As a gamer, I always love going off the beaten path. That's why I loved Clover Studio so much, and it's why their eventual dissolution by Capcom was such a big deal to me. Of freaking course the dev house that made Viewtiful Joe and Okami and God Hand gets rewarded with crap sales! Thankfully, ever since their rebirth as Platinum Games, they've been steadily producing games that are mostly hits (even with the occasional sorta-miss), and now Platinum is taking the stage on Wii U with The Wonderful 101.
Before I actually start on this review, I have to make something clear about myself as a gamer: I am always, always excited for unknown quantities and new control schemes. After playing on the Atari 2600 for years, it was strange switching over to a control pad... then learning to deal with shoulder buttons... then an arcade stick and six buttons... then mouse-and-keyboard... then analog sticks... and then motion control. While it undoubtedly works, I also have a big aversion to the now-standard "left stick moves, right stick looks" control scheme, since it leaves nothing to learn, nothing to master.
If only you could've seen Joseph and me kicking the living shit out of Dead Space 3
I've always been fond of slightly-inelegant control schemes like Resident Evil 4's, which are a little strange at first, but once you master them you can make your character dance. It's with that same mindset that I approached The Wonderful 101, and by extension the Wii U.
The Wonderful 101 is an unabashed love letter to tokusatsu and super sentai heroes, with the valiant "Wonderful One-Double-Oh" squad battling the diabolical forces of GEATHJERK (Guild of Evil Aliens Terrorising Humans with Jiggawatt bombs, Energy beams, Ray guns, and Killer lasers). Aside from the obvious Power Rangers, Ultraman, and Kamen Rider callouts, you'll fight your evil twin (several times) and take on a King Ghidorah-alike in an epic aerial battle. The story's as generic as they come, but the writing is closer to a Pixar movie--a lot of the racier jokes will go right over kids' heads, but then again, why would kids be playing a video game this difficult nowadays?
Simply put, The Wonderful 101 is Viewtiful Okami + Bayonetta + Pikmin, letting you control an army of up to 100 superheroes to take on an invading alien force. Draw on the Gamepad (or use the right analog stick) to create Unite Mode constructs like a fist or a sword, then use those constructs to fight enemies and solve puzzles. Different enemies are affected by different attacks, so you'll have to constantly switch Unite forms (but don't go overboard, as you have limited energy) to fight effectively. Occasionally, you'll have to bring your little army indoors where you watch them on the Gamepad, but you'll have to keep an eye out on the main screen for some pretty inventive puzzles.
Combat starts pretty simple, with basic jump/attack/dash moves, but you can expand your repertoire with a variety of moves through leveling up individual heroes' unique skills, or buying them from the between-levels shop. Like most Platinum titles, the combat's exacting nature will take a little getting used-to as the game gives absolutely no quarter. But again, like most Platinum titles, it has a steady flow of combat--you'll learn when to fight it out toe-to-toe with your opponent, when to dodge by a hair, when to execute a precision defense, and when to put your whole weight into a single, lethal counterattack. Unlike a lot of today's action games, The Wonderful 101 is exciting as hell to watch, but doesn't sacrifice tight and technical gameplay in the process.
Part of why I love Platinum is that they're less interested in making "directed, cinematic thrill rides" as much as they're interested in making video games. W101 is pretty short (about ten hours long on one playthrough), but like I said in the Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance review, any idiot can beat a Platinum game--the whole point of Platinum games is mastering them, and mastering each title's unique style. Any idiot can play Vanquish as a by-the-numbers cover shooter, but Vanquish is supposed to be played while powersliding on your knees in slow-motion while doing an over-the-shoulder headshot without looking, ducking into cover for a quick smoke break (and to recharge your meter), and then slam-dunking a missile into a two-story-tall robot's face. W101 has that same fierce momentum, only occasionally letting you catch a quick breath while you solve a puzzle using your Unite abilities.
It's not just a solo affair, either--up to five players can work together in multiplayer maps, combining abilities and ganging up on massive enemies. At first glance, it looked as tacked-on as the multiplayer in other single-player-centric titles like The Last of Us and Tomb Raider, but actually sitting down with friends (it was tough digging up enough Wii U Pro Controllers) led to absolute chaos, like a good game of Smash Bros. with all the items on.
Sounds pretty awesome, right? Well, it is... but the biggest and most glaring flaw surprisingly comes from one of the game's best features--its scale. Controlling a crowd of 100 people means that your characters are pretty small, even on a big TV, and the fixed camera angle combined with fast character movement means that you're constantly going to be losing your characters on-screen. Much like Bayonetta, enemies don't attack unless they're on-screen, but that doesn't help when you have a gigantic enemy taking up most of the viewing space and you've worked your lead character into a corner because foreground objects are blocking your view. Thankfully, as the game continues, the battles become more intense and you're placed in more open areas, so this becomes less and less of a problem, but it's no less frustrating.
In addition, there are players who will have trouble with the controls. While you can quickly and easily draw on the Gamepad, a lot of people aren't used to making the switch from buttons to the stylus (or just using your fingertip), and analog sticks are the absolute worst drawing tools in the history of art (anyone who's played Okami knows where I'm coming from). While basic shapes like a circle or a straight line are easy to pull off, some constructs (like the whip or hang glider) are hard to do consistently using the right analog stick. Personally, I found the stylus/touchscreen combination easier than the analog stick, but it's not for everybody.
Warts and all, The Wonderful 101 is Platinum at its very best, giving the Wii U a badly-needed must-own title, and more importantly, stepping out of the shadow of Bayonetta, Vanquish, and Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance to deliver an entirely new type of stylish action game with the same urgency and ferocious combat. During the Revengeance review, I talked about video games having a "holy shit" factor for me, and The Wonderful 101 more than delivered. A part of me hopes that Platinum just develops solely for Nintendo for now--at least Nintendo lets them do what they want, and when they do, it's glorious.
+ Relentless action with a constantly-escalating sense of scale and style
+ Tight, polished gameplay that's still open-ended enough to support a variety of playstyles
+ Unforgiving challenge beats you down fairly, rewarding your success and showing you where you can do better
+ Up to five-player multiplayer is hilariously epic chaos
+/- Control scheme is fresh, innovative, and still very efficient, but some players will have a hard time adjusting
- Tremendous sense of scale is great for combat, but frustrating for something that should be as simple as walking around