Does it matter if a game moves along at such a blistering pace, you sometimes lose track of what’s going on? That’s a question I asked myself while playing Platinum Games’ The Wonderful 101, which arrives on the Wii U in a dervish of colour and patent-leather masks. It’s a game that you feel your way through instinctively rather than understand on an a more cerebral level – or maybe that’s just your humble reviewer…
With the globe under threat from alien invasion, The Wonderful 101 puts the player in charge of a growing army of costumed superheroes, the aim being to use their Unite abilities to repel an enemy force of tanks, monsters and giant robots.
The game’s isometric perspective and flock of diminutive characters may recall strategy games like Pikmin or Little King’s Story, but the game has more in common with the director and producer’s earlier work. Its combo-heavy fighting and brutal difficulty level is straight out of Bayonetta, or Devil May Cry, its tokusatsu references and humour are similar to Viewtiful Joe, while its Unite mechanic has an obvious link back to Okami’s celestial brush.
By drawing a line or a shape on the Wii U’s controller screen, the crowd of heroes connect together and form a deadly weapon. Draw a line, and they’ll form a sword. Draw a circle, and they’ll form a fist. A triangle creates a hang glider, a curve forms a whip, a right angle makes a gun, and so on – more weapons are added as the game progresses, and new members of the Wonderful 101 are discovered.
Initially, this feels like a fairly natural, fun means of interacting with the game, and a twist on the button combinations you frequently get in your average one-on-one beat-em-up – although the screen’s full of heroes, they all follow the leader, making controlling them far easier than it at first appears. The initial pair of weapons – Unite Sword and Unite Hand – are simple to draw, so it’s fine to move your fingers from the controller’s face buttons and quickly scribble the relevant shape on the screen. It’s when the action really heats up, and the boss battles kick in, that the system starts to show its rougher edges.
More than once, I had what I intended as a straight line misinterpreted as a curve, resulting in a Unite Gun instead of a sword. Sometimes, this is simply due to hurried and inaccurate drawing, but occasionally, the game simply misinterprets what’s been drawn. The problem grows as more difficult-to-draw weapons emerge – the hammer is easy to get wrong in the chaos of a battle. Switching to the right thumbstick helps in tighter situations, but even this has its drawbacks – drawing a circle, a right-angle or a line’s simple enough, but drawing a wavy line for a whip is still a tricky proposition at times.
These occasional issues aside, The Wonderful 101 is accessible and hugely entertaining. Your gang of warriors sprints around the place, battling enemies – tiny at first, but growing in size all the time – while solving the occasional environmental puzzle. Often, these include turning handles or pulling blocks with the Unite Hand, but others are a bit more involved, such as using your team as a ladder to rescue civilians or reach the top of a building. Those civilians can be added to your team by drawing around their location on the controller’s screen, where they show up as hollow dots on the map. By doing this, your strength grows, and you’ll occasionally unlock extra full-time team members, who all have names like Wonder Matador or Wonder Magician.
Part of The Wonderful 101‘s charm is its constant shifts in scale and even genre. One minute, the camera will be in tight on your team as they sprint through streets, collecting space aubergines, the next, they’re riding on the shoulder of a colossal mecha, dwarfed by its eye lasers as they batter away at the weak spots on its arm. There are rail-shooting segments, and a bit where you defeat a boss by batting baseballs at it with a gigantic bat.
Admittedly, not all of the dozens of ideas thrown into The Wonderful 101 work perfectly. There are puzzle sections that take place in enclosed spaces, where the view switches to the controller screen, and the camera positioning is often skittish and disorienting. In fact, a little more control over the camera may have been a help in general; even out in the open, the inability not to be able to adjust the viewpoint even a little bit – say, to peek up to the top of the building to see if anything’s hidden on top of it – means that items or civilians can often pass by unnoticed.
But for every odd design decision or technical misstep, there are a dozen things that The Wonderful 101 gets right. The way it gradually introduces new moves as the game goes on makes its gradual transition into a tough brawler seem organic and almost seamless; the array of weapons, moves and power-ups may be overwhelming, but they’re logically laid out and there are plenty of handy tutorials to be found on the controller screen to help you work out what everything does. Although the Unite abilities bring a rock-paper-scissors elements to battles, with most requiring a specific weapon to defeat them, the game also provides a range of additional blocks and special moves to unlock.
This variety of play styles, ideas and story twists (which we won’t spoil here) makes The Wonderful 101 a great addition to the Wii U’s diminutive software library. Although its design and sheer quirkiness might alienate it from a mainstream audience more used to soldiers and dour realism rather than zany superheroes, for anyone willing to give it a chance, The Wonderful 101 offers a dizzying, exhilarating sugar rush.
The Wonderful 101 is out on the 23rd August for the Wii U.
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