Great gameplay that takes advantage of the GamePad, fantastic audio and visual presentation throughout, just plain fun (and funny!)
GamePad doesn't always acknowledge your inputs properly, some wonky camera angles, humor and style might not appeal to everybody
I think most people will know whether or not they really like The Wonderful 101 within less than an hour of booting it up. The game doesn’t take too long to clearly establish what it is, both in terms of gameplay and style; those who focus solely on the former will probably have a decent enough time, but the whole package will most certainly please those with certain tastes. Thankfully, I’m among the crowd who can see exactly what Platinum Games was attempting with Wonderful 101 and love the studio dearly for it.
The Wonderful 101 tells the tale of the titular group of heroes as they do battle with the Geathjerk, an invading army of aliens and monsters trying to take over the world. This premise could easily be used to make a fairly typical game in just about any genre, but Platinum has obviously gone out of its way to make sure this game is a unique experience. That being said, Wonderful 101 doesn’t necessarily present something that has never been done before; it draws from its influences to blend gameplay and artistic styles in a way that no one else has attempted.
At its core, this long-awaited Wii U exclusive is an action game in the vein of Devil May Cry, God of War, or Platinum’s acclaimed Bayonetta. At first this really isn’t quite so apparent as the game clearly differs from those games by swapping over-the-top violence and bad-ass anti-heroes for action that would seem at home in a Saturday morning super hero cartoon or Power Rangers episode. The fact that the game looks almost Pikmin-like at first glance, thanks to the hundred strong mass of characters you control, further distracts from this. These hordes of heroes are in fact your weapons against the invading aliens. While our heroes do carry individual weapons, their true power is the Unite Morph, a skill that allows the heroes to form together to create massive weapons that are controlled by whichever hero is leading the group. Each weapon has unique characteristics that extend beyond just speed and damage– the whip, for example, is perfect for pulling spiked armor off some foes, while the hammer is perfect for busting through the more well-defended enemies. These factors also play into the environmental puzzles that pop up from time to time.
Where Wonderful 101 really distances itself from other games is how you switch weapons. Weapons are formed by drawing corresponding shapes, either on the GamePad or with the right analog stick. I’ve read a few reviews that favor the analog stick, but I disagree as I found it much easier to reach over with my right thumb to draw the shape, so it might be worth playing around with a couple approaches to find which style works best for you. Unfortunately, this system does present what is quite possibly the game’s biggest problem, because it doesn’t always recognize what you are drawing. A portion of this problem does resolve itself as you become more used to what the game is looking for, but sometimes it simply fails; and even though it works the majority of the time, there is bound to be a handful of frustrating instances where it won’t acknowledge what you are trying to do multiple times in a row. But then things will smooth out once again and you will go on your merry way, summoning multiple weapons at a time to lay waste to large swaths of the battlefield at a time. The game does limit the amount of carnage you can dish out by limiting two resources, the number of heroes in your group and your energy level, both of which increase as you recruit civilians and other heroes into your party and collect batteries strewn across the levels.
The GamePad is also used brilliantly in some clever puzzles and some more unique sequences throughout the game. Going into certain buildings brings up an interior view of said building on the GamePad, and then there is usually something within the building that needs to be manipulated to solve a puzzle in the exterior view being shown on your TV. These puzzles are fun in their own right, but there are some even better uses. My favorite use of the second screen is an instance where our heroes steal an enemy spaceship and the GamePad displays the inside of the ship, which is controlled by giant buttons on the floor. Meanwhile, the TV is showing the ship as it flies through the enemy onslaught, so you have to use the giant buttons on the GamePad screen to pilot and fire the cannons of the ship on the main screen. Moments like this are what really make The Wonderful 101 an experience that really couldn’t be the same on any other console.
As fun and unique as the gameplay can be in The Wonderful 101, the presentation, art direction, writing, and voice acting are really what will make people fall in love with this game; it is one of those rare instances where style may very well win out over substance. As I mentioned earlier, Wonderful 101 is colorful and cartoony, and that extends beyond the visuals as the story, dialogue, and performances seem to simultaneously parody and pay homage to old kids’ shows featuring squeaky clean heroes and guys in rubber monster suits being beaten up by guys in cardboard robot suits. And this is made all the better by intermixing elements of slapstick humor as well as some very tongue-in-cheek writing that includes some very random jokes and unexpected references. I know that this type of humor won’t appeal to everybody, either by going over their heads or simply being too silly for their tastes, but I personally loved it and I know I can’t be the only one.
Speaking of how colorful and cartoony Wonderful 101 can be, I have to talk about just how gorgeous and well presented this game is. Everything in this game has an exceptionally bright and shiny look to it, making the characters look almost like plastic action figures and the levels like elaborately detailed play sets. The isometric camera angle used during gameplay does add to the sense that you are in fact playing with toys, but it can also be limiting at times, especially in the game’s occasional moments that require precise platforming. That is another point that might annoy some, but the game’s overall sense of grandeur will win them back over very quickly. The Wonderful 101 transfers seamlessly between cutscenes, quick-time events, and gameplay to create incredibly elaborate action sequences that manage to offer both incredible spectacle and engaging gameplay without ever making you feel disconnected. Platinum manages this by nailing the quick-time events, which are usually kept simple and have fairly generous timing windows so as to avoid unnecessary frustration. The benefits of this amazing direction are best seen in the game’s many boss battles, which often feature multi-stage fights against massive enemies as they tear apart the city around you. The end result are fights that are constantly changing to keep the action fresh while also presenting visually stunning set pieces punctuated by quick-time events that always lead to a thoroughly satisfying payoff. All of this wonderfully comical and exciting action is made all the better by an amazingly epic orchestral soundtrack filled with memorable and suitably heroic anthems.
The Wonderful 101 makes another point for itself by providing more than a single playthrough of the campaign. First of all, the campaign is definitely worth revisiting thanks to multiple difficulty levels and a great scoring system that makes it all the more tempting to revisit earlier levels as you get better at the game and acquire more skills and combos. And then there is also the inclusion of a five-player multiplayer mode, something else that is really only possible on Wii U, which mostly boils down to tackling increasingly difficult groups of enemies. It isn’t the most inspired multiplayer game in the world, but it is a perfectly fine distraction to have.
I personally can’t blame anyone who doesn’t fall heads-over-heels in love with The Wonderful 101 because its appeal is not universal. Someone who is looking for nothing more than a straightforward action game might be a little disappointed, because the action isn’t as complex as something as Bayonetta and the story and presentation have a sense of humor that not everyone might find funny, and the material it pays homage to might not be familiar to everybody. On top of that, there are a couple of real issues that do detract from the experience, most notably the occasional camera issues and the instances where the game doesn’t recognize the shapes you are drawing. Even with these faults, The Wonderful 101 is average at worst, and good by just about every other standard. But people like me who will love the humor and get all the references will have an absolute blast. So, if you love this old school style of super hero camp filled with thoroughly cheesy dialogue and over-the-top action, then you can rest assured that there is a thoroughly enjoyable action game serving as the foundation for the whole experience.