Delayed Reactions: Epic Mickey (Wii)
+ Great Story
+ Beautiful tribute to classic Mickey
- Camera is slow to the point of annoying
- Missions failure conditions seem inconsistent
- Morality is awkwardly tied to core gameplay
When I first heard that Warren Spector was doing the next Mickey game I got really excited. I see Warren as being one of the great game designers of our time. He has a great deal of insight into player motivation and progressive gameplay. This is why I was so surprised that I was never excited about Epic Mickey whenever I saw it demoed at various trade shows. I began to assume that the game demos poorly at large scale conventions, that to understand what Epic Mickey is really about it needed to be played. Having play it, this is partly true. There is a great deal under the hood in this title, and while I can’t say it’s a bad game, inconsistent execution bogs down what really could have been a terrific game.
Epic Mickey does have a lot working in its favor, specifically the way it handles classic Mickey Mouse. The whole game is really a tribute to the old black and white shorts of the Mickey Mouse origin; a curious, mischievous, adventurous and emotionally interesting little mouse. Those cartoons were even a little before my time, but some I do remember and when I saw them being portrayed in this game it heightened the experience for me. It makes me wonder who this game is really for though. Kids won’t really get the nostalgic factor of these old cartoons and adults might find the game either out of their element if they aren’t a gamer, or find the game presents too much hand holding if they are. Kids will however appreciate the portrayal of the Magic Kingdom if they’ve been to Disneyland or Disney World.
The story is the highlight of the game. It’s a genuinely touching piece. The premise is that Mickey Mouse, before his acting career ever started, passed through his mirror into a magical room. The Wizard, most notably from the “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” bit in Fantasia, is creating what appears to be a model of the Magic Kingdom. After the Wizard leaves, Mickey picks up the Wizard’s paint brush and attempts to do some of his own painting to the model. Mickey discovers that his addition is quickly turning into a horrible monstrous blot and accidentally spills thinner all over the model trying to undo his mistake. The Wizard stirs in the next room, so Mickey flees back to his home. Years pass, Mickey forgets this event ever occurred and becomes the famous mouse we know today. One night, the blot reaches through the mirror and pulls Mickey into the model. In the struggle, Mickey manages to grab the magic brush before being dragged into the depths below. There he discovers a world twisted and distorted, on the brink of total destruction, the Wasteland. Mickey must figure out a way to get home and destroy the blot once and for all.
The beauty of this story comes from the truth of what the Wasteland represents. The Wasteland is the home of all the characters that the real world has forgotten, lead by Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. In real life, Oswald was one of Walt Disney’s first jointly created characters. Due to contract issues, Disney lost control of the character to Universal and it wasn’t until much later that Disney purchased him back. By then he was almost completely forgotten, but is considered to be an early version of Mickey Mouse, a brother. Other characters in the Wasteland include all the various iterations of Pete, a classic Mickey and Goofy villain, and the background characters for all the Mickey Mouse cartoons. Everyone in the Wasteland treats Mickey as an old colleague, but some with more trust than others, regardless of the role they may have played in the cartoon, friend or foe. Oswald is bitter because Mickey took the success that should have been his. He clearly does love Mickey though because he built Mickey a replica of his house from the Magic Kingdom in the event that someday Mickey would be forgotten too and end up living with them in the Wasteland.
This is where the morality system comes in. For a while, Mickey doesn’t realize that he caused the devastation to the Wasteland and put all these characters, many of who consider themselves to be friends of Mickey Mouse, in mortal peril. The player however knows and has the option to use paint or thinner throughout the journey. Many of the walls in the world can be painted or thinned, providing platforms, or passages depending on what the player does.
Thinner is destructive. It is used to kill enemies and destroy the environment further. It is generally easier to play this way because the player gains more access to secrets in the world and has to deal with less resistance by destroying enemies outright. The player can also choose to use paint, which will befriend enemies and restore the world that Mickey ruined. Not all enemies can be befriended and after a friended enemy as lost enough paint, they will again attempt to destroy Mickey.
The player has the choice to ignore the plight of the forgotten characters and use thinner to complete the game. The player is basically picking how to handle Mickey’s celebrity status. Does the player help the characters who were a part of Mickey’s humble beginnings, or disregard them? I chose a path of restoration because it’s Mickey’s fault that their world was destroyed and it should fall on him to fix it. This works in contradiction to my idea of exploration however because now in order to explore the entire level, I would have to thin out all the walls to see which conceal passages, then paint them back in. This meticulous attention to painting the landscape isn’t a particularly exciting part of the game because it ultimately doesn’t really matter. I remember that when I got to the Main Street equivalent of the Wasteland and restored it to its former glory as best I could, the level reverted when I left and came back. The fact the levels return to a default state completely undercuts my feeling of responsibility to restoring the world. At that point, using paint or thinner to explore started to feel more like a chore than a useful and engaging ability. If you’re not one who cares about complete exploration this probably will never be an issue to you. Towards the end of the game events occur that help reveal the secrets behind these walls, so you can happen upon them naturally. This add/subtract dynamic is used to create most of the puzzle elements in the levels. It’s fun enough, just not terribly exciting and a bit redundant.
