You’ve got to feel bad for Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. No one remembers him. You’d think that everyone would love and cherish the first character ever created by Walt Disney, but he hasn’t gotten any recognition in nearly seven decades. He’s spent that time ruling over the Wasteland, a mystical realm in which all forgotten Disney cartoons reside. Not the protagonists from the classic movies – constant re-releases and merchandising are more than enough to keep them in public awareness – but the really old school stuff. Have you ever heard of Ortensia? How about Horace Horsecollar? Clarabelle Cow? Gremlin Gus? They’re just some of the countless beings that have faded away into obscurity as the more popular characters have taken center stage. They’ve wasted their lives trying to relive the glory days of their youth, only to eventually realize that, despite their historical significance, no one will ever love them. They’ve grown accustomed to living in the shadows, and those who haven’t – Oswald in particular – have grown to resent everything that embodies modern Disney. After years of broken dreams, they finally have someone to blame:
Not only has he destroyed the professional lives of his former costars, but now he’s done the same to their very existences. He stumbles across Yen Sid’s (the wizard from Fantasia) workshop in which the Wasteland was created, and promptly starts messing with everything. Not only does he create a freakish monstrosity made entirely of paint, but accidentally drowns the Wasteland under a tidal wave of paint thinner in the ensuing struggle. Mickey doesn’t make it out of the chaos unscathed, either. He gets dragged down into the rotting, decrepit ruins that house Disney’s forgotten creations. Armed with nothing more than the magical brush taken from the workshop, Mickey now has to save this world if he ever hopes of returning to his own.
He’s got a lot of work to do, too. While nearly getting devoured might seem traumatic, just imagine what it was like for everyone living in the Wasteland. The game spends plenty of time – both in cutscenes and level structuring – to depict what would happen if a giant wall of acid were to descend upon the world and destroy everything. Huge chunks of the landscape have been washed away, leaving nothing but rivers and cesspools of toxic thinner everywhere. Buildings have melted and rotted into skeletons, and the communications and pathways between the different towns and areas have broken down. Those that weren’t vaporized in the tragedy now have to fend against roving bands of paint monsters and the steady decline of their reality. But the worst part? Oswald. After years of neglect and desire for recognition, this latest tragedy has pushed him over the edge. It’s anyone’s guess if he’ll actually help Mickey fix his ruined realm, or have him killed on sight.
Since you can’t do much about Oswald directly, you’ll have to focus your efforts on remaking the Wasteland with Mickey’s paintbrush. Depending on which button you press, you can let loose a stream of restorative paint, or a torrent of corrosive thinner. It’s an interesting idea; you could repaint a staircase to let you reach a far-flung ledge, or destroy a wall to reveal a hidden alcove containing pickups. Some platforms won’t work until you’ve recovered their gears, while items and alternate routes might be unveiled by melting the right spots. The problem is that this construction/destruction mechanic is severely limited; instead of being given free range over everything, you can alter only predetermined patches of the landscape and buildings. Thanks to the deceptively small range of your shots and occasionally unresponsive surfaces, it’s also difficult to tell what can or cannot be changed without relying on random spraying. It kills a lot of the potential experimentation and exploration the game could have had. It’s made even less fun by how the game resets an area once you leave it or die. You could spend ten minutes trying to destroy a building or looking for some item to complete a side quest, only for you to accidentally slip into a pool of thinner, get knocked out, and have to start the challenge over from scratch. Such setbacks rarely span over a few minutes, but they’re still needlessly annoying.
It’s even worse when you’re facing enemies. Mickey will have to fight his way through hordes of hopping eyeball mutants, mechanical behemoths, and some of the most disturbingly cute (yet deadly) bunnies you’ll ever see. While the basic combat boils down to either stomping on baddies or knocking them silly with a spinning attack (not unlike Super Mario Galaxy, you can also use the paintbrush to turn the tide of battle. Thinner offers a more direct approach, but using paint is actually more beneficial. If you douse your victim in enough of the stuff, it’ll eventually get brainwashed into fighting for you, attacking any nearby enemies and giving you the opportunity to escape or infect more of them. That’s assuming you can even make contact with your attacks. While you use a targeting reticule to point your paint/thinner streams in the correct direction, the game occasionally misreads your commands. You’ll end up spraying just slightly enough off-target to miss your mark. The awkward camera doesn’t help, either; you’ll frequently be hindered by some wall, or get struck down by an enemy that somehow knows exactly where your blind spot is. Aside from some awesome bosses and support from mini-projectile fairies, the combat comes off as boring and shallow at best.
