Where’s a plumber when you need one?
Even the best of us, once in a while, fall into the nasty trap of fooling ourselves about a product before its release. It doesn’t happen that often in this industry, full of brooding cynical nerds (and proud of it!). After all, no reviewer worth his salt can say he hasn’t been burned before. But even so, sometimes a game comes along that we take one look at, salivate, and say “well, that has to be good”, and I’d wager that Disney Epic Mickey did that for most of us.
[image1]The problem with such sentiment is that, on the off chance that your geek-sense was somehow wrong, it’s that much more deflating when you find out. It’s one thing to be suckered in by a hype machine; at least you can always proudly snap your fingers, smirk, and say, “damn, they got me!” while inwardly licking your wounds from being so gullible. But when you’re a victim of your own hype, when you’ve inadvertently done all the work of a multi-million dollar marketing campaign to yourself (and for free, no less), there’s something extra-demoralizing about it.
Epic Mickey had so much potential – some of it realized, most of it not. Playing the demo made me pray that the rest of the game would build upon such a solid foundation... only to find out when playing the rest of it that I wished it was more like the demo.
At face value, the paint and thinner concepts are great ideas that form the core of the gameplay. You can thin out a toon floor to drop enemies or obstacles out of the way and then paint it back in for your own traversal; paint in gears to rotate platforms into a manageable position, then thin them back out to hold them there; or, thin out the brace for a support beam to make it come crashing down, then use the beam and a repainted brace to climb higher.
The possibilities with these two mechanics are endless, or so you’d think. Beyond those examples, there really isn’t all that much variety in using the paint and thinner to solve puzzles or platform. The paint and thinner concepts are the kind of thing that Nintendo could certainly do some really amazing things with if implemented into a Mario game. But with Epic Mickey, ironically, Warren Spector and Junction Point would have done well to take a page or two from Mario. Maybe they were just high from all the paint and thinner fumes.
[image2]The platforming is just all-around sloppy and makes it very difficult to appreciate the better parts of the game, like the paint and thinner or multi-solution quests. It’s not that there isn’t good stuff in the gameplay; it’s that you don’t really care about it when you’re swearing at the glitchy camera or terrible collision detection killing you for the umpteenth time. A simple crash course in Mario 101 would go a long way toward fixing those things (the fee is only 100 coins or one full-grown, healthy Yoshi).
In more open environments the camera doesn’t prove to be much of a problem. But in certain key places and enclosed spaces, it likes to anchor itself to frustrating spots and often disables manual control of the angle so you can’t get a look at that platform you need to hop to. And it also has a nasty habit of getting snagged behind those toon structures that you can paint in, often when you’re trying to evade enemies or not step in the evil green murky water of doom.
The messed-up collision detection is the other culprit that ruins your platforming day. Mickey has a bad habit of sliding off the invisible edges of poorly defined platforms. With an elementary ledge-grab ability built in, you wouldn’t think that would cause much of a problem, and normally you’d be right. Too bad Mickey only seems to grab a ledge about half the time you’re near one.
Also, there’s very little direction other than a simple “do this, destroy that”. Most of your time won’t be spent on the quests themselves but figuring out where the hell to go to do them. Frequently, exceedingly dark environments frustrate things further, as does the utterly useless map. Whoever decided to throw a map in the pause menu with incredibly vague landmarks drawn in and absolutely no indicator of your own position should get a lobotomy from Goofy. There's not even a minimap to show your position – it’s that useless.
[image3]Epic Mickey has one other high point, however, in the multiple ways you can solve problems or fight enemies. Some examples: You’ll find Small Pete, who crashed his ship into the gremlin village and can prove it was an accident if you retrieve his ship’s log. Not only is it optional to get the log at all, but once you do you can either show it to the chief gremlin to clear Pete’s name, or you can barter it off to a sneaky gremlin for a collectible pin.
Later you’ll have to open a safe hanging from a ledge. You can do some roundabout quests for the safe owner to get the combination, or you can be evil Mickey and just blast the ledge with thinner, smashing the safe open on the ground and also crushing the owner (who, for whatever reason, likes to stand under precarious deadly objects). Do it the nice way and keep your reputation up in the world, potentially opening up more quests. Do it the bad way and you finish the deed quicker, but pretty much kill the NPC (or whatever the Disney equivalent of gruesome murder is).
The consequences of your actions are far-reaching, and nowhere is this more apparent than the boss fights. Each boss you encounter can be defeated using paint or thinner. Sometimes the fight has the added bonus of requiring different strategies depending on your choice. For instance, using thinner on the first boss means you’ll be destroying his hands and arms, then eventually his whole body. Using paint, however, has you incapacitating those limbs and using them as stepping stones to paint his face in.
For all the bosses, using paint “redeems” them and makes them your allies, while using thinner kills them outright. The ending eventually changes for your choice on each boss. You also get an upgrade to your paint or thinner depending on which method you use, and one of two pins. To collect every pin you’ll need to finish the game at least twice, using opposing strategies on each boss (not to mention doing all the branching quest paths in the course of normal play).
[image4]Beyond the gameplay, Epic Mickey has a lot going for it. The story is surprisingly touching and thoughtful. The world of Wasteland is kind of like Florida for Disney: it’s where characters go to die, more or less. Disney’s “forgotten” characters take refuge in Wasteland, eking out a forlorn but oddly sufficient existence amongst their shunned brethren. The de facto leader is Oswald the Rabbit, an old Disney mascot predating Mickey himself.
While Oswald initially appears to be spoiled and self-serving, the more the story unfolds the more you sympathize with him. His only real desire is to be loved and accepted once more. It’s easy to understand why he dislikes Mickey, who through no fault of his own supplanted the former star and ruined his life. If there’s one thing truly admirable about Epic Mickey, it’s that there isn’t a single moment of the game where good and evil aren’t blurred. Oswald is both a hero and a villain depending on your point of view, and the same goes for Mickey (even more so, in fact).
Epic Mickey does get mucho style points, with the paint and thinner mechanics obviously lending to some interesting cartoon visuals. Mickey has an inky appearance, parts of his body occasionally flowing out as goop, Venom-style. On the downside, the textures are often very muddy and many levels are extremely dark, making it hard to see where to go and determine the difference between safe ground and painful, agonizing death. The sound is exceptional, other than the disappointing squeaks and squawks in lieu of real voice-acting. Each world has a distinctly Disney, yet distinctly moody, Wasteland-esque track behind it.
The staff should also be commended for their care and reverence in treating old characters and material that very few people alive even know exist anymore. You can see this in the tons of collectible art (and even a couple actual cartoons) that are unlocked for completists and Disney junkies. Then there are the short 2D segments linking the 3D worlds, each of which recreates an old Disney cartoon like Steamboat Willie or Oswald’s own “Oh, What a Knight”. The 2D parts can get repetitive when you have to go back and forth through the same ones to finish quests and such, but it's just such a kick to run around through authentic-looking cartoon environments.
Sadly, Epic Mickey ends up being a hard sell, despite the fact that it looked totally easy to grade before release. It’s still arguably an above-average 3D platformer, even considering the flawed platforming fundamentals. The style, story, core gameplay concepts and attention to Disney history go a long way toward redemption. It’s just so damn disappointing because a few short months ago, it looked like it would be so... epic. Lesson learned; don’t make your own hype. Leave it to the professionals.