introduction of Oswald as the land calls for a returning hero (Mickey), apparently five days after the events of the first game (if you recall from the original intro movie, the date on the wall was March 25, and in this game it’s March 30).
What was clear in our play-test on the Xbox 360 and PS3 versions was the improvements made to the camera. While stilling closing in to action and pulling out further when appropriate it was significantly more intuitive than the process that powered the original game and caused many frustrating situations as you scanned for solutions to puzzles. The core painting in parts of the world and thinning others remains intact Spector asserts that the consequences of your decisions this time around will be more permanent. When you thin an object or pathway it stays thinned until such time as you decide to paint it in again. It’s a reinforcement of his desire to make every decision matter, despite the fact that a core element of the audience resides in the 6-12 year old range. Those kids are just going to have to learn.
What wasn’t so clear is how some of the controls had evolved. The double-jump mechanic that’s so vital to making some of the most basic leaps around the environment is still too finicky. In fact, it felt the same as the original game, which it likely was, but desperately needs tweaking to make even experienced gamers able to make some of the leaps required in the early levels.
The puzzles themselves have apparently been improved by more specific input from NPCs (like Goofy) and the Gremlins who provide explicit direction. We didn’t get to hear the audio, so we’ll take that on face value. It’s certainly handy that in the co-op mode the characters aren’t tethered together and can act independently throughout the level to achieve various objectives. And sitting on the couch to communicate with a buddy should overcome other challenges in solving any puzzles where the solutions aren’t immediately apparent.
On the visual side, the move to the PS3 and Xbox 360 (where the technology is being developed by Blitz Games in the UK) has helped smooth out some edges and add depth to transparencies in the areas you can thin, and in the liquid effects flowing down rivers of green goop. The Wii version appears to retain much of the same style of the original, though again the camera improvements are apparent from the outset.
Much like the Wii controls, the PS3 version will incorporate Move support, but no surprise that Kinect is not part of the equation given what a monumental wrench to the control scheme that format would throw into the works.
Of course, Junction Point still intends to include the same level of fan depth in its secrets that made the original game so appealing to the hardcore Disney crowd. To that end, Disney’s archivist let us see an Oswald cartoon called Hungry Hobos, starring Oswald, that the corporation recently bought, and had been thought lost for over 80 years. Despite no restoration (that’s to come) or audio or score dubbing, it was hilarious, and a real treat to see the quality of animation work and inventiveness of ideas on show so long ago. Whether that cartoon makes the game has yet to be revealed, and there are plenty of other details tucked away, like the names of the voice acting talent hired to bring some of the new characters to life. That’s all still to come.
In the meantime, Disney’s Epic Mickey 2: The Power of Two shows signs of resolving many issues from the original game, maturing its gameplay style to appeal to the Xbox 360 and PS3 crowd, yet still maintaining the depth of content that fans of the magical kingdom loved so much. There will be additional reveals and details in the coming months before the planned release later this Fall.