Warren Spector is a legend, of course. The brain behind such highly regarded games as Deus Ex, System Shock and Thief, all of which went on to become landmark titles in their respective genres, has had this Midas touch with video games. As a result, when Spector announces a new game, you sit up and take notice. Moreover, when he announces that the new game will not be on the PC (the platform that he is most familiar with, and the one that has played host to all of his big hits), but rather on a console, you begin to keep an eye on the developments with bated breath. Still more importantly, when he announces that his next game will be not on the Xbox 360 or the PS3- both consoles that have enough power under the hood to realize the kind of ambition that Spector inevitably brings with him- but rather, on the underpowered Wii, things begin to get interesting. And finally, when he announces that his latest game will actually feature the most recognizable mascot in the world- Mickey Mouse- in the starring role, and that it will be a new, grittier, reinterpretation of the character, you rub your hands in glee. Here is a recipe for something extreme- either this game will be Spector’s best so far, or it will be an absolute, unmitigated disaster, you think.
And yes, up until the release of this game, that is largely how public opinion on Epic Mickey went. As the game was demonstrated at public and media only events repeatedly, there were those who proclaimed that this game would demonstrate what a quality third party title on the Wii should be like, that it would prove to be the game that would demonstrate the commercial viability of third party games on the Wii. And then there was the second camp, which maintained, in the face of increasing resistance, that this game looked very ordinary, that there really seemed to be nothing special about it, and that hyping it up because of Spector, or Mickey, or Nintendo, without the game itself conveying any substance worth hyping up, was just plain and flat out a display of the typical fanboy’s mentality.
Now that the final game is here, and in our hands, it’s probably a bit ironic, and more than a little hilarious, to realize that all that sound and fury was towards no end after all. Epic Mickey, as a game, represents what is probably Spector’s weakest work till date. However, at the same time, it is in no way a bad game- it’s a great game with a great story that is charmingly told, a wonderful sound track, high production values, and reeking of polish and finesse overall. However, once you’re done with it, it probably won’t stick with you as being anything special, anything remarkable, anything groundbreaking. It’ll probably fade into the background as being just another good game. In a word, Epic Mickey can best be described as inoffensive. On a system on which every game incites controversy and provokes impassioned arguments, Epic mickey is certainly a bit of an outlier in that regard.
The first thing that stands out about Epic Mickey is its bold and stunning graphics. When the concept art for this game was first released over a year ago, there was considerable excitement amongst the gaming press and public. However, when the first build of the actual game was unveiled, there were murmurs of disappointment, as many felt that the final product did not seem to be living up to the original vision. That may certainly be true- Epic Mickey definitely doesn’t look as good as the concept art indicated it would- but it looks like a hell of a game nonetheless.
It’s got bright colors, that stand out starkly with the ruined world that the game is portraying. Epic Mickey’s graphics come off as bold and powerful, with great character animation and perfect color saturation. When this is mixed with the game’s smooth framerate and its high resolution textures and environments, we have what might be one of the best looking games in the system, and a game that manages to convey the dystopia of Wasteland to the player admirably well. Epic Mickey’s graphics set the stage perfectly, pulling you into their world, and creating an atmosphere that is probably unrivaled by any other Wii title this generation, except for maybe Silent Hill.
The great graphics are complemented by stunningly well directed cutscenes. These cutscenes look gorgeous, whether they be the CGI rendered portions such as the game intro, or the 2D animated sequences that hearken to the old Mickey Mouse cartoons. The transition between the cutscenes and the in game sequences is generally seamless (although you are bound to notice when the game switches over from the gameplay screen to the cartoon cutscenes) and this keeps things moving, ensuring that, unlike so many other games, Mickey’s cutscenes do not interrupt the flow of the game.
The graphics of this game are backed by this game’s wonderful score, which sounds brooding and epic, grandiose and menacing, all at once. And at the same time, it sounds alluring enough that a kid, many of whom will doubtless be playing this game, will not be intimidated, and in fact, might even be urged to play the game further simply because of how the soundscore of Epic Mickey subtly reinforces the game in our minds.
The game, sadly, has little to no voice work to speak of (see what I did there?)- most of the cutscenes feature nary but an odd grunt here an there (though some of them are voiced over by a narrator)- and this may been as a point in the cons column by many. However, when all is said and done, that’s probably for the best. Considering the design and direction of the game, as well as its starring protagonist, the decision to not have any voice acting was probably the wisest decision the developers made.
The cracks begin to show, however, with the game’s core underlying design. The foundation is solid, to be sure- we have what is essentially an adventure/platformer hybrid game, which is bolstered by several gameplay innovations such as the paint and the thinner (the former has the ability to restore and create objects in the game world, the latter can erase and delete them).
