Mickey Mouse just isn't the icon he used to be. Though once the star of countless animated films and shorts (and even several great video games) Mickey has seen his reputation slowly taken away. He is featured in fewer stories and on more merchandise these days, almost becoming more of a corporate symbol than a living, breathing character capable of supporting a grand adventure.
That's where veteran video game developer Warren Spector and his newly-formed Junction Point team come into the picture. In developing Disney Epic Mickey Spector and his crew sought to bring Mickey back to the spotlight, to not only give him a starring role in a video game once again but also showcase the character as the hero he is and always has been. If the game is remembered for one element and one element only, it should be that Mickey Mouse is as capable as any character of supporting a Pixar-like adventure that not only amazes with spectacle and design but tugs at our hearts with its strong character development and remarkable love for Disney lore. Sadly a memorable story and concept only go so far; there is much holding back Epic Mickey.
Much of Epic Mickey's strong characterization comes not only from Mickey himself, but his antagonist, Oswald. Though not exactly the villain of the game, Oswald is certainly the most memorable character Mickey encounters, ruling over a warped world called Wasteland. In the introductory cinematic, our hero's curiosity gets the better of him, and he significantly damages a magical world with powerful paint and thinner chemicals. Mickey runs away, unaware of the lives in Wasteland that he has affected. Months later, Mickey's mischief comes back to haunt him, as the Phantom Blot, a creature unleashed during the accident, seeks out Mickey and pulls him into Wasteland. Mickey eventually realizes all of the damage he has caused and that in order to set things right, he must destroy the Blot once and for all.
Mickey gradually discovers many dark, depressing truths about Wasteland. This is a land for the forgotten and discarded – the unnecessary and ignored characters from Disney's lore. Oswald the Rabbit is the leader of these abandoned icons of old, and his evolution as a character not only adds greatly to the story but enhances Mickey's heroism as well. The story and emotional sophistication on display here is definitely on par with the best of Pixar's offerings, with characters that will appeal to children and themes that operate on multiple levels for the young and old alike.
Though the story begins and ends with full CG sequences and voice acting, during gameplay, text-driven dialogue is only expressed through brief noises and sound effects (think Banjo Kazooie). These are all reasonably effective and charming, but a lack of in-game voice acting in this day and age is a bit disappointing. It's also not like we're dealing with a silent lead character – we all know what Mickey sounds like. Why not bring full voices to him and the rest of Wasteland?
An outside studio called Powerhouse Animation used a 2D visual approach to create retro-inspired cutscenes that typically introduce major new worlds, quests or concepts. These pieces feature some of the best acting, animation, and character development seen anywhere. It's remarkable to see Mickey's face contort in the simplest ways to perfectly convey an emotion, and the frequency with which Powerhouse precisely hits comedic notes is truly exceptional.
Whether a victim of hype or limitations of the Wii hardware, the gameplay of Epic Mickey might not be what you're expecting. While it's true the developers have layered in much choice and consequence, both through character interaction and the much-heralded paint/thinner concept, a number of limitations stand out and impede what is a fundamentally sound concept.
This idea of paint and thinner is clever but has its limits. Though you might want to manipulate the surrounding world in wild ways, only specifically determined areas can be manipulated, and you can only paint something into existence if it already existed. What's frustrating is the game doesn't always remember what has been done. You can walk around an area, annihilating everything in your path (at least as much as the game will allow), but if you leave and come back it's as if nothing happened. For a game that pushes the idea of consequence, the lack of permanence is problematic.
Despite a lack of immediate worldly impact, how bosses are handled will not only determine the gameplay of that fight and the types of rewards given but how Wasteland eventually "heals" toward the end of your 15-hour adventure. Using thinner, for example, might be the easier way out of a conflict, but that character will never be able to help rebuild Wasteland as the threat of the Phantom Blot subsides. This ultimately impacts the end cinematic, which reflects some of the choices made throughout the game.
What's most troubling about Epic Mickey is how much the game gets right only to be undone by fundamental failures that threaten to damage much of its remarkable accomplishments. These critical flaws are exposed in two key areas: control and camera. It's very likely you will die needlessly in this game because of these glitches. As level design becomes more complicated and requires more precise control, these flaws start to stack up, making for some very, very frustrating sequences. Truly, the game's greatest challenges come from negotiating its flaws, not any difficulty posed by enemies.
