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TVG checks out Disney Epic Mickey and discovers Warren Spector's vision well and truly remains at the core...
Cartoon licenses are rubbish. We know this as gamers. Just as another FIFA limps out each passing season, so too a ceaseless stream of day-glow effluent congests the shelves of our local game shop. Wading through the cesspool of tie-ins and cash-ins to pluck out the latest Miyamoto or Suda-1, we cast a withering glance upon the nescient children splashing in the fetid waters below. And sigh.
So why would we care about some Mickey Mouse game? Well, this isn't just the next Disney cash-in; this is the next Warren Spector - legendary game auteur, father of Deus Ex Warren Spector - a man who's very career tells the story of the games industry; who worked with Steve Jackson (author of Dungeons and Dragons inspired tabletop games) and redefined the Ultima series before creating classics like System Shock and Thief. But you'd be forgiven for not knowing the name. Spector hasn't released a game since leaving Eidos five years ago to found Junction Point Studios, lured by the promise of digital distribution to free developers from the shackles of a publisher dominated industry. As such, heads turned when it was announced in 2007 that Junction Point had been acquired by Disney, and that the steampunk visionary would be working on a Mickey Mouse title.
Disney's Epic Mickey (to give the game it's full title) is a 3D platformer with substantial adventure/RPG elements, steeped in Disney mythology and drenched with it's trademark aesthetic. But as much as the game is a love-letter to all things Disney, it is also a bold statement of Spector's personal game design philosophy. Player's are free to solve problems in a variety of ways, their choices determining the path they take through the game, and the very character of the world around them.
Epic Mickey begins as the eponymous hero is literally pulled through the looking glass into the wasteland of forgotten Disney ideas. In the game's genesis, the great wizard Yen Sid constructs the wasteland to house his rejected and forgotten creations. Stumbling upon the wizard's workshop, Mickey unwittingly paints a shadowy version of himself which ravages the wasteland forever. He flees, but years later, in the twilight of his fame and success, is pulled back in by the 'Phantom Blot' that he created. It's as much a clever nod to the current state of the Mickey Mouse franchise as it is a parable for the developer's own story in the games industry - reacquired by a publisher and tasked with restoring a faded Disney icon.
The usual Wii platformer mechanics apply – run and jump with the stick and A button, tag a spin attack onto your double jump for extra air, and lock onto enemies with C. But there's one rather substantial addition; the ability to actually redraw the game world. A targeting reticule shows where Mickey will aim his stream of paint or thinner, each loosed with a press of it's respective trigger. The Wiimote is used to daub in or erase swathes of a level as you run around; sort of like a cross between Mario Sunshine and Okami, but much more dynamic and intuitive in it's implementation thanks to the natural paintbrush motion.
The game's introductory level, Dark Beauty Castle, is dripping with Disney folklore. Based on the castle from 'Sleeping Beauty', its grey pastel walls have been laid waste by the machinations of the phantom blot (who bears some resemblance to the enshrouded 'Mad Doctor' from the original cartoon). It is here that we first meet Oswald the Lucky Rabbit - Disney's first creation, abandoned by the animator when he left Universal to found his own studio. Bitter and resentful at Mickey's success, Oswald has been marginalised in the embattled wasteland ever since the appearance of the blot.
The level is fairly linear and compact, but there is great freedom in running around reshaping parts of it as you see fit, painting in platforms and erasing the piles of rubble that stand in your way. Not everything can be tampered with however. There are three 'states of matter' in the game: brightly coloured 'toon' structures can be erased with thinner, leaving a shadowy 'sketch' outline that can be filled in again with paint; 'inert' objects (which are generally dark, or mechanical in nature) are immune to Mickey's artistic talents but can be manipulated in other ways. Sea of thinner blocking your path? No problem; erase the toon support structure of a nearby door so that it falls down to create an impromptu bridge. Inert rubble holding you back? Just erase the floor beneath it so that it falls away into oblivion, repaint the pathway and progress. Mickey's own Navi, Gus the gremlin (created in collaboration with Roald Dahl in the 'forties), occasionally barks at you through the Wiimote, giving you hints about how to progress and alerting you to secret areas you might otherwise miss.
Towards the end of the castle you find a helpless gremlin trapped on a catapult. A treasure chest rests coquettishly on a nearby pressure plate, fixing it in place. Do you save the gremlin, sealing away the chest forever, or grab the treasure, and abandon him to his fate? Game, you had me at catapult. I snatched up the loot and cackled with glee as the little green man hurtled helplessly over the castle walls - much to the chagrin of my spirit guide, Gus. The game's producer hinted that I may have to face the consequences of my decision later in the game when confronted by the irate gremlin; had I saved him, he would have given me a 'pin' - collectible 'bragging rights' based on real Disney merchandise. As it was, I got some 'E' tickets - a sort of in-game currency inspired by the passes that once allowed access to Disneyland's top attractions.
