Game Review: Epic Mickey 2: The Power of Two

In the last months of 2012, a well-known but failing department store chain called Zellers was acquired by Target. The inventory of Zellers’ stores had to be liquidated by their shutdown date, and I strolled its aisles with the other vultures, thinking to pick at the bones.

I went not once, but twice, each time seeing a pile of heavily discounted special edition boxes of Epic Mickey, for the Wii. Twice before I had almost bought a copy of the game, but for whatever reason hadn’t.  Here, once again I walked away, empty-handed. I had a few unfinished games at home already, and though I was intrigued, it wasn’t a must-play (if there still is such a thing for me).

The game’s been somewhat polarizing, and I think I have an idea why. Long-standing Disney properties bring a certain caché that can’t be whipped up out of thin air, and the company is careful how they leverage that. Putting Mickey in a mediocre game would be like making a bad sequel to a brilliant film. It’s pop-culture sacrilege.

Fan hatred is a scary thing. The mixed response to that first game meant that a sequel needed to fix everything that didn’t work, or replace it with something better.

I like the idea of this series a lot. I like that Walt Disney’s first cartoon creation, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, is Mickey’s bitter doppelganger, existing in a “Wasteland” of forgotten cartoon characters. There’s a very meta, self-aware quality to the whole idea of a real-life legal battle resulting in the fictional abandonment of a living intellectual property.

This surreal, self-referential conceit continues into the basic game mechanic. Mickey, a cartoon, wields both a magic paintbrush and a bucket of thinner, giving him the power to create or destroy the very fabric of reality as he knows it. Obviously this works well with the Wii, though you can also play the PS3 version with an ordinary controller (it’s Move-compatible).

This unique gameplay mechanic carries over into the sequel, but is paired with the abilities of Oswald, who has switched from antagonist to partner. He gets a magic remote, with vague electrical/machine-controlling powers.

I love the idea of this world. It includes familiar as well as little-known characters and half-remembered cartoons from the ’30s that I remember seeing as a kid, all transformed into black-and-white 2D sidescrollers. Unfortunately, they tend to be rather tedious.

The game is two-player co-op, whether you want it or not. Oswald and Mickey must work together to progress, combining their powers to solve any number of puzzles. If you don’t find a friend to play with you, the AI will take over, but there’s no solo version of the game.

The upshot of this is that your partner switches between making the game tediously easy and frustratingly difficult. With the AI in control, you will sometimes bumble your way through poorly-designed puzzles without even understanding how you did it simply because one half of it was automatically completed for you. Of course, at other times you will want Oswald to do your bidding and get no help at all.

Either way, it can be frustrating to be left out of the driver’s seat.

There is a binary, morality-based system as in Knights of the Old Republic or Infamous.  Enemies can be defeated (and puzzles solved) through the use of constructive paint (good) or destructive thinner (bad), which I found frankly annoying, because it encouraged me to not make use of my full range of abilities.

They really upped the ante by adding more and more new ideas — more than they were able to deliver. The game is supposed to be a musical. In reality, it’s only the demented scientist (an enemy from the first game), who sings. Story scenes switch from being fully-voiced to text halfway through, as if they ran out of time or money.

I know they are trying to create a gameplay experience that is truly different, and a world that is completely immersive, but it doesn’t always come through. Ambitious is the word.  Ultimately, however, whatever difficulties there may have been behind the scenes, the result for the end user should feel finished and effortless, and instead, the whole thing feels unpolished and bland.

It is easy to make mediocre games by playing it safe. Here, they made a mediocre game that failed at greatness, and I think they perhaps deserve some credit for that, along with the blame.

Article first published as PlayStation 3 Review: Epic Mickey 2: The Power of Two on Blogcritics.

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