If you want to see wasted potential, then look no farther than Epic Mickey. When the game was first announced, it seemed like a dream come true; legendary designer Warren Spector was going to provide his take on Mickey Mouse with the full blessing of Disney. What could possibly go wrong? A lot, as it turns out, as Epic Mickey squanders every bit of goodwill it tries to build up with boring gameplay and the most frustrating camera this side of Gex. Epic Mickey may be a cool concept, but it's an awful game.
The game starts off with Disney's favorite mouse falling through a mirror and into the study of the wizard Yen Sid. There Mickey sees the conjurer using a magic paintbrush to create a wonderful world. Once Sid leaves, Mickey decides to try his hand at painting the town (literally), with disastrous results. A monstrosity known as the Shadow Blot is formed, and in his haste to undo his mistake, Mickey accidentally spills a bottle of paint thinner, twisting and warping the once-beautiful world. Although Mickey escapes back to his own home, several years later the Shadow Blot returns and pulls the mouse into the world that he helped destroy. Our hero finds himself trapped in a land featuring lost and forgotten Disney characters, led by the one and only Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. The fate of this world and its denizens is now in Mickey's hands, as he can restore it to its former glory or leave it a shattered ruin of what it once was.
The plot of Epic Mickey is one of the few high points, as Spector and his team have crafted an original, fairly dark tale of mischief and consequence. Mickey's foolish yet seemingly innocent actions have pulled an entire world to the brink of destruction, and only through the tale do players truly come to understand the gravity of the situation. It's a much heavier plot than one would expect from a Disney game, but it's also very impressive.
The art and level design also shines, with each stage exhibiting two starkly different personalities. Areas covered in paint are bright and cheerful, but those affected by thinner are ugly and grotesque. One could launch into a philosophical treatise about how the game holds up a mirror to humanity and how our cheerful exteriors hide the true blackness in our hearts, but that might be a little too deep for this title. Then again, the game's most inspired stage, Mickeyjunk Mountain, is a level composed completely of discarded Mouse merchandise, in a playfully damning indictment of the whoring out of perhaps the most beloved character of the 20th century. There are a lot of layers to take in here, and more thoughtful players will likely find plenty of social commentary hidden just beneath the surface.
Of course, this is a video game and not a movie or book, and as a game, Epic Mickey fails miserably. The list of problems with the title is long indeed, but the myriad issues point to one inevitable conclusion: This game was made by a group of people who had a lot of big ideas but no idea how to execute them. Every mechanic and gimmick in the game is half-baked, boring or broken, causing the whole thing to dissolve into a mess. If you could watch this game instead of play it, then it would be amazing, but as soon as you get a controller in your hand, you'll quickly grow disgusted.
The game's biggest problem by far is its camera. It's not just the worst in a generation but possibly of all time. Most of the time, the game simply refuses to cooperate and show you where you're going, often pointlessly pointing the camera directly at Mickey from the front (so you have no idea what's in front of you), or getting itself stuck in a corner and leaving you as helpless as a baby in a minefield. While there is some direct camera control mapped to the Wii Remote's control pad the movement is slow, clunky and not terribly helpful, and though you're supposed to be able to instantly center the camera behind Mickey with a tap of the C button, it often doesn't work. Camera problems we thought were solved in the era of the PS1 and Nintendo 64 come raring back here, and it's a downright painful experience.
It's not as if the camera issues are hindering a fun game, though, as the core gameplay of Epic Mickey grows stale and boring after the first hour. The primary conceit of the game is to use paint and thinner to solve puzzles, traverse worlds, and battle enemies. See a gap that's too big to cross? Paint a bridge and move along. Trapped in a room? Thin out a wall to find a hidden passage. Beset by enemies? Paint a couple to turn them friendly, and thin out the rest so they won't bother you anymore.
While the concept is fairly unique, it's also extremely limited, as Mickey can only apply paint or thinner to specific "painted" items in the world, thus massively reducing the overall effectiveness. The game only creates the illusion of freedom because in almost every situation, there's only one real viable route through the level, and it's clearly telegraphed. The game is a paint-by-numbers affair where a lot of the puzzles are solved merely by applying paint or thinner to every conceivable surface before the solution clicks into place. The only partial respite from this tedium are the stages that house hidden Gremlins who, once freed, will pay you back by easing your progress through the level. It's nice to have kindly deeds tangibly rewarded for a change, but it's too little, too late to save the experience.
There are plenty of other smaller issues that make the game even more frustrating. For instance, when traveling from one level to another, players are forced to go through a brief, 2-D side-scrolling stage based on a classic Disney cartoon. At first, the concept seems whimsical and fun, and you may genuinely enjoy the first or second time through one of these stages. The problem is that you must go through these segments every single time you travel between areas, so they quickly grow old. It also doesn't help that the cartoon linking two sections is always the same, so there's not even a hint of variety. After a dozen times playing "Through the Mirror," you'll be pining for a fast-forward button.
On top of all that, the side quests populating the game all suffer from a serious lack of imagination, as each and every one of them is nothing more than a fetch quest. Mickey will constantly be tasked with going to another world (and thus being subjected to another cartoon transition level), finding an item and then bringing it back. It's the same old song and dance every single time and, like everything else in the game, it stops being fun almost immediately. The game's ethical dilemmas are also so black-and-white that they're barely decisions at all, as following one path or the other will make you truly virtuous or truly evil. There's no moral ambiguity or gray area here; it's all cut-and-dried.
Epic Mickey was supposed to prove that in the right hands, even an established character and dull-as-dishwater brand could be exciting and different. Instead, what we get is a really amazing concept and cool story wrapped around a stinker of a game. If this title didn't have Mickey Mouse on the cover, it probably wouldn't have even been green lit, as there are too many things gone horribly wrong. However, given the star power involved, the game is here, and it landed with a thud. The only thing epic about this game is the disappointment, so don't bother subjecting yourself to it.
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