Sinister Reviews #08: Epic Mickey

#08: Epic Mickey (Nintendo Wii)

Genre: 3D Platform, Adventure
Platform: Nintendo Wii
Release Date: November 2010
Developer: Junction Point Studios
Publisher: Disney Interactive Studios

I started my review of Fable II by first disassembling the nature of ‘karma’ in video games and how an increasing number of titles make you accountable for your in-game actions. In many ways it feels as though I’m delving into the same can of worms with Warren Spector’s latest opus, Epic Mickey as, some nifty action-platforming aside, my latest review is once again a game that revolves around Choices.

The premise of Epic Mickey is an interesting one, and not one just for Disney aficionados. Mickey, the obvious protagonist and Disney’s flagship character, discovers the world of the Wasteland through an accident in the Sorceror’s laboratory. Here reside the characters and designs who filled Disney’s early cartoons before the arrival of  feature films, and the appearance of a certain Mouse caused much of Uncle Walt’s early work to be forgotten and neglected.Prime in this world is Oswald the Lucky Rabbit; Walt Disney’s first creation whilst working at the studios of Universal, and yet one of Disney’s most little-known creations until the House of Mouse re-acquired Oswald from Universal Studios in 2006. The titular rabbit governs the Wasteland and its inhabitants, until Mickey’s clumsiness in the laboratory unleashes a dark evil known as The Blot: Mickey must then go on to rescue the Wasteland from the darkness and return to his own world. The ‘dark’ theme runs through the whole of Epic Mickey – conceiving a world where Mickey is no longer the hero but the ‘villain’; blamed for the fall in popularity of Oswald and his brethren and cause of their eviction to the Wasteland, all but forgotten.   It’s certainly an interesting twist on Mickey’s usual role as flawless hero; but despite the slight darkness which is cast over Epic Mickey (at least compared to Disney’s usual, cheery output), it’s by no means the Magic Kingdom revolution that the title arguably implies.
The accident leaves Mickey with the sorceror’s Magic Brush, allowing him to ‘paint’ the landscape and characters, or ‘thin’ them out with turpentine; controlled using the Wii remote and pointer: Removing or adding scenery is then used to reach a previously-unreachable area, tackle enemies, reveal passageways, or fill in a cog to fix a broken ferris wheel to allow you to reach the top; simply point where you want to paint/thin, and hold B to fire paint or Z to fire thinner. When it’s used to navigate a path from through a level or environment it works delightfully, and for those who stray from the beaten track, deft use of the brush will reveal treasures such as collectable medals and Epic Mickey‘s currency, E-tickets. Rarely does progress feel impeded by the way past an obstacle being obscured or unclear, though don’t expect to expend too much brainpower in discerning the route upon which you’re shepherded through the level. It’s feels a shame that there’s not ‘more’ that can be done with the brush: There’s just the tiniest suspicion that the only thing holding back levels from possessing more interactivity is not the lack of imagination of the level designer or puzzle mechanics, but the limitations of the Wii console. Movement between the Mean Street U.S.A. hub and other levels takes the form of a variety of 2-D platform levels, each set in a previous Mickey Mouse cartoon environment (e.g. Steamboat Willie, Clock Cleaners, etc.).  They’re glorified loading screens, and whilst relatively pleasant on the first run though, since you’re obliged to run through each time you travel from the hub to level or vice versa, you’ll be rather sick of the sight of them fairly soon.
Manoeuvring Mickey around the Wasteland is (largely) a piece of cake, then; if hampered by possibly the worst camera that’s ever been witnessed in a third-person/action-adventure game: Sometimes it feels like it’s pointed at anything but Mickey himself, and becomes even more of a handful when you’re also intending to use in combination with the Magic Brush and the Wii Remote’s pointer. Indeed, there are times when you’ll be controlling Mickey through a level and he’s not even visible on-screen,  or spraying paint all over the scenery except what you’re explicitly aiming at with the Wii Remote; to say nothing of the camera’s ability to radically change position just as you’re leaping to the next platform, causing Mickey to leap suicidally into a sea of turpentine and die a horrible, thinned-out death. Amongst the rest of the game’s top-quality production values, it’s a catastrophic crash back to Earth; unforgivable when titles like Super Mario Galaxy are amongst your competition.

Epic Mickey is yet one more game that strives to spark the sentiments of true freedom of character progression, letting the player shape the hero’s actions, personality and lean towards the forces of light or dark. Where this works in the Fable universe where your character essentially starts off as a blank canvas, trying to implant such sentiments on Mickey, a character which is already the absolute embodiment of everything that is ‘good’ and metaphor for the American dream, these efforts ultimately collapse. It’s also never clear who Mickey’s meant to be ‘fighting’ – is it the Mad Doctor, who remains the baddie in the first half; the Shadow Blot, who Mickey ultimately battles at the finale but isn’t mentioned beforehand; or Oswald, the counterfoil to Mickey’s purity? It underlines the ambiguity that is rife through Epic Mickey, a lack of cohesion or direction in story; a wonderful title that’s not been permitted the opportunity to show enough innovation.

With some solid controls, novel and (usually) entertaining gameplay and some top-notch art and design, there’s a lot of fun to be had with Epic Mickey. So why does it fall so short? Maybe it’s the feeling that it’s only a shadow of what could have been: If those initial ideas had translated to an edgy re-invention of all things Mouse, then I’d be whistling a different tune. As it is, it feels soul-less, as if everything that could have made Epic Mickey great was cut out; leaving just a cold, empty body where a beating heart and individual personality should. So, what we end up with is, much like those who roam the Wasteland: Heroes whose true calling has long been forgotten, and so now merely go through the motions with a glazed expression, and no beating heart. [6]

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One thought on “Sinister Reviews #08: Epic Mickey

  1. […] Indeed, I knocked those out during short breaks at work. Of late, however (starting with Epic Mickey, which took about six months before I actually posted it) I’ve found significantly higher […]

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