Disney Epic Mickey is both one of the Wii's most impressive titles, and a slight disappointment. It's a game that draws you in to its fantastically-created cartoon world, yet it tries to push you away with a terribly troublesome camera and laborious fetch quests. On the one hand it's an excellent 3D platformer with its origins firmly rooted in the classic Mario 64 period, while on the other it's a by-the-numbers RPG for complete novices. In the end it gets away with a whole string of flaws thanks to some genuinely excellent level design, a neat painting mechanic, great characters and the option to tackle events in numerous ways.
Mickey Mouse is one of Disney's most famous creations, but what happens to those that don't make it, the forgotten characters? Disney Epic Mickey deals with this idea, with Yen Sid from Fantasia creating a world for them to live in. Once he's finished painting the sorcerer lays down his brush, but things soon take a turn for the worse: Mickey enters the chamber through a magical mirror, messes about with the paint and thinner, and ends up creating an evil creature known as the Shadow Blot. The spilt thinner ravages the idyllic world, turning it into a wasteland, and the previously-happy inhabitants are forced to live with nasty creatures.
The chief inhabitant of the Wasteland is Oswald, an early Disney creation who is resentful of Mickey, not only because of his fame but also his heart: the Wasteland residents are heartless, so Oswald attempts to steal Mickey's, allowing him to return to the real world and trapping the famous mouse in the hellish dimension. Years after the thinner disaster, the Shadow Blot pulls Mickey into the Wasteland and Oswald's plan is put into action. Mickey, of course, has other ideas.
Mechanically, Mickey's set of basic moves are very similar to Mario's in his latest planet-hopping adventures; like the Italian plumber, he can jump, double jump and spin into objects. When the camera actually does its job the platforming on offer here is excellent, with the environments bringing back memories of Rare's output in the nineties. But the camera doesn't always behave, and with only a single analogue stick you're left to try and centre it with the C button on the Nunchuk, or else to fiddle around with the d-pad. Camera issues here aren't as bad as in some titles (Sonic Adventure, this is not), but you'll certainly suffer death and annoyance at its hands.
There are also echoes of Mario Sunshine here, with Mickey able to spray both paint and thinner over the game world. Paint rebuilds and colours washed-away environment objects, while thinner removes brightly-painted zones. In the game it's very obvious which areas can be affected by these sprays, and while you can't alter the whole world, a big chunk of it is yours to play with.
What's especially clever is the way you can paint or thin the world to find objects, reach new areas, solve puzzles and defeat enemies. Items are hidden in walls or under the floor; doors can be opened by thinning them; ships are raised by removing anchors from the world; and mechanical beasts have their vulnerable innards revealed by stripping away their protective shell - while others can be tamed by paint and used to help you fend off foes.
Sadly there's no way to lock onto enemies, which is doubly annoying when you factor in the camera issues. Trying to spray an enemy, keep him in your line of sight and avoid walking into a pool of deadly thinner is very tricky. It's a shame that fights often cause a little frustration, as you can get into some genuinely entertaining encounters, especially when fighting in areas that can be affected by thinner. One enemy throws paint stripper at you, but even if you dodge the projectile it can eat away the floor causing you to fall into a pit of acidic green goo. You'll often be in a constant battle between fending off enemies and repairing the world around you, and assuming the camera keeps it together, these are some of Disney Epic Mickey's most impressive moments.
The painting and thinning is clever stuff, all handled well by the Wii Remote, but early suggestions about thinking outside of the box are never built upon. Removing a floor to clear a pile of rocks is one example, which I thought would serve as a way to teach players about the kind of puzzles they'd be facing. In reality, many of later quests generally only require you to spray paint or thinner all over the place. It's still fun, but not quite as taxing as I expected it would be.
Quests vary from finding items hidden in the environment, to solving puzzles and rescuing characters. One set of characters always in need of help are the Gremlins. These guys appeared in a Roald Dahl book, written in the early 1940s, which was intended as a promotional piece for a full-length feature film. The movie never happened, though, and the Gremlins became a distant memory. They are imprisoned in the Wasteland, but if freed will help Mickey out in a variety of ways - usually by fixing things. The leader, Gus, also appears in the game's animated cutscenes as a kind of conscience appearing over Mickey's shoulder.
