The Wonderful 101 Review
Kids’ television shows are not difficult to understand. When viewers tune in to Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, everything is exaggerated and accessible – from the villain’s zero-subtlety plan to the heroes’ wild gesticulations. The Wonderful 101 emulates the style and tone of these absurd adventures. While its plot is easy to grasp, the mechanics and design are far less inviting.
The Wonderful 101 is unique; it has stylistic traces of Bayonetta and Viewtiful Joe (both also directed by Platinum Games’ Hideki Kamiya), as well as gameplay elements drawn from Pikmin and Street Fighter. Rather than control a single character, players direct a swarm of daring heroes, the Wonderful 100 (you’re the +1), through an alien invasion. The storytelling captures the vibe of after-school television perfectly – from the paper-thin premise to the triumphant music – creating a funny and light-hearted backdrop for the whole affair. Even in its more frustrating moments, The Wonderful 101’s presentation remains consistently amusing.
Cooperation is key for this super-team, and players use a combination of traditional buttons and drawn shapes on the Wii U GamePad to make the group function as a unit in combat. Drawing a circle summons a gauntlet composed of your allies, whereas drawing a straight line makes them combine to form a sword. The larger you draw the shapes, the more powerful the weapons.
This simple mechanic evolves as more people join your ranks and open up new options, allowing you to chain together impressive combos by activating several attacks in sequence and juggle enemies in the air. In addition to managing weapons, you’re throwing members of your mob at aliens, evading enemy attacks, piloting ships, and boxing against giant robots. The whole package is innovative and exciting, but it doesn’t always function properly.
While the idea behind the battle system is clever, the implementation often makes it more aggravating than entertaining. Both the touch screen and right stick can be used to draw shapes, but neither works perfectly. When drawing with the right stick, the game frequently misinterprets shapes and your chances for error skyrocket. Precision isn’t as much of an issue on the GamePad, but taking a hand off of the controls and looking down at the screen (to avoid inadvertently bringing up a menu) interrupts the flow in a different way. When you’re in the middle of a hectic battle, both of these control flaws are hard to forgive.
I appreciate how The Wonderful 101 doesn’t hold your hand, leaving many tactics and systems untaught so that you can discover them on your own. If you want a tutorial explaining the item-mixing system or laying out the optimal strategy for every new enemy introduced, you want a different game. However, such tutorials are unnecessary here due to the way the continue system works. Whenever you run out of health, you can usually pick up right where you left off. That doesn’t mean you start at the nearest checkpoint; if you’re in the middle of a boss fight, the boss’ health stays right where you left it.
This approach means that even the most unskilled (yet persistent) players can finish the adventure, but it drains all of the tension from encounters. Where is the satisfaction in winning a tough fight if your success is guaranteed? A desire to improve your score needs to be your primary motivation, since the only penalty for death is a poor rank at the end of a mission. This lack of consequence lets Platinum Games lean on the teach-through-failure doctrine, giving the illusion of challenge but with none of the pride that comes from conquering it.
The Wonderful 101 experiments with inventive concepts and has plenty of charm. No matter how noble its intentions, it is brought down by the same thing that has ruined so many other superhero teams. The individual aspects are interesting alone, but they just have trouble working together.
|The Wonderful 101’s campaign is single-player only, but it has a separate collection of “Wonderful Missions” that allow five players to team up. The catch is that four of the five are required to use Wii U pro controllers, with one on the GamePad. Considering that these missions are nothing special (with lots of “kill every enemy” objectives), buying a bunch of extra Wii U pro controllers just for this mode isn’t worth it.