Last summer, I was out visiting a friend of mine out in the rural parts of the state. He’s a gamer as I am and for Christmas he’d gotten a copy of Epic Mickey from a relative. For my part, I’d held off on buying the game in part because of some of the specific complaints leveled against the game, including the camera. I figured this trip was an apt time to get his take on the game.
“So, what did you think of Epic Mickey?“ I asked at one point, looking up at the game sitting on the shelf.
“I didn’t finish it,” he said, “I played it for a couple of hours and then gave up on it.”
“Wow,” I said. “Was it the camera?” I knew that was a frequent complaint of the game.
“No,” he said, looking thoughtful. “It wasn’t the camera. It just didn’t do it for me.”
“Interesting,” I said, trying to divine what he meant by that. “I’m sort of surprised.”
“Take it,” he said. “Maybe you’ll like it more than I did.”
Our exchange was completely unexpected. Complaints about the camera were such a major topic post-release that to hear some other explanation– a one that vague, no less– came as a surprise. At the same time, I reasoned, if he felt the complaints about the camera were unfounded, perhaps the game would work out after all. So I borrowed the game from him, went back home, and excitedly went to work in the world that Warren Spector had created.
A week or so later, I was done. Like him, I had given up on the game. Like him, the game simply didn’t do it for me.
It’s not that I didn’t want the game to succeed. I wrote about Epic Mickey before its release, with high hopes that it could be a legitimate third-party sell for Wii. I came into the game believing that my experience would be different from my friend’s (different tastes for different folks, after all) and that the game might well live up to its title. Yet for me, as for my friend, it did not– it simply didn’t do it for me.
For a long time I simply moved on without much introspection on the matter. Last fall, however, I noted increased chatter by a few Dojo editors on the virtues of the game, including several props in Week End entries and even an op-ed by one of our staffers on the choice mechanics in the game. That, combined with the game’s generally favorable reviews, impelled me to go back and consider what about the game led me to simply put it away.
It certainly wasn’t the production values. Man, the game looked and sounded awesome. It makes a mighty first impression, with a powerful opening cinematic that transitions into a powerfully dark opening level. The graphics are crisp, the music is haunting, and the visuals and sound combine to give the game real atmosphere. The levels are real eye candy and they have a storybook quality about them that even now I can conjure in my head.
It also wasn’t the controls. The combat was well-designed with the thinner and paint, and it was satisfying to watch entire bridges emerge out of air or walls peel away to reveal hidden secrets. The camera, although the subject of much critical press, had some choppy moments but wasn’t the game-breaking experience some had claimed.
It seems almost inconceivable to think that a game that looks, sounds, and plays well would ultimately prove unsatisfying, and yet that’s exactly what happened for me. In hindsight, I think I can pinpoint a few pieces of the puzzle that remained missing for me and ultimately overwhelmed what positive impressions I might have otherwise had of the game.
Mickey didn’t really grow
Good games, to me at least, are all about growth. Whether it’s Leon in Resident Evil 4 getting better weapons and armor, Link acquiring new equipment, Mario powering up with a new suit, or purchasing points-based upgrades in a licensed title, a linchpin of modern games are characters that become more powerful and full-featured with time. RPGs are the epitome of growth, but as the aforementioned examples go, the best games in many genres make growth a central part of the experience in some way.
Mickey in this game does very little that would qualify as genuine growth. True, his thinner, paint bars, and health can get bigger with time, but he does not gain any new equipment, abilities, or powers. The items he collects in the field purchase gallery extras which do nothing to enhance him as a character, with the end result that Epic Mickey plays about the same hours in as it does in the beginning. Given that developer Warren Spector also created the deep experiences of System Shock and Deus Ex, this is nothing short of stunning.
The lack of character growth might have been compensated for with a great plot, but…
The storyline fell flat for me
I love games with story. I love taut thrillers, glorious narratives, and memorable characters. I was engrossed by Eternal Darkness, captivated by Dead Space Extraction, and moved by Fragile Dreams. That’s not to say that story is an absolute necessity for me. What it does mean is that if the story is minimal, the gameplay has to be there to pick up the slack.
One major surprise for me was that the storyline of the game did not live up to the premise. The idea of a world corrupted by an ink catastrophe seemed like a great setup, but the actual in-game plot felt, to me at least, like a connect-the-dots affair. Mickey would travel to a location, possibly interact with a few characters, and perform a series of fetch quests that did little to flesh out personalities or the overarching storyline. True, Oswald is out there and there is the ultimate goal of restoring the storybook world, but I did not feel like that narrative, or any other subplot in the game, was really strong or deep enough to pull me in.
I didn’t like the game’s choice system
Last fall, Katharine Byrne talked about the auto-save feature in Epic Mickey, which effectively forced players to live with the consequences of their actions. This mechanic, she said, gave the game honest consequences that actually impacted the main narrative. I you make a decision you don’t like in Epic Mickey, you’re stuck with it, because the game autosaves your decision and there is no way to roll back the clock and undo it. The game doesn’t discriminate between malice and ineptitude either; if you take the bad path because you don’t know how to take the good path– and this indeed did happen to me– you’re stuck with your choices.
This is, I suppose, a reasonable way of making a game, and I suppose the developers get credit for doing something different. It’s definitely a more realistic approach to gaming and it is a natural evolution over the Fire Emblem series, which also tried to build serious consequences into a game. In Fire Emblem, characters who die in combat usually die and always remain unplayable unless a player resets and starts the given level over. Epic Mickey essentially appropriated this idea and built in an autosave to prevent players from cheating death by going back and replaying levels.
I might be allowed a moment of taste, I have to say that I don’t necessarily like the idea personally. Real life is full of times I wish I could have loaded an old saved game, and I don’t always like games that remind me of life’s lost opportunities. Being able to reset the game and go back to an old save in a game is like that time machine we all wish we had in real life, and I am a fan of second chances. At least one game I’ve played, Radiant Historia, actually builds second chances into the game’s mechanic, encouraging players to take risks and see the game as a sandbox rather than a straight line, and I find that way more enjoyable.
It is worth mentioning that, in theory, this choice system is supposed to create an incentive to replay the game. Problem is, I found the game sufficiently uninspiring that I could not muster enough incentive to make it through a single playthrough, much less multiple ones.
Epic Mickey has a great coat of paint and some good tangibles, but I could not help but feel like it lacked the sort of depth that really delivers the goods in the best of games. It was gorgeous, aurally excellent, and the fundamentals of gameplay worked fine. But it seems Warren Spector decided to place the game’s depth in the choices players make rather than in character growth or in strength of narrative, and since I found myself alienated from the choice system, the rest of the game collapsed for me– as it did for my friend– like a house of cards. I’d hoped that perhaps this game would draw me in like another Disney mashup, Kingdom Hearts, but ultimately it did not.
I know other Dojo staffers have taken more positive impressions from the game, and I suppose the good news is nowadays that Epic Mickey is cheap enough that taking a dive on the game is a smaller financial risk. I will say that, for my part, I’m glad I didn’t slap down $50 for the game when it first launched.