The paint brush and thinner actually add an interesting twist to the otherwise unremarkable rendition of the traditional 3D platformer. Often times, we run into a chasm simply too wide to jump across, and we have to use our paintbrush to restore some part of the floor that might have once been there before, but now isn’t, or use it to restore a gear that might be used to lower or raise some kind of drawbridge that might allow us to cross. Conversely, we often come across huge piles of debris or chasms that can only be crossed using the thinner properly- to clear the debris, or to delete a gear, that might be holding back some sort of platform or drawbridge.
It’s an interesting system, one that makes good use of the environment, and one that makes you think. It controls well enough too, using the Wiimote and nunchuk’s pointer abilities to be used intuitively.
But if all’s well and fine, then what is the problem with this game, you might ask? The issue with Epic Mickey arises primarily from two causes- one is rooted in the game’s platforming mechanics.
Now, make no mistake, Epic Mickey behaves as a solid platformer through and through. However, it suffers from somewhat floaty controls, which result all too often in you misjudging a jump, or falling to your death into a pool of thinner, or generally launching yourself in a direction you never intended. At no time is this more evident than when you are in combat. Your enemies are generally slow and they shuffle their way across, and to take them down should be a moment’s worth of task. That one has to follow them, take proper aim, jump to land on them, miss, and then repeat the entire procedure several times speaks volumes about the game’s controls. Certainly, they could have been tightened up. In a year when a game like Super Mario Galaxy 2 redefined 3D platforming controls, sloppy mechanics such as those boasted by Epic Mickey are inexcusable.
These problems are made worse because of the game’s camera. Now, I’m sure you’ve run into a lot of criticism for Epic Mickey’s camera online. While most of those complaints have been greatly exaggerated, there can be no denying that Epic Mickey’s camera could have used a lot of work. It has a tendency to place itself in just the worst spot when you are negotiating a particularly tricky jump, and while you can pull up the game’s auto camera center function, doing so costs us time, and it isn’t always as effective as we’d want. Whereas this generally isn’t game breaking, it causes a lot of unwarranted frustration, and is the cause for many of this game’s problems.
Then there’s also the fact that Epic Mickey’s morality system doesn’t amount to all that much in the end. If you’ll remember, the game’s morality system was one of its most touted features to begin with, and it involved Mickey’s appearance changing for better or for worse, depending upon your moral alignment. While that last feature was scrapped after many players complained during testing that it detracted from the Mickey Mouse they knew from their childhood, the morality system remains, and it’s generally implemented well, although it isn’t subtle or complex at all. Most of the times, Mickey is faced with two simple choices, one very obviously the ‘good’ choice, and the other very obviously ‘evil,’ and you’re asked to choose one or the other.
The problem is, barring maybe the story’s underlying ambiguity about Mickey’s morality, this system doesn’t really seem to have much of an effect on anything- it amounts to nothing at all. It’s a means unto no end, and that is its greatest undoing. Granted, you get different sidequests and allegiances based on the choices you make, but these are so opaque and so inconsequential anyway that they can be safely ignored. Players looking for the complexity of Mass Effect or even Fable best be warned, Epic Mickey won’t really ask you to make a morally tough decision.
Ultimately, Epic Mickey is a well made game with a lot of problems. It’s got a great story backed with charming visuals and a great soundscore, and it has unprecedented polish and finesse for a third party Wii game. It’s very evident that a lot of effort was put into making Epic Mickey, but this game clearly needed more time- the camera could and should have been fixed, the controls definitely needed more work, and the morality system needed a reason for being there at all. However, the game’s problems don’t detract from the fact this is a charming and fun game to play. If you’re willing to look past its issues, you’ll find a fun, if unremarkable, romp through forgotten Disney worlds that’ll tug at your heartstrings.
As for the game’s issues, here’s hoping that the inevitable sequel will fix all that is wrong with this game. Mr Spector is certainly capable of ironing out the creases, we know.
This game was reviewed on the Nintendo Wii.
High production values, great graphics, great soundtrack, neat gameplay concepts such as paint and thinner well implemented, good story
Floaty controls, camera has trouble keeping up, in game morality system of little consequence
Epic Mickey is an excellent game- highly polished, and representing high production quality otherwise known to be absent from third party Wii efforts. A few snags along the way, notably its camera and its floatly controls, ensures that Epic Mickey isn't a home run. But as it stands now, it certainly is a remarkable debut for the famed mascot, and his famous developer, on the little white console.