If there was a game I was as hyped about as Atlus' Dragon's Crown
, it would have been for The Wonderful 101. Hearing that Platinum Games was making a brand new game exclusively for the WiiU was practically enough to get me on board with the system. After a go-round with the latest from Hideki Kamiya and his crew at Platinum, I'm not quite sure what to think of The Wonderful 101. This game has a great pedigree behind it, Viewtiful Joe, Godhand (despite what people think about it), Anarchy Reigns, Bayonetta, all solid games, and I thought The Wonderful 101 could go toe to toe or even elevate the company to higher heights than before. A crushing difficulty, and less than intuitive controls left me wondering, am I losing my edge or is Platinum slightly off their game with this one?
An alien invasion has begun, and the Earth is under attack by the hand of the mighty GEATHJERK, who've been roaming the galaxy and taking over everything they see fit. Why? Reasons. Though the plot has a few twists, turns and betrayals in it, it's not the most original story out there. Instead the originality is reserved for the one hundred souls you'll be controlling in this adventure, conveniently called, The Wonderful 100, in case you didn't know, you're the additional one. The Wonderful 100 is comprised of a bunch of people from around the world who have special abilities, though the main heroes of this story could be considered the color coded ones. As Wonder-Red, you'll be leading this team as they attempt to stop GEATHJERK and save the planet. The story and dialog of the game is strong, full of good jokes and writing, and they did a great job of injecting personality in to each of the characters, even if they don't have speaking part. Their designs alone lets you know that the guys at Platinum went all out in the character department. The main heroes though will be constantly bickering as they come together as a team, and it's not without some internal drama that they do a great job at presenting (I really got to hate Wonder-Blue as the story went on).
Gameplay is where the game both shines, and dulls the whole experience. 'But how can that be?' you might ask, well, true to Platinum form, this game presents a considerable challenge, even at the 'normal' difficulty. Where as say, Bayonetta, and Anarchy Reigns were fun romps, The Wonderful 101 goes the route of Viewtiful Joe and Godhand, requiring an intense amount of finesse and patience in order to be successful and achieve those platinum ratings. The combat that makes up a majority of the game is one of the biggest risks that Platinum is taking with the beat-em-up genre, and when it works, it's a lot of fun. You control a the leader of The Wonderful 100, and while controlling that leader, you'll use their unique ability, powered by your followers, and accessed via Unite Morphs. Wonder-Red is a pro when it comes to close-range hand-to-hand combat, to switch to him, you'll draw a circle on the gamepad. Wonder-Blue rocks a sword, a simple straight line brings him to the battlefield, Wonder-Green, a gun, an L, kind of like when you held your thumb up and used your pointer finger as the barrel, and Wonder-Pink, a whip, a wavy line is all you need for her. These skills combined with some standard skills like the Unite Spring dash and Unite Guts block, will carry you through the twelve to fifteen hour campaign.
The Unite Morph system is at times incredibly simple to use, and other times maddeningly frustrating. You can use either the right analog stick to draw the designated symbols, or the stylus and gamepad screen. The larger your drawing, the bigger the weapon, though it only lasts momentarily before reverting to its default form. I'd say about eighty percent of the time you'll have no problem drawing what you need. But when it doesn't work, you can chalk it up to bad camera angles, small areas within which you need to draw, and at times, the game just simply getting mixed up in how it interprets what you're trying to draw. One case in particular had me fuming, Wonder-Black's bomb skill requires a circle, with a line coming off of it. Simple, right? Well unfortunately his big debut was a pain in the ass, because the camera angle made it nearly impossible to see my units move in to place to form what I was trying to draw. After a while I remembered that I had a stylus, and proceeded to draw it on the gamepad with little trouble, but a situation like that simply shouldn't happen, especially in a situation where it's the character's big reveal! Moments like this are peppered throughout the game, and while they aren't deal-breakers, they kill the momentum I had been building up to that point and left me frustrated.
