Epic Mickey is a tragedy. Narratively and in real life. Epic Mickey is one of the few games I’ve been eagerly anticipating since learning of it but the experience of actually playing the game is such a disappointment that it’s hard to know where to begin with describing it.
The story of Epic Mickey (Wii) begins when Mickey Mouse, in a moment of foolishness, sneaks into The Creator’s workshop and accidentally introduces a powerful monster to the world of Wasteland, the mirror-image version of Disneyland. Wasteland is the nursing home of the Magic Kingdom, populated by characters like Clarabelle and Horace the Horse, who, while once incredibly popular, have long since been overshadowed by the more iconic Mouse and are living out their days waiting to be written off the books. Years after the accident, the monster captures Mickey and drags him back to the now-ruined Wasteland in an attempt to steal his heart. Mickey must escape the monster’s clutches and find a way out of Wasteland, leaving it either better off or worse than it was before.
Make no mistake, this story is phenomenal, and is easily the high point of Epic Mickey. Unfortunately a strong and engaging narrative can only carry a game so far, and in this case is torpedoed by sloppy game mechanics.
The core mechanic of Epic Mickey revolves around Mickey’s ability to use the magic brush to shoot either paint, which rebuilds things made of “toon,” or thinner, which destroys them. Some creatures Mickey encounters can be turned to his side by brushing them with paint, or washed away by dousing them with thinner. And, accordingly, many puzzles in the game can either be solved by constructing things, helping others, or by cutting right to the chase and thinning your way to victory.
In theory this is a unique mechanic, as it allows for multiple resolutions to practically any scenario, and the repercussions of your use of either paint or thinner echo through the game. You get different rewards for using each power, for instance, and the more you use your powers, the sooner you will attract helpers who show you where to go or can defeat enemies for you. Which helpers you get, however, will depend on which you use more: paint or thinner.
In reality, the divergent play styles are hard to resolve in any logical fashion. It’s frequently hard to tell whether a particular puzzle’s mechanic is set up to be the “thinner solution” or the “paint solution,” and you’ll find yourself accidentally resolving quests just by looking around or by talking to someone when you didn’t intend to. When the game does present you with an obvious choice, the incentive for doing the “wrong” thing is hard to grasp. Most of the clearly morality-based choices will either offer you a collectible reward for using paint, or in-game currency (tickets) for using thinner. Since there isn’t much you can use the tickets for besides purchasing collectible rewards it feels a bit pointless.
Collectors will find some enjoyment in tracking down the rarer pins (awarded for solving puzzles in a certain way, or by helping certain characters) and the concept art and film reels scattered throughout Wasteland. The 2D platform levels which serve as Mickey’s gateway into each new level of Wasteland are also fun, each being modeled after different Disney films like Steamboat Willie. In these levels, characters and settings appear as they did when first presented, in all of their monochromatic or Technicolor glory. This only adds to the nostalgia value of the game, and does help somewhat lessen the impact of the game’s painful mechanics and play.
This is where Epic Mickey really shines; in its innovative use of the vast catalog of Disney characters. Even hardcore Disney-philes will occasionally be overcome with waves of surprise nostalgia when spotting this or that random character they knew as a child. Encountering the Mickey Mouse telephone on Mount Mickeyjunk, for example, brought to mind many pleasant childhood memories for me. Unfortunately those memories, like most of the brief pleasant experiences I had with Epic Mickey, were dashed to oblivion by trying to actually play the game.
The game’s camera is so frustrating and imprecise that I found myself struggling more with trying to see what was happening around me than with solving any of the game’s puzzles, and the repetitive and uninspired platforming levels are so difficult to maneuver using the Wii-mote and nunchuk that the game literally gave me hand cramps after only a few hours of play. I found that when I was failing (which was often) it was not because the challenges were hard, but because the design of how to interact with them in order to resolve them was flawed. I felt like I was struggling with the game itself and not the enemies or puzzles.
The Mickey Mouse telephone, for example, is part of a puzzle requiring you to dial a specific number in order to open the door leading out of a certain level. Unfortunately, just as with the real-life Mickey mouse phone, the number wasn’t provided, so I had to guess. Which meant pushing numbers in different order until finally arriving at the solution. The problem with this is that the phone is gigantic compared to Mickey, so in order to dial the number, I had to jump Mickey from button to button over and over again in order to suss the exact combination of digits that would open the door. This became, in effect, a number puzzle hidden inside of a jumping puzzle, and simply landing on the desired digit easily became more frustrating than trying to guess the number I was going for.
What’s doubly frustrating here is that it’s entirely possible the solution to the puzzle was elsewhere, to be provided to me had I thinned where I had painted, or painted where I had thinned. In playing the game, it’s never clear what the consequences of any one action may be, which makes it difficult to make an informed decision. Solving the phone puzzle took half an hour from my life that I will never get back, and helped me to rapidly fall out of love with the game.
While the Wii is not well known for being particularly friendly to 3D action games, most of the successful Wii action games compensate for the platform’s technical limitations with engaging visuals and experiences that are as much fun to behold as they are to play. Epic Mickey does not succeed in this. Getting through even the most basic levels involves multiple failures, active combat with the game’s controls and camera, and the progression from level to level is so tedious the game rapidly drains one’s will to carry on. Even the desire to simply find out what happens next is not enough to sustain interest, as each cinematic simply unfolds another tragic chapter in Mickey’s ongoing divorce from innocence as he faces, time and again, how, from his Happiest Place on Earth™ he has made life for those in Wasteland a living hell.
Bottom Line: Epic Mickey is the most disappointing kind of game: a high-concept affair that does so much right, it’s crushing that the one thing is does most wrongly is not be fun to play. This will be a frustrating game for core and casual gamers alike, but mostly for casual gamers who, attracted by the story and presentation, will be put off by the dated and difficult play.
Recommendation: Give it a chance if you’re curious, or have a soft spot in your heart for The Mouse, but come ready to be disappointed.[rating=3]
This review is based on the Wii version of the game.
Game: Disney Epic Mickey
Genre: Action Adventure
Developer: Junction Point
Publisher: Disney Interactive Studios
Release Date: November 30th, 2010
Available from: Amazon