Of Mice and Mean: Disney’s “Epic Mickey” for Wii Review

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Disney Epic Mickey
Publisher: Disney Interactive Studios
Developer: Junction Point
Systems it’s available on: Wii
ESRB rating: E for Everybody
System reviewed on: Wii

I played Disney Epic Mickey as destructively and maliciously as I could. I don’t know why I did it. Maybe it’s because I was always more of a Donald Duck fan. (That hot-tempered mallard always seemed to have more personality…) Or, maybe I wanted to see just how far the game would let me go. (More on Time.com: New Epic Mickey Trailer Revisits Lost Disney History)

After all, when was the last time a video game let you explore the dark id of a globally-beloved corporate mascot?  The game has an inherent darkness to it. In case you’re not up to speed on the game’s basic premise, here’s the gist: Mickey messes with a magic brush belonging to the wizard from The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and wreaks havoc on a sanctuary for barely-remembered characters. The alternate dimension basically looks like a Disney theme park, and Mickey accidentally pours tubs of magic paint and thinner into it. The pocket world devolves The Wasteland and this mishap forms the game’s boss villain The Shadow Blot. Mickey then gets sucked into the Wasteland where he tries to fix the damage. Paint lets you restore parts of the world and thinner dissolves those same parts into nothingness.

The Shadow Blot commands a Blotling Army, and Mickey can either commandeer them into allies with Paint or turn them in to lifeless goo with thinner. All your actions with paint or Thinner in the game get tracked. The gameworld itself is a resource and reacts to how you act on it. You can gain the help of little sprite assistants called Guardians depending on how you play. Dissolve huge chunks of the Wasteland with thinner and green Guardians will attack your enemies on command. Rebuild structures and blue Guardians will orbit around you. It’s just one of the ways that Warren Spector’s “Playstyle Matters” motto–which tries to make player action have real changes and consequences inside a gameworld–manifests in the game. (More on Time.com: Change that ‘M’ to a ‘D’: Disney’s New Game Lets Mickey Be a Jerk)

Aesthetic ambition and game design clash in Epic Mickey. Its biggest success is feeling like a spot-on artifact of the Disney ethos in playable form. The music prances along, the look and feel of the world is whimsical and the characters animate with verve and panache. Spector and his Junction Point development team have dug up old characters and animated shorts–including Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, Walt Disney’s first successful creation–and placed them in a modern context that feels tailor-made for them.

Unfortunately, the technical aspects of playing the game get in the way. The camera is fussy and hard to control. It’s slow and gets stuck in the walls of the Wasteland, sometimes losing sight of Mickey completely. Aiming with the Wii remote is problematic, too. Spraying Paint or Thinner around wasn’t as precise as I wanted it to be, and I really wanted tighter controls, especially in a world where missteps like that have consequences. I found myself pining away for a Playstation version of the game that would use that console’s Move controllers. It may not solve all of the problems above but I’d still love to see what Junctin Point cod accomplish with the PS3’s better processing power.

Nevertheless, playing through the game is still powerful. I tried to use thinner to erase enemies and parts of the world as much as possible. One instance of thinner abuse led to a ride being permanently broken. Here it was, a classic Disney amusement that probably never even existed or has since been scrapped if it did. And, when given the chance to make it run perfectly, I gunked up the works with thinner just to see what happened. The poor wreck broke down, letting me grab a treasure chest on top of it. It felt bad, scuttling the fruits of someone’s creativity, but there was a little bit of a thrill to it, too.

Of course, altruism in the game has its rewards, as well. Freeing trapped Gremlins made it so they helped me get past a difficult part with multiple enemies and moving platforms very quickly. Those little helpers only got freed by accident, though, as certain parts of the game make it unclear when you need to free Gremlins to progress and when you can let them fester. Another encounter had a Gremlin asking me to pay him to fix a bridge that I would need to cross. To which I said, “Eff that, Gremlin!” As I played this way, certain characters were wary of me and others were outright ornery. Bottom line: you can’t turn Mickey into a bad guy, but you can certainly shade him a bit darker than he’s ever been seen. (More on Time.com: Study: Video Games May Be Good for Your Health)

The game design ideas that inform the mechanics–open-ended multipath solution systems, variable coloring on the ethos of a character, gameworlds that reflect your actions–aren’t new. Spector himself did innovative work to help birth some of these mechanics. And, they’re arguably implemented in more interesting ways in other games like the BioShock, Mass Effect or Knights of the Old Republic games, for example. Junction Point’s work on Epic Mickey provides a gentle introduction to branching pathways and changeable character types, though. And the game looks beautiful and Disney-esque in all the best possible ways. Playing through old filmstrips to get from level to level, the look of the cutscenes and giant amusement park feel of it all invites you to jump in. But all of that runs up against some very real and very limiting considerations in terms of control. Ultimately, Disney Epic Mickey is a solidly executed game for gamers old and young and a great love letter to the magical Mouse empire, but you’ll need lots of patience if you want to experience it fully.

Official Techland score: 8.2 out of 10

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