The Wonderful 101 opens with an evil alien army invading Earth with the goal of wiping out humanity. The planetary defense shield has prevented most of them from landing, but a crack team of Gethjerk soldiers got through and are targeting the defenses and the civilian populace. Earth's only hope is its mightiest fighting force: The Wonderful 100. The Wonderful 100 are 100 heroes from 100 countries who use Centinel suits to band together and fight evil. The Wonderful 100, led by its newest member Wonder Red, must protect Earth and stop the invasion.
The Wonderful 100 is a love letter to superheroics. It's occasionally tongue-in-cheek but avoids the cynicism and self-deprecation that are usually associated with this sort of thing. It is about unlikely people being heroes. There's little moral ambiguity or self-doubt — just lots of good-natured heroics. The characters are bright, cheerful and colorful, and they depend on a few one-note jokes, which are often amusing enough. There's an unmistakably kid-friendly tone to this title when compared to Platinum's other offerings, but adults can also get a lot of fun out of the story and characters. Who's the 101st member? That's the person holding the controller. It's that kind of game.
If I had one complaint about The Wonderful 100's story, it would be that it is perhaps a bit too geared toward Japanese tastes. The game features some innuendo and jokes that feel inappropriate for younger kids, despite the rest of the game appealing to all ages. This wouldn't be out of place in the Japanese tokusatsu children's shows, which often feature crude humor that would be objectionable to parents expecting something like "Power Rangers." It's more PG-13 than PG and skirts the edge just enough that I'd feel weird about giving the game to a younger kid, despite the tone and atmosphere otherwise being perfect for a younger audience.
At first blush, you'd probably think that The Wonderful 101 is a Pikmin knockoff, but nothing is further from the truth. They share some superficial similarities, but that's about it. The Wonderful 101 has more in common with Platinum's other actions games, like Bayonetta and Metal Gear Rising. You have up to 100 characters at a time, but the 100 function as a resource you can spend to perform actions. The more Wonderful Ones you have, the stronger or more numerous your actions. By default, you have a certain number of heroes, and as you progress, you can recruit members to your party. Most are temporary recruits, who join your team until the end of the stage. The others are Wonderful Ones, secret superheroes who permanently join your team and increase your default number of party members. Once you've recruited a Wonderful One, they stay recruited, so you consistently get more powerful as the game progresses. Your Wonderful Ones also level up as the game progresses, gaining better stats and new moves.
A big chunk of the game involves managing your Wonderful Ones. As the game progresses, you can use them to power up your attacks, defend from enemy attacks, and attack multiple enemies at once. Your Wonderful Ones can't die, but they're vulnerable. Being hit by enemy attacks temporarily puts them out of action, and you must re-collect them. The Wonderful Ones also form a passive shield against smaller and weaker enemies, so if you're using them up, you're more vulnerable to attacks.
The Wonderful 101 takes a page from other Platinum action games. You have a few basic moves at the outset, and they can be strung together. There are two kinds of basic attacks: Team Attack and Unite Morph. Team Attack uses your entire team to attack the enemy, making a group of the Wonderful 100 dart out, climb on to the foe and slap him around. This does minimal damage, but if you do it enough, you'll stun the enemy, rendering him vulnerable to being thrown or knocked into the air. However, a Team Attack slows down your ability to do damage, and you're graded on how quickly you finish every fight.
The Unite Morph is your primary attack; it makes the Wonderful 100 band together into a weapon for the leader to use. The more of the 100 you use, the more powerful (but the larger and slower) the weapon is. When you either touch the right analog stick or the GamePad's touch-screen, time slows down. From there, you draw a shape that corresponds to the weapon: a straight line for your sword, a circle for your fist, a wavy line for a whip, an L-shape for the gun, and so on. The larger the shape you draw, the more of your Wonderful 100 you use in the attack. It can also change the shape of the weapon. A small gun is a pistol while a larger one is an unwieldy bazooka.