Much of the game can be tackled in a variety of ways. You might talk to two NPCs, each wanting you to help them, but one quest will void the other. At one point a ghost wanted me to thin the lights around a cabin so he could scare the owner, but I chose to give the man back his courage charm, earning a reward from him but annoying the ghost in the process. You can even tackle boss fights in more than one way - an encounter with famous pirate Captain Hook is completely avoidable if you help out a rather larger-than-expected Peter Pan. Disney Epic Mickey is full of scenarios like this, and your choices do have an impact on the conclusion.
The second half of the game introduces sketches, giving Mickey a selection of abilities and items. TV sketches can be used to distract enemies, clocks slow down time, and anvils can crush foes or activate pressure plates. They make for some variety in the puzzles and combat, and are introduced at just the right time to keep the gameplay feeling fresh.
Rather than one open world, Disney Epic Mickey takes the popular hub approach. These areas link you to other zones and are also home to a variety of NPCs and quests. Linking levels are 2D platforming affairs, often created with a gorgeous black and white cartoon style, and are based on old Disney cartoons. Your first time through each of these stages is fun, and you can collect money and hidden film reels, but in terms of challenge there basically isn't any. By the end of the game you'll have had to run through each numerous times, and it all gets a bit dull. An option to skip these should have been included.
Developer Junction Point Studios has created a big game, meaning you won't be seeing the end after a day's play - unlike with a number of big releases this year. There are tons of side quests to embark on, items to collect and people to help. Completionists needn't struggle trying to find everything though, as the in-game shop lets you buy certain items if you're having a hard time finding them in the game.
It's fair to say that die-hard Disney fans are going to get the most out of Disney Epic Mickey. While Mickey, robot forms of Donald, Goofy and Daisy Duck, Captain Hook and a few others will be recognisable to everyone, most of the characters - especially those that litter the hubs - only appeared in a handful of cartoons. Oswald might be known by more people, but on the whole the characters here aren't exactly Pinocchio, Dumbo, or Snow White. That's not a slight on the game, as its whole premise is the revival of forgotten characters, but it's still likely to limit the appeal somewhat.
If this lack of popular characters puts people off it'll be a real shame, however, as by the end of the adventure you'll likely have developed a real fondness for many of them. Oswald is particularly likeable due to his struggles in Wasteland, with his sad story being one of the main reasons you'll want to see the game through to its conclusion. As I touched upon earlier, your actions in the game will determine the ending you see, and for me this was, dare I say it, quite touching. I felt a pang of guilt as I was shown the results of neglecting two of the key characters, as I knew I could have saved them.
Disney Epic Mickey manages to deliver grim environments while remaining a pretty game, especially in some of the latter environments - but I can't help but wonder what the game would have looked like if it had been released on 360 and PS3 as originally planned. Junction Point has done a fine job creating the paint and thinner effects, and the characters are all excellent, but with the added horsepower it might have looked like a proper cartoon come to life. A version of the game for PS3 with Move support seems like a no-brainer, but don't let that put you off this Wii game. As it stands this the only way to play Disney Epic Mickey, and it's easily up there with the best-produced games on Nintendo's console.
It's also somewhat archaic to have absolutely no voice acting, which is a shame in such a high profile title. You could argue that old cartoons didn't feature much voice work, but simply putting the words on the screen doesn't cut it these days, and the game misses out on an extra way to give these NPCs personality. No complaints can be levelled at the musical score, though, which is superb throughout, fitting the look and feel of each environment and encounter.
It's clear that a lot of love went into making Disney Epic Mickey. The attention to detail in the environments is superb, with little touches here and there for fans to pick up on, and the many forgotten characters are excellent. The platforming is top notch when the camera doesn't get in the way, and the paint and thinner mechanics give the game a unique hook. Even with a smattering of issues that will cause annoyance, Disney Epic Mickey is a fine addition to the upper echelon of the Wii's software library.