Game Review

by Dave Riley,

The Wonderful 101


The Wonderful 101
When the evil forces of GEATHJERK put the world in peril, it's up to the Wonderful 100 to save the day.

Far from an ordinary hero squad, the Wonderful 100 protects the Earth en-masse by combining (bodily) into all manner of weaponry. Wonder Red and his Unite Hand, a giant, flaming fist; Wonder Blue and his Unite Sword, an enormous, laser-reflecting blade; Wonder Green and his Unite Gun, which usually takes the form of an enormous water pistol. All have hero-standard personalities. Red is a fanboy, Blue is a loner, Green is a worry-wart (and a bit of an overeater, given the ever-present hamburger in whichever hand isn't holding his ray gun), Pink is, well... Pink is "girl."

Its look is handfuls of Pikmin, and Sentai shows, and Thunderbirds, and shiny plastic toys all smashed together into a something that is silly, and a bit awkward, but mostly just adorable. Characters, who are proportioned and posed like action figures, show battle damage as the war wages on, but only in kid-friendly ways of torn shirts and broken masks. A giant dinosaur man, the game's first major boss, wears a jaunty commando beret, set just an inch askew on his spiked head. The selection of heroes, not just limited to Red, Blue, Green, and Pink, include absurdly themed world-savers such as Wonder Dentist, Wonder Beer, and Wonder Santa, who return to the team three or four per level, until all 100 are found. In the meantime, empty spots in the roster are filled temporarily by students, salary men, and police officers bestowed deputy hero status by the Wonderful 100 governing body.

It resembles Pikmin -- there is even a weak "swarm" attack that sends the team clambering all over an enemy -- but it plays like Devil May Cry. Your heroes conglomerate into swords, bombs, whips, etc as you draw the shapes on either the touch screen or the right analog stick. Both input methods have their disadvantages. There's no practical way to hold a stylus while playing, and the gamepad screen is not capacitive, so it's difficult to maintain the proper force when drawing with a finger. The analog stick is a safer bet, but that requires learning the patterns like Street Fighter motions, and the game often confuses hammer for whip, or bomb for fist. Over fifteen hours, and thousands of drawing motions, the player will find ways to line up with the game's idiosyncrasies, but screwed-up shapes can really put a damper on play, especially since drawing does not freeze the action, it only slows it down. Fortunately the color of the morph is shown as it's being drawn, and the whole line can be wiped and redone on the fly.

The combat system seems fairly straightforward at first. There are no punch-punch-kick combos, just an attack button for your Unite Morph weapon, an attack button for your team, and a jump. However, Director Hideki Kamiya always seeds his games with hidden or unexplained elements. In Bayonetta or Viewtiful Joe these were expert-level techniques, but Wonderful 101 barely bothers to explain even the basics. The seemingly useless swarm attack, for example, functions both as a lock-on and an enemy stun, but the game never bothers to point this out. Fan-made videos are almost required to fill the hole left by a slapdash tutorial, which repeats a handful of arbitrary hints, like how to use the sword to reflect laser beams, while neglecting to mention other basic information, like that a "block" button exists, that it must be purchased from the store, and that it is absolutely crucial for even average-level play.

Without giving you a grip on even the most simple mechanics, Wonderful 101 controls feel fussy, and its characters' attacks feel weak. Discovery is a fine line: realizing you can draw circles around a damaged building to repair it during a hectic boss battle is exciting, spending five minutes on one giant enemy because the game never taught you how to air-juggle is just irritating.

It's easy to understand why the lack of explanation would drive people away. If this is not Kamiya's most mechanically dense game, it is certainly his most frantic one. Every combat encounter is a series of split-second decisions, when to block, when to dodge, when to draw a gun, when to draw a whip; dozens of choices, sometimes all going off at the same time, so that as you're dashing across the screen with a sword stinger you are drawing a claw and inputting a combo motion for a cyclone spin. The pacing is sometimes cruel -- the window for a successful block, which also reflects attacks and stuns the enemy, can be as tight as other games' parry mechanics -- and the difficulty is a notch above what we're used to even from Bayonetta or Devil May Cry, though it's balanced by an extremely generous continue system, which restarts the fight from the moment you died (albeit with an appropriately significant hit to your score). Characters level up according to their attack morph, and can be switched out on the fly, so if you prefer Wonder Kung-Fu leading the Unite Hand charge over Wonder Red, feel free. Levels grant access to more and more "custom block" slots, which expand team functionality in ways beyond stat increases: landmines after every dodge, health and item drops after every block.