The sword is your main weapon, with a long reach and wide range. The hand is faster but closer range, and the gun has range. The whip is weaker but can hurt spiked enemies and pull armor off heavily armored foes. As you use morphs, you'll unlock abilities that let you dash toward enemies or knock them into the air. Your Wonderful Ones can perform a weaker AI-controlled attack, which allows up to four different Unite Morphs on the field at once. A good combo involves knocking an enemy into the air and having it bombarded from all directions by claws, guns, swords and whips.
This can feel needlessly complex, and to some degree, it is. It never feels natural to switch to the GamePad, so most people will use the imprecise analog stick. What the game doesn't tell you is that drawing the shape isn't useful. The game is very lenient about what it accepts, so it's better to treat it like entering input commands in a fighting game. To make a hammer, tap forward and make a 360-degree motion. Once you get the hang of this, it's much easier to use Unite Morphs and switch between weapons. You have to be careful because every Unite Morph uses up your gauge, which begins every non-boss level small and needs to be increased by collecting batteries. The gauge refills naturally but not fast enough that you can spam weapon switches. It's a balance between using your unites and letting your energy recharge.
The biggest problem is that the game fails to justify its main mechanic. The weapons are cool, it's fun to create them, and they're integrated with precision into the boss battles, but they don't feel like a natural part of the game. The weapon-switching mechanics become easier, but they never feel better than a simple button push. Even while performing lengthy combos and switching weapons, I wished it was more like Bayonetta or Devil May Cry, where you tap a button to change weapons. There are also times, especially with something like the whip, where it awkwardly fails. You'll always have enough time for a second chance, but it is still frustrating.
Fortunately, the combat is an absolute delight. It's the right mix of simplistic and complex to keep it engaging, despite a limited variety of enemies. Each tool in your arsenal offers you a way to fight, and these really come together in the end. By the midpoint, I was performing insane combos involves constant weapon switches, precision dodges, and swarms of costumed superheroes. The game even includes a higher difficult mode with stronger enemies. For younger kids, there are options so they can play the game with minimal difficulty.
The big standouts are the boss fights. No other game on the market makes you feel as intensely superheroic as the boss fights in The Wonderful 101. Even the earliest fights feel over-the-top and exciting, and they just get better. Most of the bosses are giant creatures, so you'll need to constantly switch your attack methods. There are a few smaller fights, and they're some of the best in the game. The battles against Wonder Red's rival, an evil prince who can also use Unite Morphs, are the highlight — and that's saying something when any given boss fight could be the best battle in another game. Some fights go on a little too long, even with enemy weaknesses.
That isn't to say the game is perfect. There is a lot of action on-screen at any given moment. With 100 heroes and almost as many villains, it can be really difficult to keep track of everyone and everything, especially if you try to play on the GamePad screen. I got hit a few unfortunate times because I thought my leader was standing somewhere else or I missed an enemy tell because the screen was zoomed out so far I couldn't see the small movement. If you're easily overwhelmed, The Wonderful 101 won't hold your hand. Several times, the game forces you into a scripted turret segment or a slow puzzle area. These are fun the first time through, but much like the Space Harrier level in Bayonetta, they're a tedious roadblock on replays.
The Wonderful 101 is a treat for the eyes. The individual character models look like plastic action figures, which fits the tone of the game but looks weird in close-ups. The game runs buttery smooth, even with a lot of frantic on-screen action, and the set pieces and environments are great to explore. The voice acting is cheesy in all the right ways. It sounds like a Saturday morning cartoon, and that's exactly what it should be. The music is cheerful, exciting and memorable, perfectly setting the tone for the fights. The bombastic theme song that plays when things get serious is one of the most smile-inducing tunes I've heard in a video game.
The Wonderful 101 is a top-notch game from a top-notch developer. It isn't flawless, but the flaws don't detract from the whole. It's an easy game to learn but a tough game to master, and there's plenty to do, lots of mechanics to learn, and numerous boss fights to take on. It's fun from beginning to end, and it's held back by some nagging control flaws. If you're a Wii U owner, you owe it to yourself to try The Wonderful 101. Even if there were more games for the system, The Wonderful 101 would stand out among the crowd.
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