Platinum Games have produced some of the most consistently entertaining and absurd action titles of the past console generation. Their latest, The Wonderful 101 combines several concepts from designer Hideki Kamiya’s previous games such as Okami, Viewtiful Joe and even Bayonetta to create a truly original experience in the studio’s latest game.
The earth is under attack from extraterrestrial beings known as the Geathjerk and it’s up to a group of one hundred Power Ranger-style superheroes to protect the planet from annihilation. Despite the large roster of named characters most of the dialogue is handled by a core few heroes that are specifically introduced in story cutscenes. Each starring character does conform to various stereotypical character types such as the courageous leader Wonder Red, the cocky rogue Wonder Blue or the baguette chomping Frenchman Wonder Green. Despite the fact that all of the characters are pretty simple over-the-top caricatures the humorous personality clashes between the heroes do provide most of the entertainment in the narrative, as the plot itself is so outlandish and senseless but enjoyable enough nonetheless.
The main campaign is made up of nine core missions, each of which is split into three approximately half-hour sections. Each mission is structured similarly as players are briefed on their mission before traversing the area in order to reach their destination. Along the way they will fight numerous enemies, solve simple puzzles and recruit new heroes to join the ranks of the Wonderful 100. Lasting around fifteen hours on the first run through, the core game does provide a lot of replay value as past levels can be replayed at any time in order to achieve better scores or discover things that players may previously have missed, whether it be a hidden challenge arena or a recruitable hero.
To an onlooker the game may look a lot like Pikmin as the player takes control of a swarm of heroes that work together to achieve a shared goal, however the Wonderful 100 do not operate independently of one another and for the most part are controlled as a single entity. The basic swarm attack throws a group of heroes at an enemy, upon whom they latch onto and act as a loose lock-on for the player in certain circumstances. The more effective attacks that you will be using however are the Unite Morph attacks, which require the player to use the Wii U GamePad touch screen or right analogue stick to draw simple shapes to transform a group of heroes into a large weapon with which they can deal much heavier amounts of damage to enemies. Each weapon will also switch the leading character as well, which will occasionally be required for certain context-sensitive situations such as using Wonder Blue’s sword to open a lock or White’s claws to pry open closed doors.
Drawing a larger shape will use more heroes to create a larger, more powerful weapon. With continued use of each weapon it’s possible to level up their abilities with new attacks initiated with Street Fighter style control stick movements before hitting the attack button. This also opens up further combo opportunities as players can switch Unite Morph attacks between each hit. Skilled players will soon be able to hit enemies with the fist, launch them into the air with the sword, rapidly use the gun to keep them afloat with bullets and finally hit them with a spinning fist attack upon them landing. Beyond that it’s even possible to use multiple Unite Morph attacks at a time by drawing another weapon and tapping the X button a second, third and even fourth group of heroes can morph into a weapon and deal out some truly astonishing levels of damage with the right skill.
Upon activation most of the Unite Morph abilities also have a passive ability, some of which the game seemingly neglects to inform the player of unless it is required for an immediate action. The sword can reflect laser attacks, the hand can withstand fire and the hammer can provide shelter from incoming missiles. Making effective use of these different defensive abilities are just as important as effective use of dodging and blocking. Activating Unite Morphs, dodging and initiating a blocking stance drain the energy metre, which slowly regenerates, forcing players not to simply spam the defensive maneuvers.
The Wii U GamePad controls do work well for the most part with the simple shapes being recognised with some degree of leniency. The controls do take some getting used to however, and some players may find the initial hurdle of getting to grips with the unique controls to be quite frustrating but should have settled into them after the first mission is completed. The tough difficulty even on the normal setting can also be very punishing on players who might have difficulty in rapidly getting their attacks activated, so some may feel that knocking the difficulty down a peg or two provides a less frustrating experience. Thankfully even if you are killed in action the game does resume from that point most of the time with the only real penalty being that of the score and ranking you receive at the end of the mission.
Boss fights are epic in scale, often taking up to thirty minutes just to defeat them. The often screen-filling enemies require a variety of different tactics to take down and make use of each of the different Unite Morphs in order to be victorious. A weak link among the boss battles however are the infrequent recurring battles with Prince Vorkken, whose army can also Unite Morph in the same way as the Wonderful 100. These encounters can get incredibly frustrating as his abilities come out faster and with more power than those of the player’s, and the evasion and blocking tactics will probably be very difficult to gauge as some of the timings and positioning do have to be rather specific before an effective counter attack can be unleashed.
Most of the time running through levels will be spent going through the familiar pattern of defeating waves of enemies, recruiting heroes and light puzzle-solving but there are several sections that do shake up the formula in order to keep things fresh. In an early mission the player takes control of an aircraft, with the GamePad screen showing the heroes inside the cockpit whilst the ship itself is shown on the main TV screen. There are also several retro-styled shifts in formula such as a scrolling shoot-em-up and a Punch-Out like boxing match with a boss. While the attempt to keep the game fresh is appreciated, these shifts in control and gameplay are somewhat variable in their execution with an occasional clunkiness to them. Hidden away in each mission are several different bonus challenge missions that offer an even greater challenge especially on the harder difficulties.
In between missions players can spend their money on various combat upgrades. Bizarrely some quite standard moves such as blocking and a dodge ability are unlocked through this store but thankfully those essential moves are easily affordable the first time a player encounters the shop. There are also passive skills that can be purchased as well such as increasing the speed in which Morphs can be drawn, or negating the need to draw larger shapes to create more powerful weapons.
There is a lot of replay value to be had beyond simply finishing the campaign as a lot of the enjoyment to be had from The Wonderful 101 is mastering the game’s combat and achieving better score results and rewards at the end of each mission. The frequent checkpointed awards as well as the end of level score can be posted onto Miiverse, complete with a pre-drawn Wonderful One for those who are less artistically inclined. However there isn’t a built-in online leaderboard which for the most competitive of players may come as a minor disappointment, although most probably won’t miss the feature too much. There’s also an in-game achievement system as well as numerous unlockable heroes and character profiles to keep completionists coming back long after they’ve initially finished the story.
The simple, colourful artwork does look beautifully crisp throughout the main gameplay, even if characters up close in cutscenes are basically modelled but still pop with their different personalities. When the action escalates the sense of scale truly shines while still maintaining a smooth framerate for the most part. The musical score can get a little repetitive as the same tracks loop constantly throughout a mission but other sound effects are generally strong. The voice acting in both English and Japanese is excellent throughout, featuring great performances and a decent script.
The Wonderful 101 is an incredibly enjoyable game, despite the initially daunting control system. The nonsensical story, funny characters and intense action all come together to create an excellent romp. While the controls do hiccup on occasion and some later sections do drag on a little it still remains a uniquely enjoyable action title, and one of the strongest exclusives currently available for the Wii U.