The Wonderful 101
With its brazen palette of vibrant colours, a hokey storyline and energetic cast of superheroes clad in ridiculous outfits, The Wonderful 101’s inspirations are fairly obvious. From Voltron to Kamen Rider, Ultraman and of course, the Power Rangers, Platinum Games’ latest feeds off of the Saturday morning TV show with loving panache.
Don’t be fooled by its whimsical surface, however. This is still a game born from the sprightly mind of Hideki Kamiya and his team. Off-colour jokes, gratuitous butt and boob shots and a punishing difficulty curve reveal a game that’s not exactly meant for kids. Its ideas, too, are quintessentially Platinum, bursting with creativity and innovation; it seems to effortlessly exude moments of glee in each and every single level.
While such imaginative concepts are exciting to see, there is always an inherent danger that the mechanics at the centre of the idea will falter in their execution. With The Wonderful 101 that’s unfortunately the case, its clumsy mechanics all too often failing to keep up with its unrelenting pace.
From the word go, The Wonderful 101’s pace is evident, personifying a thrilling rollercoaster ride that never lets up. From the moment to moment combat, to the gargantuan boss battles and the raucous over-the-top narrative, the life of an Earth-saving superhero is certainly tiring (particularly when the maniacally villainous Geathjerk invade). Fortunately there’s more than just one hero, the titular Wonderful 100 (the extra one being you) filling out their numbers with relative ease. During moments of surprisingly plentiful dialogue they express themselves as comical stereotypes of various nationalities, their playful banter and whimsical sense of humour striking up an entertaining tone that carries the enjoyably nonsensical storyline.
“From the word go, The Wonderful 101’s pace is evident, personifying a thrilling rollercoaster ride that never lets up”Via gameplay, however, this expression changes as the cast clumps together into one big group, revealing The Wonderful 101’s creative, yet flawed, mechanics. This all begins with Wonder Red, the first hero we meet. As he travels through Blossom City he can rescue and recruit fellow heroes and members of the public, each Good Samaritan forming a mass of bodies that follows him wherever he roams. Wonder Red represents the leader of this ragtag group and the character you control. He’s the only one that can take damage but not the only one who can be hit, everyone else scattering across the map, dazed and confused. They’ll eventually return of their own volition but you’ll want to pick them back up yourself since they encompass all of your key abilities.
You can fling your mass of willing bodies at enemies to stun and slow them down, but for big damage you need to Unite your allies together. This concept (dubbed Unite Morph) takes the shape of various weapons, your cluster of eager bodies forming together to create each one like destructive cheerleaders. You begin with Wonder Red’s mighty fist before more pertinent superheroes join your group, slowly granting access to more varied weaponry such as swords, whips and time bombs. As you switch between each character they take their place as the leader of the group – their weapons proving useful outside of combat (where situational puzzles and platforming sections arise) as well as in it.
There’s a range of combos and juggles available, encompassing each unique tool in your armoury. Your followers, too, can be put to effective use, able to delegate different attacks to them and rake up the biggest combos. It’s a striking sight to behold, each colourful weapon swathing the screen in vivacity as foes big and small fall by the wayside. There’s nothing else quite like it, injecting the hack-and-slash genre with a maelstrom of breathless vibrancy and a dollop of the absurd as hammer-shaped mounds of people smash their foes to pieces.
Like Bayonetta before it, The Wonderful 101 also seems relatively simple at first glance, but it doesn’t take long before its deceptively deep fighting mechanics reveal themselves. It’s here where issues begin to arise with The Wonderful 101’s control scheme. For a game that demands such precision and quick reflexes, the fidelity of the Wii U GamePad just isn’t there. To use each Unite Morph you must draw a specific shape on the GamePad’s touchscreen – adding a tactile element to Okami’s similar brush strokes. On paper it sounds fantastic, but the inconsistency of the touchscreen leads to constant frustration.
Drawing simple circles and straight lines is mostly fine, but you can imagine the agony when trying to get it to distinguish between the ‘S’ and ‘Z’ shapes, let alone some of the more complex shapes introduced later in the game. The right stick can be used as an alternative but this is so unwieldy it’s only really useful for drawing straight lines.
The failings of this control scheme dents the flow of combat, especially when you can see its potential bubbling just below the surface, only occasionally coming up for air. It grants you the capabilities to unleash sweeping combos but the tools with which to do so are too inconsistent. When so much of the game is engrained in this one mechanic it can’t help but put a dampener on proceedings. This is still a satisfying action game but you’ll always crave more than this awkward utilisation of the Wii U’s defining feature can muster, forced to rely on its more reliable shapes rather than expand your arsenal.
“The failings of this control scheme dents the flow of combat, especially when you can see its potential bubbling just below the surface”Other issues unfortunately do little to help. Take the isometric view for instance. Again, it’s a stroke of ingenuity at first glance, perfectly encapsulating The Wonderful 101’s stunning visual design in a neat little bow. Play long enough, however, and your opinion will no doubt change. Combat is so frenetic, cluttered and explosive that it becomes increasingly difficult to make out your tiny character amidst this colourful brawl of dozens; the camera’s varying perspectives also leaving you susceptible to constant attacks from off screen. It’s inelegant and only compounds the grievances of its control scheme. Play on the default normal difficulty and you may just be tempted to break the disc in half; the demands it places on the player feel unfair when your tools are so unpredictable and sluggish.
It’s also very obtuse, refusing to explain critical systems for whatever reason. You’ll have to go digging through multiple menus to discover its crafting system, or to find out how to equip purchased upgrades. Even its counter mechanic remains a mystery. Trying to figure it out yourself is unintuitive, particularly when it lacks so much distinction. Is it based on strict timing? The type of attack? Who knows!? There’s also a dodge so you can negate this somewhat, and you’ll eventually discover its other systems and learn to deal with how they work, but their opaque nature is still wholly unnecessary.
There’s a lot going on in The Wonderful 101. It’s like a double edged sword (made of people). On the one side its vague design and clumsy control scheme repudiate a combat system that demands fluidity and accuracy, disrupting its exceptional creativity. Yet on the other side that creativity knows no bounds, presenting sweeping boss battles and moments that consistently surprise and amaze, the touchscreen shapes working notably well within a slowed-down QTE environment. It even puts that extra screen to good use, too. One particularly memorable section has you moving between directional pads on the touchscreen to steer a ship on the TV, once again showcasing Platinum’s ingenuity.
So much of it is so immensely charming, loveable and inventive that it’s hard to stay mad for too long. You just always feel hamstrung in your ability to extract the full potential out of a conceivably phenomenal game. You want to love it, you do love it, but not its whole, and that’s incredibly disheartening. For that, The Wonderful 101 is an unfortunate and relative blip on a spectacular Platinum Games resumé.