In a nod to Mario 64, Mickey travels between worlds through projector screens. Jumping into a screen showing 'Mickey and the Beanstalk' at the end of Dark Beauty Castle transports you to a 2D level based on the original Mickey Mouse feature. No paint or thinner here; jump up the leaves of the beanstalk collecting 'E' tickets and exit via the screen at the end. There are 40 such stages in the game, each about a minute long and based on a classic Mickey Mouse cartoon. The artists have done an impeccable job of capturing the style of each; from the black and white frivolity of 'Steam Boat Willie', to the stark neon weirdness of 'Plutopia' (complete with masochistic cat). Although the levels are intentionally rather brief and the platforming fairly rudimentary, each hides a collectible film reel which, according to the producer, unlocks 'something really cool' at the end of the game. Free Mickey Mouse shorts anyone?
The game has 'quest' maps, which are mission hubs containing adventure game objectives; and 'action' maps, like Dark Beauty Castle, that contain more platforming. Interestingly, action maps can only be played through once; you can't go back to collect everything, and the game saves whenever you make an important decision (like launching a friendly gremlin over a wall). Consequently, players have to commit to their choices, and live with the results; save the pirates in 'Skull Island' and some of them will make it back to a quest map, offering you further missions, but also intimidating the locals. It's all part of Junction Point's mission to have the player craft his or her own unique experience. Thankfully a 'new game +' option allows you to play through again with all of your items, to see how else the story can pan out.
Landing in another action map, I found a group of ASBO 'splatters' loitering near a ticket booth, terrorising the gremlin cowering within. Unleashing some thinner made the amorphous two-legged blobs swell up in pain, clutching their throats before collapsing into gooey green puddles. However, dowsing one with paint 'friended' it in an explosion of little blue love hearts, causing him to chase off the remaining nasties in my defence. It brought to mind the bit in classic N64 Rare platformer Conker's Bad Fur Day that has the drunk protagonist pissing on fire demons (just.. play it). Indeed there's something about the aesthetic of the game, from its anthropomorphic contraptions and fluorescent green rivers, to the tinkling of it's music, that's highly reminiscent of those halcyon Rare platformers. Again, the level was awash with Disney references and memorabilia including a malfunctioning teacup ride that can be fixed, destroyed or simply ignored.
Based on what I've seen of the platforming so far, it doesn't look as though that element alone will quite stand up to say, the elegantly crafted stages of Mario Galaxy. However, this is somewhat missing the point of what Epic Mickey is trying to achieve; Spector does problems, not puzzles. When a character asks you to collect three masks in a later side-quest, do you diligently find all three, or give him two, and then erase part of his hut to steal one back, presenting it as the third? Should you paint in the cog attached to a rotating platform to create a walkway for yourself, or thin out part of a wall to provide a ledge instead? Even the game's bosses have 'wants' that can be satisfied to avoid combat, and much as in Deus Ex, it's possible to get through the whole thing without fighting a single enemy.
It's this focus on choices and consequences that really marks Epic Mickey out as something special. Some decisions have overt consequences, (such as an angry gremlin berating you for launching him over a wall), but subtle choices also feed back into the game. Your preference for paint or thinner is recorded in an 'alignment' bar; use more thinner and you will attract 'turps': guardian spirits that increase your thinner supply and automatically dispatch enemies for you. A preference for paint will cause 'tints' to circle around you, automatically 'friending' otherwise hostile characters. The game tracks your actions and is literally moulded by them, but is crucially non-judgemental in its response; the aim is to create an experience that tailors itself to the way you like to play. Spend time restoring the wasteland and assisting its inhabitants, and more side quests open up; zip through the game thinning enemies and collecting 'E' tickets and it becomes easier to do just that.
This positive reinforcement of player choices is all part of Spector's vision (no doubt informed by his deep roots in D&D), that games should be a dialogue between player and designer; an exercise in collaborative storytelling, and a tool for player expression. Just as Mickey alters the very fabric of the world around him, the player reshapes the game itself; writing his own narrative arc, crafting his own unique experience. The player, as Mickey, has the power to control the very substance of his own being, and as he shapes his world, so too does he define his character.
There is a parallel to be drawn with Warren Spector himself, playing in Disney's wasteland of forgotten ideas; this is as much a story of redemption for his vision of game design, as it is for the character of Mickey Mouse.