There are a surprisingly large number of famous fictional mice. Jerry, Speedy Gonzales, Pinky & The Brain, er… Stuart Little? But, without a doubt, the most famous of them all is Mickey. His white face and red shorts have been spearheading Disney’s animated arsenal since 1928. Slice off the top of his scalp and you have a logo powerful enough to evoke waves of childhood nostalgia.
But before Mickey, there was another. Another warped animal with a pale complexion and colourful legware. Oswald the Lucky Rabbit arrived the year before his more famous cousin and starred in hundreds of cartoons in the 20s and 30s. Now nobody remembers him.
This is the thematic starting point for Epic Mickey. In an exciting intro movie, we see a wizard constructing a world at his desk, paintbrush in hand. Mickey, the scamp, attempts to join in while the magician’s back is turned, but only succeeds in tipping a bottle of black ichor onto the desk. When he is sucked into that world many years later, he discovers a land populated by forgotten Disney characters, ruled over by Oswald, but ravaged by a monster known as the Shadow Blot.
Epic Mickey was masterminded by designer Warren Spector, revered for his work on System Shock and Deus Ex. The melding of his status as a serious creator with the icon of the world’s most powerful entertainment company has had fingers twitching since the game’s announcement in 2009. Early information appeared promising. We were told that, as Mickey, you would be able to choose between good and evil, and that your actions would have a tangible effect on the world around you. The hype was so effective that Epic Mickey scooped a number of awards at E3 2010.
If the above paragraph means almost nothing to you, then breathe easy. None of that information is required reading and, given that the game completely fails to live up to those high expectations, you’ll probably have more fun with it. Anyone with the Deus Ex logo tattooed on their arm should brace themselves for disappointment. For all the preemptive plaudits, the only award Epic Mickey deserves to win is ‘Most Grammatically Confused Title.’
Not that Epic Mickey is a bad game. It’s fine, but N64-style 3D platforming isn’t going to get anyone very excited. Surprise: Mickey can double-jump! And he solves puzzles to move from one area to the next. So far, so Rayman 2. The core differentiating mechanic is Mickey’s magic paintbrush. With it, he can fire out paint or thinner onto enemies and buildings that surround him, restoring or dilapidating them as he sees fit.
It is with this ability that Mickey was supposed to bring about world-altering consequences, but in practice, the differences are little more than cosmetic. Its most interesting uses are as a way of introducing new puzzle ideas – like hiding objects behind thinable walls – and the effect it has on Mickey’s ink-blot enemies. By firing out either paint or thinner you can befriend or destroy different creatures. Reducing them to a pool of black gloop is quicker, but if you can turn them to your side they will fight alongside you.
The only time the paint/thinner decision has a lasting effect is in the wake of boss battles. Every major enemy can be defeated in one of two ways. Sometimes the choice is as simple as which colour projectile you fire at them, while others offer a passive or aggressive path. Depending on which option you pick, certain characters may return at a later date to aid or hinder your progress.
At times like these, the neat story and comfortable references come together to make something quite satisfying. It’s easy to overlook the occasionally dodgy camera when the context makes your choices feel meaningful. The puzzle sections operate with a similar success rate, rewarding you for figuring out where to go next and how to get there. Conversely, Epic Mickey tends towards boring when it starts to rely heavily on jumping.
One of the many exciting innovations hinted at before the game’s release was a heavy RPG element, but the end product features nothing like the involvement of Mr Spector might have led you to believe. Ancillary characters hand out optional quests to complete, but these rarely reward anything interesting. A notable lack of strong stories gives you little incentive to complete them. Epic Mickey is technically an open world game, but there’s never a good reason to return to an area you aren’t already being directed to.
Mickey platforming veterans might get a thrill from the way you move between zones. Jumping into a projector, our hero enters a 2D world reminiscent of Mega Drive titles like Castle Of Illusion. Animation historians may also get a kick out of these levels, each one themed around an early Mickey Mouse cartoon. These areas are a reminder of what a rich vein of content the developers had to draw from. It’s frustrating that they weren’t able to leverage all that material into something more interesting. Most disappointingly, none of the characters are voiced, with the nice hand-drawn cutscenes undermined by grunts and squeaks rendered into text at the bottom of the screen.
Anyone gasping with anticipation for the arrival of Epic Mickey should probably knock another star off the review score for sheer disappointment. Similarly, those invested heavily in Disney might find themselves a little let down. The rest of us in the middle, who have a fondness for classic animation and good video games, will find enough fun to remain entertained, if not enthralled.