Saturday, January 8, 2011

Review: Epic Mickey. How disappointing can a game get?

Well this one I didn't see coming. I had been interested in Epic Mickey since it was first announced. Growing up in the Sega Genesis era, Mickey games like Castle of Illusion, World of Illusion, and of course, Mickey Mania, were larger than life to me. The idea of Disney teaming up with industry vet Warren Spector to develop the next Mickey game, a slightly darker take on the classic character, sounded almost like a dream come true. It was also revealed that this would be a full-fledged 3D platformer, and being a fan of 3D platformers myself, I was excited to see another one after so many platformers these days are making a move back into 2D. To my amazement, the game we've received is such a bomb in terms of its execution, especially in the gameplay department, that I really can't recommend it to anybody, whether it be kids or adults. Epic Mickey feels as if its development studio, Junction Point, played a few hours of Banjo Kazooie and then decided to take the worst aspects of that game and build an entire game devoted to them.

-Noooo! Enough with the fetch Quests! -

Which is too bad because Epic Mickey gets off to a promising start, and for the first hour or so I was completely sold on this gameplay. At the beginning of this adventure, Mickey is messing around in the Fantasia sorcerer's workshop and accidentally spills a big dark blot of paint onto a strange painting. He tries unsuccessfully to thin it out, but the blot lives on, eventually returning to Mickey's world to pull him into this painting. It's a world now ruled by the evil blot that Mickey created. The world, known as Wasteland, is made up of long-lost Disney characters, and it's ruled by Oswald the rabbit, who was almost totally forgotten once Walt Disney created Mickey Mouse. As you wander through this world you're given quests by others, and your available quests can be checked in the game's main menu. Many of these quests have multiple approaches you can take, and it's through this that Epic Mickey incorporates its "good and evil" system. Do you use your magic brush to spray paint thinner at your enemies, killing them, or do you use your magic brush to paint them, turning them good? This "good or evil" choice takes several forms over the course of the game, though it's always very obvious which is which.

Mickey controls decently enough, with a pretty far-reaching jump and double-jump. The cartoon-style cutscenes are charming and the dialogue's well-written. The paint and thinner concept seemed, at the start, promising. But this all comes crashing down when you actually get to the meat of the game and realize that there's just no fun to be had: not with the combat, not with the paint/thinner mechanic, not with the good/evil gimmick, and *especially* not with the quests that must be completed to progress through Wasteland.
Here's how Epic Mickey works. Once you have enough Power Sparks to operate the film projector, you are able to transport from Mean Street, the game's hub world, into one of the levels. Once here, you're placed into an environment, often with non-player characters hanging around. Mickey is given quests by these characters, and these will unlock the next projector, which will send you into the next area, where that process is basically repeated. Quests are either given to you by these NPCs, or will be explained to you by Gus, who serves as your guide through Wasteland. The biggest problem with this game is that these quests are *the game*, almost in its entirety. This non-stop barrage of collect-a-thons, fetch quests, and bland platforming that you're constantly asked to undertake makes up pretty much your entire Epic Mickey experience. Take, for example, Mickey's visit to Ventureland. Upon getting dropped into this Captain Hook-themed pirate universe, you're simply told to talk to 3 pirates, and each of them has a mission for you. "Search Ventureland for these masks." "Search Mean Street and OsTown for these flowers for this girl I like." "Go to the store and pick me up this compass!" Once you do all of these, you're transported to your next area, where even more of these types of quests are waiting for you. Sometimes you'll be given a choice in which quests to undertake, but when they all involve pretty much doing the same thing....collecting, there's never any option that's "more fun."

I have no idea who at Junction Point thought that this made for compelling platforming. Scouring all these areas for dumb little collectibles, or switches to hit, lamps to draw, or whatever, all while fighting an irritating camera, isn't any fun, especially when the mission requires you to backtrack to other areas in the game. As you go from one environment to another, you get to control Mickey in a short 2D segment based on one of the Disney classics. These are entertaining at first, mainly because some of them reminded me of Mickey Mania, (though not as good, of course) but to have to do these (unskippable) sections each time you travel back and forth from one location to another gets old very quickly.

