During the fourth encounter with a particularly hard-wearing boss your suspicions are finally confirmed. Like its titular heroes trying to bridge a gap without enough members, The Wonderful 101 has been stretched too thinly. And when that drawn-out boss fight repeats itself immediately afterwards – the fifth time you’ll face this same foe – Platinum’s colourful Wii U debut will sorely test your patience.
It’s all the more galling given the short-lived controversy when director Hideki Kamiya said that his focus was on fun, not duration, and that anyone put off by the thought of finishing a game in a day should avoid The Wonderful 101 altogether. Platinum’s executive director Atsushi Inaba quickly clarified that players shouldn’t be concerned about the game’s length and that Kamiya simply meant you “shouldn’t pad your game with content”. Unfortunately for Kamiya, it looks like someone insisted that he did just that.
The Wonderful 101 is spread across nine Operations, each broken into three sections – usually two levels and a set-piece boss fight, though you’ll face a number of mini-bosses along the way. The first Operation is a breathless rush through Blossom City as an invading alien force called the Geathjerk rains down destruction. New enemies are steadily introduced, as are fresh abilities for your heroes, and a puzzle that sees you move your characters around the inside of a warehouse on the GamePad’s screen in order to solve a combination lock displayed on the outside delights through its clever use of the unwieldy controller. And while you’ll be struggling to understand exactly what’s going on in that crowd of characters you’re apparently controlling, everything is new and exciting enough to set aside the initial bafflement.
Repetition soon sets in. The variety of enemies you’ve just met, it turns out, constitute a good chunk of the game’s entire roster. Operation 007 – set inside the body of a character for plot reasons we won’t divulge here – opens not with some new biological threat but shrunken-down versions of same enemy types we faced in Operation 001. Operation 008 does, too. That aforementioned quintet of boss fights isn’t the only example of major enemies coming back to haunt you: many escape death after you’ve chipped away at colossal health bars, their mocking laughter as they fly off becoming steadily more galling the more the trick is repeated. Elsewhere, Platinum gets plenty of mileage from some weak, repeated impressions of Viewpoint, Punch-Out!! and Panzer Dragoon.
A less bloated campaign would, however, have done little to solve more deep-rooted problems. The Wonderful 101 is never anything less than a spectacle – the sheer number of characters and enemies onscreen at any one time, combined with a litany of colourful attack effects and wonderfully solid-looking levels – but it’s one that, mechanically, is difficult to read.
You control the lead member of your ever-growing party, the rest of the throng following you dutifully. You can extend that party into a single-file Wonder Line using the right stick or GamePad touchscreen, creating bridges and ladders out of thin air where necessary, rescuing (and subsequently recruiting) civilians, or even rebuilding broken items such as lifts or tanks.
It’s perfectly readable at first, but then the fighting starts. Small enemies are at times lost in the middle of your following party, while large ones obscure your view of the group. All those visual effects make it difficult to distinguish enemies’ stunned animations from their attack tells, too, and you’ll be taken by surprise often as a result. Worse still, you’ll frequently be hit by long-range moves from offscreen enemies due to an isometric camera that zooms in on your current fight.
At its best, it does feel like a Platinum game. The sense of impact as your giant weapons crash into enemies is commendable, enlivened by subtle slow motion that kicks in a beat before your strike. Switching between those weapons is less satisfying, however. Your party has the ability to congeal into several different Unite Morphs, which you can call upon by drawing shapes with your Wonder Line. A straight line generates a sword, for example, a circle a fist, and a wavy line a whip, while many more are introduced as you meet new heroes along the way. The larger the shape you draw, the bigger and more powerful the morph, though at a cost: your Unite Meter, topped up with batteries found around the level, will take a larger hit.
It’s an intriguing system in principle, but not in practice. The GamePad frequently fails to recognise what you’re asking for and it can take several attempts to get right. And while beginning to draw also triggers slow motion, it’s an awkward process often interrupted by an enemy’s attack, requiring you to gather up your stunned team and try again. You’ll soon wish for a simple selection menu or button shortcuts, and we quickly found ourselves defaulting to the easy-to-draw sword morph rather than experiment with our other options during battle. It’s telling, too, that one upgrade you’re able to apply later on makes the line faster to draw with the right stick, which comes off like a tacit apology for requisite GamePad functionality.
The Wonderful 101 draws on ideas from Kamiya’s previous games – Viewtiful Joe’s cartoonish charm, Okami’s brushstroke mechanic, Bayonetta’s setpieces – but in concert they’re messy, hamstrung by cluttered visual design and a clumsy central mechanic. Stretched over a large frame, they wear thin quickly. There’s a good game in here, but it’s smothered by the need to conform to its host platform’s feature set, and a distorted concept of value for money.
The Wonderful 101 is released on Wii U on August 23.