A dark turn for Disney's iconic mouse results in one of his finest outings.
Mickey Mouse just isn't the icon he used to be. Though once the star of countless animated films and shorts (and even several great video games) Mickey has seen his reputation slowly taken away. He is featured in fewer stories and on more merchandise these days, almost becoming more of a corporate symbol than a living, breathing character capable of supporting a grand adventure.
That's where veteran video game developer Warren Spector and his newly-formed Junction Point team come into the picture. In developing Disney Epic Mickey Spector and his crew sought to bring Mickey back to the spotlight, to not only give him a starring role in a video game once again but also showcase the character as the hero he is and always has been. If the game is remembered for one element and one element only, it should be that Mickey Mouse is as capable as any character of supporting a Pixar-like adventure that not only amazes with spectacle and design but tugs at our hearts with its strong character development and remarkable love for Disney lore. Sadly a memorable story and concept only go so far; there is much holding back Epic Mickey.
Much of Epic Mickey's strong characterization comes not only from Mickey himself, but his antagonist, Oswald. Though not exactly the villain of the game, Oswald is certainly the most memorable character Mickey encounters, ruling over a warped world called Wasteland. In the introductory cinematic, our hero's curiosity gets the better of him, and he significantly damages a magical world with powerful paint and thinner chemicals. Mickey runs away, unaware of the lives in Wasteland that he has affected. Months later, Mickey's mischief comes back to haunt him, as the Phantom Blot, a creature unleashed during the accident, seeks out Mickey and pulls him into Wasteland. Mickey eventually realizes all of the damage he has caused and that in order to set things right, he must destroy the Blot once and for all.
Mickey gradually discovers many dark, depressing truths about Wasteland. This is a land for the forgotten and discarded – the unnecessary and ignored characters from Disney's lore. Oswald the Rabbit is the leader of these abandoned icons of old, and his evolution as a character not only adds greatly to the story but enhances Mickey's heroism as well. The story and emotional sophistication on display here is definitely on par with the best of Pixar's offerings, with characters that will appeal to children and themes that operate on multiple levels for the young and old alike.
Though the story begins and ends with full CG sequences and voice acting, during gameplay, text-driven dialogue is only expressed through brief noises and sound effects (think Banjo Kazooie). These are all reasonably effective and charming, but a lack of in-game voice acting in this day and age is a bit disappointing. It's also not like we're dealing with a silent lead character – we all know what Mickey sounds like. Why not bring full voices to him and the rest of Wasteland?
An outside studio called Powerhouse Animation used a 2D visual approach to create retro-inspired cutscenes that typically introduce major new worlds, quests or concepts. These pieces feature some of the best acting, animation, and character development seen anywhere. It's remarkable to see Mickey's face contort in the simplest ways to perfectly convey an emotion, and the frequency with which Powerhouse precisely hits comedic notes is truly exceptional.
Whether a victim of hype or limitations of the Wii hardware, the gameplay of Epic Mickey might not be what you're expecting. While it's true the developers have layered in much choice and consequence, both through character interaction and the much-heralded paint/thinner concept, a number of limitations stand out and impede what is a fundamentally sound concept.
This idea of paint and thinner is clever but has its limits. Though you might want to manipulate the surrounding world in wild ways, only specifically determined areas can be manipulated, and you can only paint something into existence if it already existed. What's frustrating is the game doesn't always remember what has been done. You can walk around an area, annihilating everything in your path (at least as much as the game will allow), but if you leave and come back it's as if nothing happened. For a game that pushes the idea of consequence, the lack of permanence is problematic.
Despite a lack of immediate worldly impact, how bosses are handled will not only determine the gameplay of that fight and the types of rewards given but how Wasteland eventually "heals" toward the end of your 15-hour adventure. Using thinner, for example, might be the easier way out of a conflict, but that character will never be able to help rebuild Wasteland as the threat of the Phantom Blot subsides. This ultimately impacts the end cinematic, which reflects some of the choices made throughout the game.