And I hate to say it, but that's pretty much all Epic Mickey has to offer: it's just one giant collect-a-thon. When between levels, you do get to explore the hub world of Mean Street, and though it looks cool at first, you'll quickly discover how limited it is, pretty much consisting of a few enterable buildings like a museum, City Hall, and a couple shops, but nothing to get excited about. You're placed on Mean Street to collect the Power Sparks that will get you to the next stage, and you get these by doing tasks for people. These tasks almost all involve collecting one thing or another. Noticing a pattern here?

I don't mean to say this is all totally devoid of merit. There's something satisfying about stepping into the museum to discover that you've collected a rare item during your quest, and that the museum curator will buy it for a Power Spark. And there are charming Disney characters like Pete, Goofy, Daisy, Donald, Oswald, etc. to interact with. But with gameplay that constantly feels like a chore, it's impossible to get excited about any of this. Can anyone honestly say that collecting missions has ever been their favorite part of a platformer? I've always sighed in frustration whenever I got to one of these in any video game I'm playing, and yet Epic Mickey is an entire game made up of this. It gets exhausting, and even though we're dealing with basically a 15-hour game, it took me weeks to beat it simply because there was only so much of this I could take in one sitting.

The game does autosave, but it only saves your progress after you complete a quest. So you can be in one space (like the dreadfully frustrating haunted house later in the game,) and have several quests going at once, and you may have 3 of the 6 books you needed to collect, along with the 1 of 3 skulls you needed to paint, and you've painted in 2 of the 4 pictures you needed to find. You die, either by falling into the paint thinner, or being killed by the many enemies in the area, but you lose all that progress, since you hadn't completed any of those quests. You can imagine how fun that is.

-Ugh, the camera-

Let me go back to the camera for a minute. I'm kind of funny with the whole "camera," issue in video games, and I can be been pretty forgiving of a bad camera in a game that I really like. During my first hour of Epic Mickey I had thought to myself that people were over-reacting to the allegedly bad camera. But as my respect for Epic Mickey declined, my frustration with the camera increased. It requires you to constantly rotate it around with the D-pad to point it in the right direction, and when in tight corridors and during certain combat sections and boss fights, this can be a complete hassle. Sometimes the game won't even let you adjust the camera, leaving you with a totally useless angle. It really is one of the worst cameras I've experienced in a 3D game in a long time. On the rare occasion that you're not collecting anything and you actually get to do some platforming, the camera makes this as un-fun as possible. Not to mention the fact that this platforming isn't exactly Mario Galaxy, let's put it that way. You jump over things. That's about it.

-Puzzles from hell-

Epic Mickey doesn't do this all that often, busy as it is with your collecting, but there are times when Junction Point will throw a puzzle at you, and these are so poorly explained that it almost seems like they were designed so parents would have to go out and buy the Official Strategy Guide for their kids. I have to admit that even as a gamer in my 20s, I found myself completely confused by almost every puzzle this game's given to me, and believe me, it's not because these are brilliant puzzles. It's because Epic Mickey does such a poor job of telling you exactly what it wants you to do, or how to do it, sometimes even lying to you in the process. There's one puzzle where you're in a room full of semi-painted paintings: some of them are happy images, others illustrate sad things. Gus actually says to you that you should try painting them all of one type. So, it would seem that the game wants you to choose between filling in all the happy ones or all the sad ones. It turns out, you have to fill in every single painting, which turns around a gargoyle that you can then use to complete the puzzle. So, that being the case, why would they give you that very misleading sentence telling you only to paint in certain ones? It just doesn't make sense to me.

-Good/evil, painting/thinning, and forgettable combat.-

Epic Mickey places a lot of emphasis on its good/evil gimmick, but never does it feel like it really even belongs in the game. He's frigging Mickey Mouse, for one thing. For another, the choice between good and evil is almost always so spelled out for you that it's not as much about making your own choices, as it is about making the choices you want to get the ending you want. (But then the joke's on you, since the endings aren't very different at all.) When fighting a boss, you're told by Gus "okay, use thinner on him to destroy him forever, or use paint on him to turn him into the good guy he once was!" Can you guess what the "good" and "bad" choice is?

There's stuff like that all throughout the game. A safe dangerously floats above a NPC's head. Do you knock it down, killing the guy but opening the safe? Or do you do a little collecting mission for someone who will give you the combination to the safe so you can open it without knocking it down? This doesn't require a good deal of thought, it's all just a gimmick.

