The word ‘epic’ sure has seen resurgence as of late. In fact, the past two months have seen not one but two titles branding themselves as ‘epic’ - Kirby’s Epic Yarn and now Disney Epic Mickey. So what does Mickey have that would make him so epic? Well, he’s a classic (I’m talking Great Depression-era classic) character, is one of the most recognizable cartoon characters in the world and has left a great legacy that only Mario can rival. That sounds pretty epic to me. However, the question remains, does Disney Epic Mickey do justice to this mighty mouse and his impressive resume or should this ‘epic’ be banished to the Wasteland?
Our tale begins with Mickey Mouse wandering through a (conveniently placed) magic mirror into the wizard Yen Sid’s (that’s Disney spelled backwards for all you anagram fans out there) work shop, where the man of magic is working on his latest creation, a world for all the forgotten Disney characters. After the wizard retires for the evening the mischievous mouse does what he does best and causes all sorts of trouble, using Yen Sid’s magic paintbrush to create the Shadow Blot. Terrified, Mickey runs back to his house. As the months pass he forgets all about Yen Sid’s workshop and the monster he created, until one faithful day when the Blot returns to take Mickey to the Wasteland, where he soon realises that he is the one who caused all the troubles that have befallen the home of the forgotten and that only he can make things right and defeat the Shadow Blot.
At its core, Disney Epic Mickey is your standard 3D platformer/action-adventure, in the same vein as Rare classics Banjo-Kazooie and Donkey Kong 64. You control Mickey Mouse (did you think it would be anyone else?) as he makes his way through the Wasteland, attempting to undo the damage done by the Shadow Blot. Along the way you will solve puzzles, battle enemies, meet and help some long forgotten friends and collect Disney memorabilia (a lot cheaper here than at Disney Land). All pretty standard fare for a game in this genre, in fact it’s the choices you make that help give Disney Epic Mickey a unique feel.
Wielding Yen Sid’s magic brush, Mickey can either spray the world with paint or thinner. With paint Mickey can fill in the cracks in bridges or create platforms to help him advance, or even repair damaged scenery, while thinner will remove objects and clear a path for Mickey. These artsy liquids also have a use in combat. If Mickey sprays an enemy with paint that enemy will eventually befriend him, while spraying one with thinner will erase him from the Wasteland. Paint and thinner also play into the way the story plays out. If you decide to paint in and ‘fix’ the Wasteland, its inhabitants will take a liking to you, but if you go around erasing everything they will shun you. It’s an interesting mechanic that isn’t seen much outside of grand RPGs, and one that makes you want to try different things when replaying the game. The question is, will you even want to?
Because, you see, for everything that Disney Epic Mickey does right, it seems to do something else completely wrong. For example, the paint/thinner mechanic, while a novel way of affecting story decisions, can often feel like a ‘paint by numbers’ situation, with only certain things in the environment that can actually interact with Mickey’s brush. Also, let’s say you just spent 40 minutes exploring an area using only paint in hopes of getting the ‘good’ ending. You leave the area and then come back only to find that all your changes have been reset, and if you decide to take a short-cut and use thinner, well that counts against your ‘good’ rating. Furthermore, the level design, while artistically gorgeous (more on that below), is - from a gameplay point of view - horrendous. Most areas are convoluted messes that are nearly impossible to memorize (almost as if you were a mouse in a maze...)
The game also features some 2D side scrolling (a must now in every Wii game) ‘transition’ levels that serve as the link between the different areas of the Wasteland. These levels are based on classic Disney cartoons (my personal favourite being Steamboat Willy) and are generally really fun to play and offer a nice distraction (both visually and in gameplay) from the mess that is the Wasteland. But again, this is Disney Epic Mickey, and for everything right there is a wrong; you have to re-do these levels every single time you want to return to a previous area. Forcing you to replay these levels over and over... and over again, just so you can go back to collect a forgotten item, is a terrible gameplay decision that quickly turns these fun distractions into major annoyances.
