The Wonderful 101 is an action game from the developers of Bayonetta where you play as a hundred individual superheroes who can combine into giant weapons to fight alien invaders. On paper, it sounds great, but in execution you have an ultimately flawed product that, though it reaches for the stars, falls short in some key ways. Drawing from Japanese tokusatsu series like Super Sentai (that’s The Mighty Morphin Power Rangers to westerners), The Wonderful 101 has a rich body of interesting visuals and a wacky story – and that’s a promise it really delivers on. There’s all kinds of signature weirdness here, and from the gameplay to the story, it’s a unique experience, even if it’s not perfect.
You’ll be in control of a bunch of heroes that “unite morph” into the big weapons you fight with, like fists, swords, whips, and guns. You draw specific shapes on the gamepad to switch weapons, you mash buttons to execute combos, and you defeat enemies. Your swarm of superheroes starts out small, but over the course of each level you encircle civilians to temporarily deputize them with Wonder-Masks and powers. As your swarm grows, you’re able to execute larger unite morphs and attacks. Occasionally, you’ll come across members (like, say, Wonder Toilet or Wonder Witch) of the Wonderful 100 scattered or hidden in levels, and when you pick them up, they’re permanently added to the team, travelling with you from level to level. You also pick up battery powerups to refill the gauge that dictates how frequently you can unite morph, as well as how large a morph you can form. There are other collectables, too, like coins that let you buy new morphs and skills, but few of them drastically change how the game is played.
Executing combos and smashing enemies away is basically what you’d expect – a mixture of button mashing and knowing when to switch up moves. The reaction to smashing enemies with, say, a giant hammer, or ripping off their armor with a spiked whip, is really visceral. Likewise, doing make-your-own-combos by switching from morph to morph mid-combat is great dynamic gameplay. You can execute a move, and then draw out the shape for your next move and slam out the right buttons for one of that weapon’s combos, moving you smoothly into that attack as you form the new weapon. It’s a really unique style of gameplay, and tearing through mooks rarely feels better. There are occasional strange inconsistencies, for example, Unite Spring dodges nearly any attack – except for specific, and almost arbitrary, ones done by certain bosses or enemies. This gets more common as the game nears its conclusion, and feels like a cheap substitute for difficulty by the end of the game, when there’s a boss whose attacks are completely undodgeable and unblockable – leaving you with no choice but to get lucky with where you’re standing.
The game isn’t afraid of changing up play on you, and will often pull you into Panzer Dragoon-style piloting sequences or bullet hell shooter bits. It’s a good and fun decision – none of them feel weird or tacked on, and they break up the thread of action game monotony. The boss battles can be a lot of fun, though the bosses themselves can get repetitive – several fights are re-used in one form or another throughout the game. The problem with the bosses is that they are fantastically predictable. Most take the form of a stage where you fight either a single big enemy or an enemies as large as a building, so that different parts of it are separate creatures – for example, a giant octopus robot, whose eight arms each mount a different weapon and must be destroyed one at a time. Then, as you deplete the boss’ (often far too long) health gauge, you’re pulled into what is basically an extended cutscene interspersed with quicktime event-style button pressing. Admittedly, the quicktime events in The Wonderful 101 are a little inventive – they involve drawing shapes – but they’re still a comparatively boring substitute for what could otherwise be a quick cutscene or fun gameplay. The real problem is that literally every boss fight in the game follows this formula: Fight the boss using your Unite Morphs and combos. Defeat the boss during a QTE. Every. Time.
The final basic problem with the game is the camera. It’s not enough to ruin the experience entirely, but the way it zooms in when you’re not in combat, showing only a tiny fraction of the area you’re exploring, makes getting collectibles a challenge. Not in a good way, either, it’s a false difficulty through frustration, not game mechanics or clever design. There are also the indoor segments, where you use the gamepad screen to move to a third person view from behind your heroes. Suffice to say that they’re horrible, confusing, and rarely interesting. Not to mention it’s deeply frustrating to draw shapes and summon when you’re indoors and can neither trace on the pad, nor have a good angle to draw with the stick.
The Wonderful 101 is a good game, but it’s definitely not for everyone. There’s a lot of character here – from the ridiculous vinyl costumes to the overblown stereotypes of nationalities. None of that’s even to mention the hilarious custom theme song (“The Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful ONE DOUBLE O!”) that plays during epic action sequences. This game has a ton of potential, but it just fails to quite capture what it could have been. Parts of it are lackluster, like the camera or the boss fights, and others are unfriendly, like the tutorial sequence that just doesn’t quite cut it.
Bottom Line: It’s brilliantly wacky and unique, with awesome basic gameplay, but The Wonderful 101 doesn’t quite live up to its potential.
Recommendation: A must buy for action games fans, Platinum Games loyalists, and lovers of the weird.[rating=3.5]
Game: The Wonderful 101
Developer: Platinum Games
Platform(s): Wii U