How you approach your battles matters, though. Your actions in the fights – along with how you complete the side quests – will determine your place in the game’s morality scale. Being evil is easy; you could give a fake item back to a NPC, mangle a finely-crafted piece of machinery, or kill every enemy with reckless abandon. It makes for quick solutions and progression. But if you focus on destroying everything and selling out all your would-be friends, the citizens of the Wasteland aren’t going to be so helpful. On the other hand, no one has to die; you could take the time to repaint foes and rebuild as much of the place as possible. By restoring things, you’ll not only unveil more quests and areas to play through, but you’ll quickly gain respect and admiration as well. This extends to the bosses, too; depending on how they view you and your tactics, some baddies will reward you with items and even skip the battle. It’s not the deepest morality system ever conceived – you’ll usually be able to figure out the best choices at a glance – but it’s decent.
Too bad the same kind of creativity wasn’t put into the platforming. It’s not that bad; you can erase clock gears to freeze platforms, leap across chasms of searing thinner and sinking blocks, and carefully jump across a line of boats slowly drifting into Whirlpools of Instant Death. It’s nothing mind-blowing – the Mario Galaxy games and Donkey Kong Country Returns have set a high standard – but it gets the job done. The problem is that the range of the jumps and the detection of the landings and edge-grabs aren’t always consistent. You could be making what looks like an easy jump, only for you to fall just short of a given platform, go tumbling into a thinner-filled abyss, and listen to Mickey’s squeaky little screams of agony as he melts into oblivion. Or you could try the same stunt over again and make it past completely unscathed. It’s the camera that you’ll end up blaming the most. It’s almost as if it’s designed to set itself at the exact angle to make the next platform nearly impossible for you to see without having to look around. That’s assuming you even have control over it; while there are some areas with specifically fixed cameras, the rest of the time it seems like it’s got a mind of its own. Since it has a habit of doing random close-ups or getting stuck behind walls and obstacles, you’ll frequently have to struggle with the controller to get a halfway decent view. The abysmal camera turns what should have been a generic platforming experience into a needlessly tedious chore.
In terms of gameplay, the only areas that stand out are those brief stages that exist in between each part of the Wasteland. After entering a projector screen, you’ll have to jump through 2D levels that are based on the old Disney animated shorts. You‘ll probably recognize Steamboat Willie and Mickey and the Beanstalk, but you’ll eventually come across stuff like Oh What a Knight, Great Guns, and Trolley Troubles. Unless you’re trying to collect the film reels hidden throughout these stages, you shouldn’t have much trouble getting through and into the next part of the story. There’s a surprising amount of potential in these levels. You can use cranes as makeshift scales, hit switches to activate temporary floors, find alternate pathways by traveling on roofs, etc. The problem is these areas don’t last long enough to get interesting; it’ll rarely take you more than a couple of minutes to get through, which means you won’t have much of an opportunity to enjoy them. Had these stages been more frequent and further developed in both length and overall design, they would have easily made up for the relatively bland regular areas.
That doesn’t mean the rest of the game isn’t worth exploring, though. Even if the camera makes the platforming utterly atrocious, it can offer some of the most haunting visions ever seen in a Disney game. You’ll understand when you enter Gremlinville for the first time. The iconic Dumbo and Tea Cup rides from Disney World are there, but they’re all cracked and torn open. It’s a Small World is a nightmare of rotting wood and broken machinery; the boats have capsized, the usually cute animatronic children are devoid of life, the entire clockwork looks like some kind of malevolent demigod, and the background music is a jangled, unsettling rendition of the original. Toon Town, The Haunted Mansion, and Tomorrowland have all become disturbing imitations of the real things. Mickeyjunk Mountain, on the other hand, is one of the most fascinating pieces of fan service ever crafted. Imagine the Matterhorn ride made completely of Mickey memorabilia: a lunch box here, a giant phone there…the splintered remains of the Fantasia DVD, decapitated Mickey plush heads, the faded Super Nintendo carts of Mickey Mousecapades and Magical Quest…It goes on and on. When you look up into the skies over remnants of Mean Street, you’ll see a corrupted Sleeping Beauty’s Castle, floating among the clouds like a sinister hallucination. It doesn’t really get creepy until you realize just how much Oswald has obsessed over Mickey; one chilling glimpse of his version of the classic Walt Disney statue will tell you so much.
That’s what Epic Mickey is all about: revisiting the cartoons of old and looking at the Disney franchise from a different perspective. This title is crafted with fans in mind; there are so many references and cameos that only hardcore followers will be able to pick all of them up. It’s great to see designers put that kind of effort and creativity into something they love. But that doesn’t save the game from its numerous flaws and shortcomings; you can practically taste the wasted potential. The combat is shallow; the aiming, range, and hit detection of your paint and thinner isn’t always reliable. Restoring and destroying the landscape could have offered tons of potential experimentation and exploration, but it’s only limited to certain objects. The platforming, while serviceable enough on its own, is made needlessly annoying with a horrendous excuse of a camera. But if you manage to get it working long enough, you’ll be treated to some of Disney’s finest, from the animated shorts of the early twentieth century to the nightmarish visions of a world that is normally reserved for cherished childhood memories. It may not live up to its name, but at least Epic Mickey has that going for it.