The game continues this tradition of hits and misses into the control department. First the positives: the game does a good job of keeping the ‘waggle’ based gestures to a minimum and uses what motion controls there are intelligently. The Wii Remote and Nunchuck are also used in smart ways, like splitting the buttons for paint and thinner between both hands and using the Wii Remote’s pointer to control the direction of the spray. Now onto the negatives: Mickey often controls awkwardly, especially when (attempting) platforming, and you can never tell how much ‘momentum’ Mickey is carrying, which often leads to short jumps forcing you to backtrack much more than would be necessary if the developers hadn’t opted for a ‘light and floaty’ Mickey Mouse.
But no control issue can prepare you for the game’s biggest nemesis, the single reason why our hero faced such a perilous journey. I am, of course, referring to the infamous camera. Stiff camera controls (which often don’t even do anything), unresponsive or slow camera movement and sometimes not even looking in the right direction, are all problems that plague this game right from the beginning. I can forgive all the other gameplay shortcomings, but a decent (not even good, just decent) camera is an absolute must for any 3D platformer (Super Mario 64 proved this all the way back in 1996) and is the single biggest reason why Disney Epic Mickey plays so poorly.
For the most part Disney Epic Mickey knocks the presentation out of the park, thanks in part to stellar art direction. The entire game is a love letter to classic Disney, from the old-time cartoons that play in the background to the 2D levels designed around classic cartoons, This is as close as you can get to a Disney history lesson. Mix that in with the dilapidated and often horrifying vision that game auteur Warren Spector and his team at Junction Point gave to well known Disney locales in order to create the Wasteland and you have one of the most imaginatively creative games to come along in a long time.
The game also does a great job of celebrating Disney’s past and giving long forgotten characters a second chance. The most noteworthy being one of Walt Disney’s first creations, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, (a character who was in legal limbo between Disney and Universal up until 2006) who will quickly grow on you and even steal the spotlight from Mickey. Other cameos, from the likes of the Gremlins and Peg-Leg Pete, help keep this company’s rich heritage alive in the modern video game world.
On a purely technical level Disney Epic Mickey does an impressive job rendering large, detailed environments for Mickey to run around in and most of the graphical elements complement the twisted art style quite well. The characters also animate very fluidly. Mickey for example, who has been infected with some of the Shadow Blot’s paint, has both a classic cartoon looseness to him as well as the liquid characteristics of a fresh painting coming to life. It’s no Super Mario Galaxy 2 but Disney Epic Mickey certainly makes a strong case that great looking games can be made for the Wii.
The music is also top notch, featuring an eerie, almost Tim Burton-esque soundtrack blended in with classic and recognizable Disney tunes. The game manages to sound both new and familiar at the same time, definitely not an easy task. Unfortunately the developers opted for gibberish cartoon voices (think Animal Crossing) instead of complete voice acting, which may not be a major concession (since this is a game based on cartoons after all), but it is still disappointing that we can’t hear Mickey’s high pitched voice or what Oswald would sound like in 2010.
In what is a rather odd decision, the game employs two vastly different art styles to present its cutscenes. The first are of the classic computer generated variety and are expertly rendered to not only look gorgeous on their own but also blend in with the in-game graphics as well. The second style is a much more artsy 2D animation style that impresses with its unconventional ‘painted’ art style. Most notably the facial expressions on Mickey and friends during these cutscenes are at the same time hilarious, impressive and mesmerizing.
Clocking in at around 15 hours, Disney Epic Mickey is particularly long for a story-based game in the genre. Granted, some of that is padded by needless back-tracking and questionable level design, but in the end you are definitely getting your money’s worth in play time with this title. Add to that the multiple endings and the large amount of collectibles (still not as bad as a Rare game from the 90s), and you have a game that, if you can bear the gameplay and camera, you will have a hard time getting bored of.
Ah, Mickey Mouse, I so want to love your latest adventure; the great art direction, the interesting story, the nostalgia, it all makes me want to just dive right in and re-live my Disney childhood all over again. So why did you have to make it such a painful experience? As one of the biggest disappointments in recent memory, this is a game that offers so much in terms of the spectacle but doesn’t deliver where it counts the most - the gameplay - forcing you the drudge through long, boring, frustrating sections to access a nugget of greatness. Sorry Mickey, you're good, but not epic.