Back in 2010, game making god Warren Spector put his name to a most unusual project in the form of Epic Mickey. A 25 year veteran of the gaming industry, Spector has been involved with everything from Wing Commander to Deus Ex, via the superlative Thief: The Dark Project.
On the surface, Epic Mickey was a strange departure – an action adventure title based on Disney beloved (but recently ignored character) and aimed at a much younger audience. But the game was created with the intention of bringing new life to the Mickey character, with a darker tone than his previous adventures and a depth to its gameplay and situations which belied its cartoonish art style and some interesting mechanics focussed on inking and erasing the environment with the Wii mote.
Two years on and Epic Mickey is back in a sequel entitled: The Power of Two. The title has expanded its reach, releasing on PC, PS3 and Xbox 360 as well as the Wii and upcoming Wii U and hopes to expand on the success of the original.
This time around, Mickey and former enemy now pal Oswald the Lucky Rabbit (an interesting character from the Disney archives) are happily basking in their glory after their defeat of the Mad Doctor and the Shadow Blot which previously threatened the Cartoon Wasteland. Surprisingly, the kooky medical practitioner shows up again in full song, claiming to be reformed and keen to help the locals find a solution for the mysterious earthquakes devastating the land. Cue a wide ranging quest to find some answers.
The original Epic Mickey was made memorable by its refreshing willingness to deal with the darker side of Disney’s creations, delving into a land of forgotten characters and locations and creating a pervading sense of the sinister. That unusual tone persists in Epic Mickey 2, with familiar characters like Goofy and Donald Duck appearing in semi-cybernetic form and the levels regularly skewing towards the Tim Burton-ish. Together with the leap in resolution and fidelity in the move from the, the graphical style on display is generally striking – if a little limited in its colour palate at times.
As before, much of the gameplay in Epic Mickey 2 revolves around our hero’s magic paintbrush. It gives Mr. Mouse the ability to paint in or thin out objects in the environment at will – from the obvious like platforms during the running and jumping to some moments that require some real head scratching. And it’s still a fun mechanic, with the number of interactive objects vastly increased since the first outing and a general sense of reforming the level around you, not to mention working to fix the damage in the many open world levels.
This time around you’ll also have constant company in the form of Oswald, presenting the opportunity for co-op play – at least once you’ve gotten bored of slapping each other around. Oswald has his own abilities, chiefly his remote control (which lets him interact with various electronic devices) and being able to float with his ears and attack with a boomerang. Co-operative actions help you reach new locations and fight off the many and varied enemies and while the AI does a decent job of keeping up, things are better locally with a friend.
For a game that’s still aimed steadfastly at the younger people in the audience, Epic Mickey reveals some hidden depths after your first hour of so of gameplay. The Cartoon Wasteland is a truly open world which encourages exploration and with dozens of shops and NPCs to interact with, you’ll soon find you have plenty of submissions to keep you busy. The RPG elements are more prominent than before, allowing you to upgrade Mickey and Oswald’s powers and the game even brings in a morality system of sorts. The latter punishes you for killing too many enemies with thinner (instead of turning them with your paint) and you’ll even get the chance to take on levels in subtle or more violent ways.
It all adds up to a considerably more expansive experience than you might expect, with a playing time to match, but unfortunately Epic Mickey 2 falters on fundamentals more than it should. That iffy camera makes a return, ensuring that all but the most simple traversal can be a chore. Speaking of which, a large part of the game involves some fairly intricate platforming and the combination of the camera with a tendency towards unusually shaped surfaces leads to plenty of frustrating falls. For a 3D platformer in 2012, these issues are all but unforgiveable.
Oswald’s company does allow for some interesting puzzles but his implementation too is flawed. The face button to use his electrical powers is the same as the one you’ll use to throw him into the air to hitch a ride. I can’t count the number of times the latter happened when I wanted the former. Your companion also steadfastly refuses to interact with puzzle items at times, leaving you standing around waiting for something to happen.
Even something as fundamental as navigation is botched. Apart from the awkward controls, the mini-map is one of the most useless I’ve ever used. Perhaps for this reason, the game has inserted a gremlin helper who tries to tell you where to go but the size of the levels can still lead to confusion, not helped by some of the most opaque objectives I’ve ever been served in a game.
There are things to like in Epic Mickey 2 – the art style, interesting setting and the chance to interact with familiar characters from the world of Disney, with the hyperstylised 2D platforming sections between levels especially enjoyable. But rarely has a game with so much potential foundered so completely on basic gameplay elements, serving up frustration rather than fun in its minute to minute gameplay and making Mickey’s latest adventure a chore rather than a chortle.