Have you ever walked out of a theater, halfway through a movie, feeling absolutely no remorse with the vindication of your certainty of how terrible that movie was? Yeah, well, that’s how I feel about The Wonderful 101.
When critiquing anything, it is my firm belief that one must consider the target audience, before coming to any concrete conclusions. Just because you don’t enjoy something, doesn’t mean it isn’t quality. Often it is the case, that something one might despise, another finds incredibly entertaining and/or meaningful. In the case of the Wonderful 101, I have no idea who that person would be.
The Wonderful 101 reminds me of an older generation of games; the kind that I grew up with. I have quite a few fond memories of games that were so challenging, that I would spend all school year trying to beat but never could.
Back then, it almost seemed like an accomplishment when you conquered the final boss, because none of your friends could. It took time, dedication and practice to master the precision required to beat many of the games in that era. That formula probably has a lot to do with why Dark Souls has been so successful, its target audience grew up on games just like it.
Unfortunately for the Wonderful 101, its target audience has grown up on games that not only hand hold them to victory, but expect them to hit the credits. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not some old man reminiscing about the good ol’ days.
Truthfully, if gaming hadn’t primarily gone this way, the art form wouldn’t have been able to evolve so rapidly. We now have games like Bioshock: Infinite, The Last of Us and Bastion; pushing the art form into new directions.
Because of those games, we’re now exploring religion, race, politics and even what it means to be human. Outside of pushing boundaries, what do all these games have in common? They’re relatively easy. I don’t know anyone who hasn’t beaten a single one of those games.
In an era like this, the Wonderful 101 tries to bring us back to a simpler time in gaming. The problem being, anyone who can handle the difficulty and enjoy it, won’t be able to tolerate the story, characters and writing.
Conversely, any six year old who would actually enjoy the slapstick power ranger comedy, will not be able to handle the difficulty of Platinum Games’ latest title.
Speaking of difficulty, this game uses awkward camera angles, inaccurate controls, and poor game design to create an artificial difficulty that simply infuriates and mocks the player.
My biggest gripe with the game is a combination of the design of the game and its controls.
The design philosophy of fusing a fast-paced action oriented game with incredibly strict timing windows, seems at odds with its dependency on precise drawing. When you only have a few frames to get in your attack, taking the time to draw a perfect shape just seems counter-intuitive; even if the game “slows” down time, while drawing.
Oh, and another strange design decision was making all the shapes stupidly similar to each other. Under duress, you’d be surprised by how many times your ‘Z’ ends up being a squiggly line, which is used for an entirely different weapon.
In such a counter based game, spending resources and time creating the wrong tool for the job, is completely unacceptable (and it’s going to happen, a lot).
Now if that wasn’t frustrating enough, add in an uncompromising camera that actively tries to give you the least amount of information possible, and you have a perfect recipe for breaking controllers and televisions!
It always seemed like, on the rare occasion the game actually did what I wanted it to do, and I was just about to execute a beautiful counter attack, I’d always get hit from way beyond my field of view, by enemies the camera never informed me of entering the field of battle.
The super zoomed in camera also made navigating each stage an exercise in trial and error. I often found myself asking, “If I jump, will there be a platform where I land?” Often the answer was, “No.”
As you can imagine, the lack of vision and information the game gives you about enemy location and navigation, results in a lot of “cheap” deaths. This results in many mission clears resulting in a “consolation prize” score, which just adds insult to injury.
This is especially apparent in the beginning stages of the game, where you don’t have access to some of the essential abilities, and are fighting enemy types that can’t be properly countered until you earn enough in game points to purchase them.
RPG elements and customization are great, because they add re-playability and allow for more specialized play styles. In the Wonderful 101, you have to spend large amounts of in-game points just to get block, evade and parry; combat options that are normally yours by default in similar games.
At that point, you’re not customizing, you’re just dumping points into essential elements of the genre. What makes this even more aggravating, is that there are other skills and abilities that you could be buying, that really start to help alleviate some of the poor mechanics of the game.
The one thing that I do have to really admire, is how earnest the voice acting is in this game. As grating as the childish humor is, the voice actors really commit to it. I know that’s no small feat, given the content.
At first, it’s even mildly amusing, in an ironic kind of way. Like, “Oh, haha, this giant boss is wearing a beret, a huge sword, is on fire and is yelling some of the worst dialogue I’ve ever heard (in a voice that sounds suspiciously similar to Mr. Torque/Hercule).”
That novelty soon wears off, when the truth sinks in that it really is a giant lizard that’s on fire, wearing a beret, wielding a giant sword and is spouting cringe-worthy dialogue by who you hope isn’t the guy that voiced Mr. Torque.
I will admit that in terms of visuals, The Wonderful 101 delivers in spades. It’s a crazy, colorful explosion of characters and pretty particle effects that is always pleasing to look at. Smashing baddies in the face with a giant hammer made out of… people, never stops being pleasing to the eyes. It’s just playing it, that’s the problem…
Honestly, I don’t know who the audience is for this game. The type of person who has been conditioned on unapologetically hard-to-master games and has the patience and dedication to get something out of this game, has long since grown up and isn’t capable of tolerating the story, writing or humor.
While not broken, shoddy controls and contradicting design philosophies makes for a more aggravating, than challenging experience.
With games being so scarce for the Wii U, there’s not a lot to compare The Wonderful 101 to. As it stands, it’s one of the most visually pleasing and impressive titles on the console.
As much as I hate the dialogue, I recognize that the voice acting is impressively earnest and solid. It does what it intends to do, despite me not liking it. The same goes for the overly childish and cartoony soundtrack and sound effects.
Platinum Games knows how to make a game full of bravado and style; and The Wonderful 101 is no exception to that. However, the conflicted writing that can’t decide on who its audience is, ends up alienating everyone.
Theoretically, there’s a lot of value to be had out of this game.
If you have the strength of character (or lack of maturity), to be able to endure the dialogue and nonsensical storyline, while also having the patience and dedication to master such frustratingly strange controls, then this game will occupy you for a long while.
While The Wonderful 101 has a lot of production value, it’s simply not enough to overcome its crisis of identity.