The lack of explanation extends to puzzles, too, but there it is refreshing instead of frustrating. We have become used to games setting every puzzle solution next to a gigantic glowing hint box, but The Wonderful 101 assumes its player doesn't need a giant arrow to understand the value of breaking the giant vase of water sitting near an obstructive puddle of lava.

Just about every piece of every Kamiya game is used here. The sword charge is Dante's stinger. The shape-drawing is straight out of Okami. Collectible batteries charge up a Unite Gauge that allows for special attacks just like Viewtiful Joe's film strip. The slo-mo dodge is fresh out of Bayonetta, as are some of the enemies, like a multi-headed dragon that might as well be a reskin. This is Kamiya's love letter to Kamiya, but how can we chide him for his self-aggrandizing when it benefits us so thoroughly? His rock-solid grasp on mechanics is perfectly evidenced by The Wonderful 101's top-tier rival battles. Kamiya games have always had characters like Nelo Angelo, Another Joe, Jeanne, enemies with similar capabilities as the player character. Though they won't top tossing ICBMs back and forth like hot potatoes, the fights against Wonderful 101-doppelganger Vorkken and his swarm of boomerang-forming henchmen are some of the best the so-called "stylish action" genre has to offer. Against Vorkken, Unite Morphs are thrown out and discarded in the blink of an eye by both sides; he transforms into a giant fist, you parry with a wiggly pile of flan, and riposte with your rocket-charged hammer.

It seems almost too much, almost too campy, or too cheesy -- the team's defensive stance in the form of a enormous dessert, or the ultra-large Super Scope 6 that is the ultimate gun attack -- but the game never drops its straight face, and that's what makes it fun instead of ridiculous. The Wonderful 101 never winks at the camera, and it never pulls a punch or grimaces at the audience because it feels self-conscious; although its characters sometimes do - see: Wonder Pink's furious, repeated (and usually pretty funny) pregnant pauses in response to her teammates' idiocy. It is an absolute pleasure to play something that is so relentlessly sincere. The game exults in its silliness, in its super-large robots made out of skyscrapers, in its "final attacks" with too-long names, and in the fact that Wonder Red rhymes with Blunder Red. The writers clearly think that last one is hilarious.

And they relay the joke with such enthusiasm that, truthfully, it is kind of is hilarious. So is just about everything else the game does, because it's all smashed onto the screen with a positivity and charm so overwhelming that you can't help but go with it. The pompadours that turn into drills, the Evangelion references, the button-mashing QTEs where the on-screen characters mash buttons along with you, all if it comes across as completely genuine. This isn't satire, it's homage, and it is enchanting.

It is exhilarating, too, the whole thing blasting out energy like one giant climax, especially during its half hour-long boss battles that send you from Punch-Out!! boxing matches, to lava cavern spaceship escapes, to sword duels, all over the course of a single level, and all soaring atop triumphant music, sometimes bopping with lyrics extolling the heros' virtues. Battles frequently, almost always, really, blast along at max speed, but they are never tiring, because rarely do they ask you to do the same thing twice, and almost never three times. There's always some new wrinkle, some different enemy combination or situation, some different terrain hazard, some different spaceship to pilot. This one's like Zaxxon, this one's like Space Harrier, this one has your team run around and jump on giant buttons on the gamepad screen to steer a commandeered enemy vessel on the television, forcing the player to use both screens at the same time, harrying them, but never making them feel like they've lost control.

Even when the game's over, there's tons left to see. The standard hooks of extra difficulty levels (culminating in 101% Hard), and collectibles are there, but there's also an in-game series of achievements that unlock a score of special heroes. Some are references to other Platinum Games, some have their own Unite Morphs, some have even crazier special abilities, like dragon-summoning after a successful dodge. A committed player will have a lot to do after the credits roll, more than just aiming for high scores, though some of the most appealing unlockables require a perfect ranking on every level. The WiiU has suffered from a dearth of quality games, but The Wonderful 101 could easily hold you until the next big thing.

It's astonishing that a game could be so many things, and yet be so good at all of them. The Wonderful 101 has flair, and function, and style down-pat. It excels at everything it wants to do, and its only detriment is that it is so terrible at telling you how to do all these amazing things. It's a shame that the poorly managed tutorial will drive people away, because this is the best we've seen out of the action genre since Bayonetta, and a hell of an argument for the WiiU all by itself.

Overall : A-
Graphics : B+
Sound/Music : A-
Gameplay : A
Presentation : B-

+ More of the frenetic, stylish action Kamiya is known for
Lack of systems explanation makes the game difficult to get into; extremely large scale can make the action hard to follow

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