Mickey Mouse was not the first character created by Walt Disney. Some time earlier, when he was contracted to Universal Studios, he created Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. However, dissatisfaction with his superior caused him to leave Universal, leading to the start of his own studio, and the creation of Mickey Mouse. Mickey’s popularity grew, while Oswald was soon left by the wayside, and ultimately forgotten.
Until recently, when Disney Studios reacquired ownership of Oswald as part of a contract negotiation. Designer Warren Spector, a self-admitted Disney-phile, knew of Oswald, and was determined to bring him back to the world. He made Oswald one of the cornerstones of Disney Epic Mickey, a game envisioned as part of Disney Studio’s attempt to update Mickey for modern audiences.
In Disney Epic Mickey, the player plays as a retro looking version of Mickey Mouse. As the story goes, before his rise to fame, Mickey wanders into the workshop of Yen Sid (the sorcerer from Fantasia). Yen Sid is using a magical paintbrush to create a home for those things that have been forgotten. After he retires, Mickey attempts to create something with the magic paintbrush and fails spectacularly, instead creating a creature of ink. Mickey escapes and some time later, the Inkblot comes and pulls Mickey into Yen Sid’s creation.
The creation Mickey is pulled into is the Wasteland, an idealized version of Disneyland that is home to all of Disney’s old and forgotten characters, primarily ones that most people of the current generation have probably never heard of. The Wasteland is ruled over by the longest forgotten Disney characters, including, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. But Mickey’s inadvertent creation has laid waste to Wasteland, while Oswald grows further jealous of his predecessor, ruling the Wasteland from a literal mountain of old, forgotten Mickey Mouse merchandise.
Epic Mickey’s most successful feature is the art design. All the characters and settings have that bright, friendly, retro-Disney charm, except where the blot has taken away the paint. These areas instead take on a dark and demented look that could easily be cribbing the styles of Tim Burton or Jhonen Vasquez (in a good way). These differing visual styles create an interesting dichotomy, as the areas are placed together. This works with the game’s paint/thinner mechanic in that the areas that can be affected are clearly delineated.
When thinner is used on bright areas, color, as well as portions of the environment are removed, and the remaining area matches the unpainted portions in color and style. Adding paint to those unpainted areas returns them to their former color. Some cinematics use the in-game engine, but many others use a unique, stylized, limited animation that captures a unique art style that this reviewer has trouble describing.
Also of note is the 2D stages. When transitioning between zones, Mickey must travel through projector screens set up throughout the Wasteland. Inside the screens are 2D sidescrolling levels that are based on classic Disney cartoons, from early Oswald up to Fantasia.
Sound design is also very good. No character speaks, except for Yen Sid, who provides the narration for the opening and closing cinemas, but most of the characters have some basic vocalizations to represent them. While simple, the vocalizations are enough to add alot of character. The music is a primarily modern arrangement of classic Disney tunes, with a small number of original tracks that complement those quite nicely. As with many of the characters, this reviewer is not a follower of classic Disney minutiae, and thus does not know which were which or if they were right. They simply sounded good and fit with the visuals properly.
Where the game falls apart, however, is the gameplay itself. It is not the only issue, but the first, and definitely foremost problem is the camera. DEM makes an excellent first impression with the opening cinematic, but makes a terrible second impression when the player reaches the first area where actual camera control is needed. As the game is primarily a platformer, the camera rarely ever reaches positions conducive for it without alot of struggling with the Wii-mote d-pad, which takes the place of the right thumbstick on other controllers.
Often the camera turns slower than desired, except during combat, where it actually seems to swing around quickly enough to keep enemies in view. The big offenders though, are that the camera often gets caught on scenery, and that in some areas the camera is completely locked. This is okay during the 2D stages, that is how they were made after all, but in 3D areas, the camera is often placed at terrible angles. The developer often intends that the player will go left or right from the static position, when many times the player will probably not.
The camera never truly makes the game unplayable, but struggling with it mars the experience more than any of the game’s other faults. Warren Spector has stated that the game is an action-RPG with some platforming, but he obviously does not know what kind of game his team made. Sure, there are action elements, but RPG is minimal at best, and the game is primarily platforming. A camera that cannot swing around quickly and constantly gets stuck on scenery is not okay. Why is the camera doing that anyway? Getting caught on scenery may still happen today, but it has not been a significant issue in any game type since the N64/PS1 era. Most developers have learned how to let the camera move through or, should it get caught, around scenery quickly to help avoid issues such as this.
Thankfully, controlling is generally okay. Movement and jumping work well. Mickey can run, jump, and double-jump as well as he needs to. Mostly, any jumping issues are due to the camera, except in the 2D stages, which have minor hit detection problems on platforms. Painting and thinning is aimed by an onscreen cursor. The stream follows the cursor very well, but the cursor does not travel across the screen as smoothly as it should. As well, the paint stream originates from Mickey, and he fires from the hip. While the player may be able to see the target onscreen, if Mickey cannot, then he will not be able to hit it, which is especially difficult when the player has to fire at targets below Mickey. Firing at high targets is, again, made difficult by camera positioning.
Finally, there is the paint and thinner mechanic itself. It is both a means of affecting the world, but also plays into a morality system that determines how other NPCs act towards Mickey. Paint restores objects, while thinner destroys them. This is interesting, except that its very binary. Only certain areas of the world can be painted and thinned, the rest are static in their thinned state. It makes for some interesting puzzles, as well as additional danger during combat.
The related morality system, on the other hand, does not really exist. It is supposed to be based around completion of some sidequests and how the bosses are defeated, but has no effective in-game purpose. It does not change anything significantly. Rather, it is more of an excuse to cover up the fact that the paint/thinner mechanic allows for two ways to solve almost all problems in the game, from combat to puzzles. Paint makes enemies friendly, thinner will destroy them. Paint will unlock the secret door in the wall, thinner will find a way to simply break the wall down. It is a good mechanic, it simply is not taken as far as it should be.
Really, the saving grace of Disney Epic Mickey is the story. It’s rather simple, but still a well written and executed morality tale. Mickey did something wrong, and it is up to him to try and set things right, and escape Wasteland, potentially leaving it better or worse off than it was. The plot arc involving Oswald is interesting as well, how he had to try to fix Mickey’s mess and hold the Wasteland together in the interim, all the while growing more jealous of Mickey’s otherwise easy life up until then.
In the end, as Disney Epic Mickey went on, it got better. That initial second impression after that opening cinema was very off-putting, with the camera being the primary culprit. That problem never goes away, but this reviewer learned that it was just better to try to ignore except during combat. Really, this is just a great story trapped in an average game. This is a game that could have lived up to its hype, and a couple more months in development could have gotten it there.