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Mickey Mouse returns to our consoles through the visionary design of Warren Spector...
We couldn't help but notice the irony lying at the heart of Disney Epic Mickey's plot. Throughout his own mischievous acts Mickey ends up trapped in Wasteland, a world of long-forgotten Disney cartoon characters led by Oswald the Lucky Rabbit (a character created and dropped by Walt Disney in the 1920s/30s when he worked at Universal). In the world of Disney Epic Mickey, of course, Mickey is hugely popular and perceived as something of a hero (Oswald resents him for this) but in our real day-to-day world of the 21st century, we can't help but feel that Mickey would actually have a lot in common with Oswald. Those mouse ears are perhaps not as iconic these days as they once were, and so perhaps it won't be long before Mickey also checks into Wasteland for good. Whatever the case, this game can only help to speed him down that path rather than move him away from it.
The real shame of Disney Epic Mickey is that it appeared to be such a brave concept at one point. Gary Glover and Fred Gambino's original concept art was tantalising to say the least, with ideas that were primed to take Disney characters far out of their somewhat staid comfort zones, and our first look at the game appeared to at least partially deliver on that early premise. Ultimately though, what's been delivered is a mixture of bland platforming mixed with shallow RPG features and, even beyond the gameplay, Disney Epic Mickey's central concept still lacks the edgy tones that we'd hoped for. It's the same old Disney for the most part and the same old cutesy but somewhat cheeky Mickey Mouse as well. There are certainly times when Disney Epic Mickey feels more like a marketing platform for Disney than it does a game; an example of where a brand takes over and the game flounders behind in a diabolical wake of demographics, focus groups, and market research feedback loops.
As we reported back in June, it was precisely one of these focus groups that led to a decision by Disney and Junction Point to bin the 'Scrapper' Mickey character from the game, and it's precisely this decision that's left the game void of any discernible character progression. At the first look stage, Warren Spector showed us how Mickey's character would visually evolve and change depending on the player's use of Paint and Thinner in the game world. Using Paint created or restored items and buildings, resulting in a classic Mickey character, while using Thinner effectively destroyed the game world and resulted in a 'Scrapper' Mickey character. Now that this concept has been left out though, it often feels like there isn't much tying Mickey to his actions throughout Wasteland. The only significant character development occurs when you face-off against one of the game's handful of bosses, and even then all that happens is you're rewarded with an extra rung on your Paint/Thinner meter depending on the method used to defeat them.
Admittedly Junction Point has done a good job of blurring the line between Paint and Thinner actions during these boss battles though. You’re never quite sure whether your choices are going to equate to a creative or destructive act, which is an achievement in itself. Where the clichéd RPG will offer discernible ‘good’ and ‘evil’ paths, Disney Epic Mickey won’t make its critical gameplay choices quite so obvious, which has been a hallmark of Spector’s style through the years. Again though, the relative payoffs for your decisions never quite seem to go far enough. Guardian Guides in particular - which are acquired with persistent Paint or Thinner use (‘Tints’ for Paint use and ‘Turps’ for Thinner) - have largely the same effect on gameplay regardless of whether they're a Tint or a Turp, and they certainly don't prompt any changes to Mickey's character or abilities. Annoyingly, he remains entirely stagnant throughout.
Elsewhere throughout Disney Epic Mickey's RPG styling, the trademark touches of Warren Spector do shine through even if they are a bit dumbed down at times. Using Paint or Thinner to befriend or banish enemies respectively does have a vague parallel to using deadly attacks or a non-lethal approach in Deus Ex, for example, while secondary quests are also well dealt in. Completing additional tasks to the main quests often results in a helping hand along the way - freed Gremlins will solve tricky platform sections for you, while a character who you've assisted might then go on to deal with a mini-boss. It's these sorts of bonuses that encourage you to take on some of the secondary quests rather than simply plough on with the main campaign, and for this we've got to commend the game's design.
But it's the substance of these quests that's the main letdown. Most take the form of relatively plain seek out and retrieve missions, usually with a strong dose of platforming along the way, and it's here that the game is at its most grating due to a truly shocking camera. Honestly, there may not have been a camera this bad since the PS1 days when third-person adventure games were first finding their feet on consoles. Yes, there are ways to deal with its limitations - pressing the C button re-centres the camera, holding down C initiates an auto-lock, while pressing the 1 button offers a stagnant first-person view - but even these seemingly fail-safe options fall down at times. Some sections of levels won't even let you re-centre or change the camera view regardless of how hard you try, and often when you need to the most.
If the camera reminds us of typical design flaws from the 32-bit days, then the platforming doesn't fare much better either. The use of Paint or Thinner is often required to reveal platforms or occasionally to solve problems, which admittedly has its vaguely entertaining moments. However, Junction Point's dependency on the double-jump becomes somewhat monotonous at times and, while there are fleeting sequences that require a touch of good timing and skill, they're too few and far between unfortunately. The level design veers towards awkward for the most part as well, with platforming sections that occasionally lack a logical vein running through them and aren't always entirely clear as a result (a point that's then exacerbated by the dodgy camera).
So, Disney Epic Mickey is a pretty atrocious platforming experience wrapped up in some fairly shallow RPG gameplay. However, the wrapping may be crude but it's admittedly not without its charms in parts: the enduring legacy of Spector isn't entirely forgotten here, particularly through an ending that ties up the story well and issues different cut-scenes depending on how you chose to defeat the bosses and whether or not you completed some of the peripheral tasks. That said, it really did have to be a good ending because, with a campaign that pootles on for about 15-20 hours (depending on the amount of secondary stuff you get involved in), recognition and reward for your patience and understanding is the least Junction Point could have done (particularly as they insist on pulling the old trick of making you retrace all your steps through earlier levels in the game's final couple of hours).
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