Oddly though, the game would frequently provide the player with a puzzle, a way to get through the level, then simultaneously provide an alternate way to progress through the level without ever having to perform the other puzzle. When I had a round table discussion with Warren at PAX, he described the importance of player choice, that it’s not a game unless they have options to pick from. This execution of choosing alternate route to the end of the level seemed fitting to that philosophy, but misplaced. I’m playing the game to experience the full game. For example, if a puzzle allows me to bypass the fighting and vice versa I feel like I’m getting cheated out of one part of the game or the other. Not everyone may feel this way, but I generally completed one version of the level progression, then completed the other paths as well. When they’re no moral choice to picking A or B, when A or B look equally fun, I don’t want to pick from “or”, I just want both.
The player is also presented with various missions, though mostly fetch quests. One thing I did like was that certain quests favored morality towards the mischievous or the well natured. What I didn’t like was that it wasn’t always clear which was which, or what the time limit was. There were some quests I failed because I talked to the wrong person, or didn’t complete it in a particular order when I didn’t realized there was an order I had to follow. There was even one where Pete asks you to round up and imprison some bunny children. I would have actually done this too if one of my former Disney colleagues hadn’t mentioned that doing this would piss off Oswald. That wouldn’t have occurred to me because the game doesn’t clearly identify itself as a game where morality choices are sometimes subtly presented. I had to collect some masks for a guy in the Adventure Land area of the park, but I had access to his store room too and I didn’t realize that I could steal the masks I already gave him and give them to him again. I never would have done that had I known. He was pissed. I didn’t always know I was making an A or B choice until I ran into someone asking me if I had something that I already gave to someone else.
By the time I reached the end of the game, I couldn’t help but feel that the gameplay didn’t scale itself to as grand a scale as the story did. The end of the game was big and exciting story wise, but the culmination in gameplay was a long spiral platforming sequence that felt repetitive and cheap, and a single room full of enemies I’ve already fought with defenseless marks on the wall I needed to shoot in sequential order. The one saving grace to the end of the game was that I finally felt like the decisions I made mattered during the ending sequence. It felt like the sequence highlighted the things I accomplished, the things I chose to do. I’m certain the ending would have looked rather different had I made the polar opposite choices and it genuinely felt good to see the game acknowledge my actions. I wish there was greater acknowledgement during the core gameplay, but at least I finally felt ownership for my actions at the end.
To transition from map to map, the player has to play through a side scrolling level. These levels are fun the first or second time I played them, but I quickly began to wish I could just warp between worlds. The levels were too basic to be overly exciting. The each represented an old cartoon, so the greatest enjoyment comes only to those with a fond memory of the cartoon itself. I found myself generally intrigued to know what the original cartoon was. Two cartoons are unlockable within the game, one of Mickey and one of Oswald, and I have to say I wish there were more. It would have aided my appreciation of the overall content.
This game strikes me as a difficult game to classify. It seems like an odd “for everyone” title. Adult gamers who know the cartoons will enjoy the game most, but it’s designed in a way that seems to be geared towards kids. The text in the cutscenes passes by too quickly for kids to really be able to read it all, which seems like it would be discouraging for them, and the platforming seems too difficult for adults new to gaming. Also, there is a huge amount of hand-holding throughout the game in odd places. Your gremlin companion is incessantly talking to you, telling you where you should go in the level, or confirming if you want to perform an action. I can’t say it got annoying, but it felt unnecessary in most instances.
Ultimately, I can say this game is great for people who love Mickey Mouse. It is, beginning to end, a tribute to a side of Disney we haven’t seen in the spotlight in a long time. I wish we saw this side more often honestly. As for anyone in between, the game is fun but not exciting. It can certainly help to cultivate a greater appreciation for Mickey history. As I said before, the story is the best thing about it and it’s good enough to forgive many of the shortcomings in the game’s execution, but not all. I may play it again a long time down the road, but I constantly wish the game excited me more from the beginning. If you love Mickey, pick this game up. If you like Mickey, give it a try when you have time. If you’re just ok with Mickey, this review may suffice.