Disney Interactive has added nine studios to its portfolio since 2005 with mixed results. While Split/Second developer Black Rock currently has the greatest cachet with gamers, Disney's most interesting acquisition is surely Junction Point – a studio founded by renowned developer Warren Spector. Formerly at Origin, Looking Glass and Ion Storm Austin, Spector worked on a number of Ultima games, System Shock and Deus Ex. Epic Mickey is his first new game in more than half a decade.
For industry spectators Epic Mickey is a title against which Spector’s return to the spotlight will be measured. For the rest of us it marks Disney’s latest reimagining of their mascot’s public image, something the company controls so tightly it’s a wonder the mouse hasn’t been smothered and rattled his last.
By now, most of us are more accustomed to the staid Mickey we see dispensing advice to pre-schoolers in straight-to-DVD movies. The new Epic Mickey is more reminiscent of his mischievous incarnations circa the 1930s. But of more interest than this so-called "edgy" retrograde is the supporting cast. Epic Mickey re-introduces a number of retired Disney characters to a contemporary audience.
This forms the premise of the game. Mickey has fallen through a magic mirror and into a negative image of the vibrant worlds that the mouse and his friends occupy. A Disney dystopia, it is home to the company’s forgotten or discarded creations and is ruled over by Oswald the Lucky Rabbit.
This conceit could have been little more than a framing piece to allow for Disney nostalgia, of which there is a lot, but Junction Point wring a compelling story from it all the same. If the concept of Mickey destroying a city is perhaps a little thin, the slow-burn on the characters and the game-world can easily reel in a jaded player. There is clearly faith in the story over at Disney, as it is now being adapted in a 64 page graphic novel.
Oswald’s return has been much discussed in certain circles. The rabbit was first conceived by Ub Iwerks and Walt Disney for Universal Studios in the 1920s, prior to the creation of the Walt Disney animation studio. After a budget increase for the cartoons was refused by Universal the two quit and Oswald was left behind.
Iwerks and Disney went on to create Mickey Mouse. As part of a sports caster trade between Disney's ABC and Universal's NBC Sports in 2006, Disney was able to take control of the Oswald character once again. Epic Mickey is the first time we’ve seen him in motion in nearly eighty years.
Naturally, comparisons with Kingdom Hearts will abound. Like that franchise, Epic Mickey is a pastiche of Disney characters and environments. In practice however, these are very, very different games. Epic Mickey has a much narrower focus and restricts itself to forgotten characters, rides and short films.
The game displays a loving attention to detail: Disney fans will appreciate such small, caring nods as the green acrylic elephant statue in the ice-cream parlour mirroring its real-world counterpart at Disneyland in Anaheim, California.
The painterly 2D cut scenes between levels are perfectly appropriate. They aren’t created in a typically Disney style, but do feature the retro-influenced dry brush strokes and flat paint techniques that have been embraced once again in contemporary animation. The in-game graphics make the best of the Wii’s limited capabilities and stress that games needn’t be first-party titles to look good on Nintendo’s platform.
The audio also compliments the setting, a cinematic score that seamlessly transitions between exploration and combat.
Finally, the gameplay itself is deceptively simple. It's a 3D, third-person platformer with adventure and questing elements. Mickey is armed with both paint and paint thinner in a cartoon world. You can choose to rebuild the world with paint, or you can break it down with thinner. Similarly, you can convert enemies into friends with paint, or make them disappear altogether with thinner.
The choice in the game isn't entirely clear early on. Destructive thinner proves to be a necessity and the game can’t be completed without using it to some extent, the same goes for paint. However, the tool you rely on most influences the outcome of the game. Across the industry moral choice systems are still a work in progress and Epic Mickey doesn’t break any new ground. Cause and effect can be vague and a little frustrating. Occasionally, you’ll discover you’ve screwed up by killing a couple of bosses the “wrong way” given your intended playstyle.
Between each of the main worlds there are rendered 2D platformers based on various Disney shorts. Although brief, these sequences are very enjoyable and the flat rendered graphics and occasional greyscale palette create a welcome juxtaposition with the core levels.
Combat is not a huge part of the game and early on it is overly simplistic, but becomes increasingly difficult as you encounter more enemies that can't be influenced with paint. Bosses are small entertaining puzzles unto themselves but begin to lose their appeal as the game progresses.
The camera, simply put, is awful: It barely works and sometimes refuses you the control you should have. You can find yourself staring at a wall or falling off a cliff that you can't see. Combat later on is made increasingly frustrating by the behaviour of the camera, something you’ll need to adjust constantly to fight enemies on the run. It could prove to be a deal-breaker for many.
The guide system is similarly poor. After building up your paint or thinner meters, you can call on guides to show you to your next task if you’re confused as to where to go next. Most of the time they don’t work and using them depletes your power.
Many of the problems Epic Mickey faces recall an era when 3D platforming was finding his feet, and you’ll be left wondering whether Spector and the team at Junction Point have been keeping abreast of the advances made in their developmental absence.
Ultimately however, Epic Mickey proves to be a challenging and engaging experience. It is loving homage to an entertainment empire that has stood the test of time.