Each of characters have move-sets that are similar, but each has strengths that make them a necessity in battle. Wonder-Pink can remove armor from plated foes, Wonder-Green is great for taking down aerial enemies, and Wonder-Black can slow down speedy enemies. These moves drain energy from your Unite Meter, so you can't just throw them out at random, and while the gauge refills automatically it can be frustrating to be unable to use a move when you're in dire straits, and if your followers get knocked away you can't power-up at all. While this adds to the challenge it also sets up for frustrating scenarios where you're constantly on the defensive against multiple enemies who can keep knocking your group apart, preventing you from being able to defend yourself.
The game also doesn't always do a great job of telling you how to take advantage of the strengths of each of the heroes, so in some situations you'll be lost, and be taking a pounding from the enemies all the while. This extends to non-combat gameplay too, in some platforming areas, you'll need to draw a straight line to make a bridge to cross a gap, but sometimes you'll actually need to use the hang-glider ability, and not knowing which is needed will lead to a lot of lost health. This lack of a little helping-hand only gets worse when the boss fights come along, and if you're not aware of how to exploit their weaknesses, prepare for prolonged battles. The third chapter boss in particular took me well over a half-hour to beat, making me want to put the game down after the fight was over, I was mentally exhausted from the game and needed to take a break. Seeing that I earned the lowest possible rating from the fight didn't help my ego much.
The key things you need to succeed in The Wonderful 101 is a lot of patience, and a keen eye. Enemy attacks give you just a few frames in order to evade, and a lot of them will come from off-screen, which is kind of a cheap mechanic, especially when you're not aware that they've even entered the battlefield. This happens a lot early on, but seems to get cleaned up a bit after about the fourth chapter. In fact, it seems like the later chapters are where all the fun was kept. One of the boss battles has a great homage to a classic NES game involving a certain boxer, while another stage borrows a little from Mister Driller and a little from a classic shooter that's full of 'options.' These moments really saved the game for me my first time through, helping to break up the sometimes troublesome and difficult combat. But by the end of the game, I 'got it' and started to really see what the guys at Platinum were going for. It's not easy, but it is incredibly rewarding and satisfying, seeing those platinum medals show up at the end of each stage's missions.
Visually The Wonderful 101 is bright and bombastic, and the production values are way up there which I would expect no less of from the guys at Platinum. The characters are well animated, and the visual direction is unique, which is something the WiiU is in desperate need of right now. It may not have the visual panache that comes from being on a PS3 or 360, but it has a style all its own that can't be matched by anything, regardless of what console it is on. Strong visual direction scores more points with me, and The Wonderful 101 certainly isn't lacking in that department. The audio is full of heroic swells, making great use of strings, and brass to make a complementary soundtrack to all the heroism that's on display.
Speaking of displays (haha! I knew I'd find a cheesy way to segue into this!), having the game play off screen on to the WiiU gamepad works, but is a tough catch-all in some situations. There are moments where the game likes to go from the main screen to the gamepad screen, like when exploring ruins and entering a particularly small space. The main screen is still used, to help solve a puzzle (one that I spent a few minutes trying to figure out before I actually looked at my TV), but you'll be contending with a less than useful camera on the gamepad, that's controlled by moving the gamepad around. It's a neat gimmick, but more often than not you'll be using the gamepad to draw whatever icon you need for the necessary hero.
So that's The Wonderful 101, a flawed, but incredibly fun and rewarding game that seems to be valiantium attempt for the guys at Platinum. They had some really lofty goals to achieve in working with the WiiU hardware, and for the most part they succeeded. You can tell their games are a labor of love and respect, and you'll see a few nods to games past in there. If you don't catch them the first time around, you'll probably spot them in subsequent playthroughs, since there is a ton of stuff to find and collect outside of just finding all the members of The Wonderful 100. I wish the learning curve weren't so steep, in fact, save yourself a little bit of a headache, start on Easy, no one has to know. It'll help you in the long run if you cut your teeth on a slightly less intense experience. Or if you're a fan of Godhand and Viewtiful Joe, then go whole hog, you'll find a challenge equal to if not harder than some of Platinum's previous games, especially once you switch to the unlockable difficulties. I might take a pass on those though, well, maybe not, I'll need the practice for Bayonetta 2.