You have to use painting/thinning all throughout the adventure to progress but all this involves is pointing your Wii Remote at the screen and spraying at discolored walls and see-through objects to either paint or thin them. Is it a functional system? Sure. Does it add anything to the game? Not really.

The same goes for the combat system. You point and either paint (to turn good) or thin (to eliminate) your enemies. It gets the job done, and there's nothing particularly broken about it (though I wished at times that the spray had a bit more range) but there's also not much that's fun about it. There are powers that you learn about as the game progresses, but these are neither useful nor very fun to use, so they don't add much either.

-Visuals, story, and world-

Warren Spector made the bold claim a while back that Epic Mickey was the best-looking game on the Wii. I have to say that I think he's exaggerating just a bit. Granted, this is a nice-looking game, with a dark visual style and some inspired art direction, but at the same time, I didn't find many of its environments to be all that interesting. Then again, it doesn't help that the concept art that displays at each load screen always looks cooler than the levels that it's loading.

As far as character design goes, Mickey himself was designed to match his look in the original cartoons, and I think it was a bad choice because it doesn't look like the Mickey Mouse most people who are alive today will know. His design just struck me as weird. Ditto for the decision not to voice act the game. The intro and ending are voiced by the sorcerer: everything else is all text, and though I got used to this quicker than I thought I would, again, it seems like a bizarre choice, since anyone who is playing video games today grew up with a Mickey Mouse who talked. This also makes Epic Mickey totally inaccessible for little kids, since it's impossible to play without the ability to read, and I feel sorry for any parent who buys this for their kid and will have to hold their hand through the entire game.

The story, lack of voice acting aside, is quite charming though. Oswald's a great character and manages to come across as much more likable than this game's strangely bland Mickey, and Gus is another fun character to have around. The other Disney characters have their moments in supporting roles, and the ending's actually pretty heartwarming.

The good story makes up for the fact that I never quite understood what Wasteland is supposed to be. It's supposedly a world of forgotten Disney characters and rides, and yet it's populated by Disney characters and Disney World/Disneyland rides that are anything but forgotten. At times I felt like Epic Mickey might just be a giant advertisement for Disney theme parks, and not a very subtle one at that.

Epic Mickey is a game that started off with great promise but then fails in the most important department. It's a collection of interesting but badly-implemented ideas stuck in a bog of repetitive, unexciting, and tedious gameplay. I can't remember another game, except for maybe Final Fantasy XII, that felt like so much hard work and heart went into it, yet that turned out so completely un-fun to play. I have no doubt that Warren Spector's heart was in the right place, I just wish he and his team had developed the game's ideas more completely and didn't make the unfortunate choice to go with the most annoying type of gameplay imaginable. Super Mario Galaxy came along a couple years back and proved that there's still so much life to be found in the 3D platformer. Epic Mickey, on the other hand, just serves to show show why the 3D platformer has almost died off.

Presentation: The occasional glitch or two and the lack of voice acting leaves a mark. Game has great cartoon-styled cutscenes, though, and there's tons of unlockables to find and quests to complete. It's a shame they weren't more fun to do.

Graphics: A nice-looking Wii game with great art direction. Though it's hard to enjoy your surroundings with such a terrible camera. Some framerate dives during real hectic moments.

Gameplay: A series of item hunts and fetch quests so excessive that even 1990s Rareware would probably have said, "gee, guys, think you might want to tone these down a little?" This is mixed with an under-developed "good/evil" mechanic. Not *every* game needs one of these, developers, especially if it's going to feel so tacked on. Confusing, poorly-explained puzzles, bland combat, forgettable inventive platforming in sight. 1 or 2 cool bosses.

Audio: The elaborate musical score screams "Tim Burton Movie!" which isn't really my cup of tea, but it's solid and sounds expensive.

Replay Value: The game for me clocked in at a solid 15-hours, though I found myself quite eager for it to end. There's tons of unlockables, quests to do, pins to collect...this game's chock full of extras and is designed for a New Game Plus, if of course you can stomach the gameplay a second time.

Overall: 4.5/10

(My reviews go on a .5 scale.)

No comments:

Post a Comment