Disney Epic Mickey's control struggles in two ways. First is the fluid, paint-like manner in which Mickey moves and jumps. In the more open 3D segments this might not be such an issue, but there are many 2D sequences that require a bit of old school precision on the part of the player. But the game's controls aren't responsive or accurate enough.
Oddly, Mickey has a slippery quality to him and an annoying stretch animation to his jump. The reasoning is perfectly sound: Mickey has been infected by the Blot and has paint-like qualities, which can be seen throughout the game. But cartoon or not, simply jumping and running through a level should not be drastically impacted by stylistic embellishments. When sliding off the edge of a platform or unable to turn around quickly, I really don't care about being reminded Mickey is infected by the Phantom Blot.
Another control issue enters with combat. Strictly speaking, Epic Mickey is not meant to be a combat-oriented game. Traversing through environments, rummaging through buildings, and helping out Wasteland inhabitants is incredibly fun. It's a blast to discover corners of the world that can be erased, with treasure hiding behind their seemingly innocent walls. Fighting enemies, particularly in any sort of quantity, however, is not so much fun.
Junction Point chose not to include a lock-on mechanic for combat, a baffling choice given the fact that they have a button to center the camera behind Mickey. Games like Zelda have used the same button for both functions; what happened here? When fighting basic enemies or perhaps a single, more advanced foe (including bosses), there's no significant problem. If Mickey needs to square off against several bad guys, the lack of ability to competently manage combat is ridiculously aggravating. Mickey will strafe when actively firing paint, but that simply isn't flexible enough to manage some of the more complex battles you'll face.
Combat in Epic Mickey can be annoying, but dealing with the camera is nearly unbearable. All too often the camera has a mind of its own, wandering into inconvenient positions or worse yet, getting stuck behind buildings. To help the player, Junction point does include the ability to center the camera as well as manually manipulate the camera. The problem? The game, for whatever reason, won't always let the player use these functions, either eliminating the buttons' uses entirely or only allowing for minor adjustments.
As with the combat, the camera's weaknesses incrementally build over time, truly rearing their head in the later stages of the game. What starts off as a minor, excusable annoyance builds into a maddening test of patience that challenges the player's ability to press many buttons at once and leads to unnecessary deaths. A simple lock-on mechanic could have gone a long way in improving the system, and in several instances a fixed angle could have prevented the camera from interfering in sequences that require precise movement. How this was overlooked is a bit baffling.
Fortunately, everything outside of the camera and control shines much brighter. Epic Mickey is graphically impressive. The designers took a page from Super Mario Galaxy, finding a style that is very expressive while accounting for the Wii's limits. In this case, the minimalistic aesthetic associated with cartoons helps a great deal, and the imaginative recreations of familiar Disney theme park attractions go a long way to distracting from any plain textures. Framerate inconsistency is an unfortunate side effect to some of the clever architecture. When in some of the more benign hubs or combat-free areas, expect a silky smooth experience. Once several enemies enter a battle or the designs get too grand… get ready for a very noticeable shift downward.
While most of the game exists in the outlandish and wild Wasteland, Junction Point was eager to embrace the extensive black-and-white cartoon history of Mickey and Oswald. These classic pieces manifest themselves as 2D platformer levels that bridge major sections of the game, either from the Mean Street U.S.A. hub area to locations like OsTown or the Big Easy. Though the concept is great, and it's a blast seeing some of these iconic pieces brought to life, they are oddly disruptive. There's nothing like being completely engrossed in a fantastic set piece only to be moved to a radically different experience. Additionally, there is no option to bypass these levels even after they're beaten. Prepare to repeat some of them up to a dozen times depending on how much you're helping Wasteland citizens.
Epic Mickey's commitment to Disney's rich history doesn't end with characters, visuals, and design. Even its musical selection embraces the past while finding a direction that is uniquely its own. Composer Jim Dooley, who has worked on a vast array of projects including the Simpsons Movie, Pushing Daisies, and the third Pirates of the Caribbean film with Hans Zimmer, crafts a solid score that will no doubt impress Disney fans for its ability to twist classic themes into a sound that feels more suited to Oswald's Wasteland. The dedication to completely realizing Disney Interactive's vision for a world of forgotten characters is truly remarkable, and Junction Point absolutely addressed all angles.