The Wonderful 101 Review
Fun story, incredibly rewarding combat, variety, looks and sounds fantastic, infinitely replayable
Multiplayer is nonessential, platforming sections are a mess, initially overwhelming, some sections drag
The now famous team at Platinum Games, developers of Bayonetta and Vanquish, receive Nintendo’s blessing to letÂ The Wonderful 101 hit the Wii U with two hundred fists. While a few problems hold The Wonderful 101 back from being a 100% wonder, colorful visuals and strong sound design – mixed with ferociously challenging and satisfying gameplay – make for one of the most unique action games since 2003’sÂ Viewtiful Joe.
The Wonderful 101 sees its titular team (minus one, plus you) defending the planet in the Earth Defense War III, against the dangerous extra-terrestrial threat known as the GEATHJERK (thatâ€™s an acronym, just so you know.) The 100 gather their members from around the world, creating a massive force of superheroes that merge to form giant weapons to take down any and all threats to humanity.
A familiar tale is quickly broken and morphed into something special; the game manages to twist across the universe…and my heart… before its conclusion. Most members of the W100 have a reason to be there, giving context to gameplay variations multiple times during the 15 hour campaign. The narrative is fun, sprinkled with clever writing and good humor. Itâ€™s not The Last of Us, but itâ€™s definitely engaging enough to keep players going, presented by generally well-acted cutscenes that feel like a modern cartoon.
Your hundred-man team faces daunting situations with huge stakes, and the multiple encounters in the game are full of rewards to plunderâ€¦once you get better at it. A few noticeable blunders hold it down, though.
With its strange concept, the game introduces unfamiliar mechanics swiftly, demanding top level dexterity. Getting beaten down (badly) early on in the game while trying to learn, may turn off the less dedicated, and for them there are easier difficulty settings and helpful items. On Normal, the game starts rock-hard and doesnâ€™t let up, withÂ stages that can take 20 minutes, or more if hunting for secret areas. Checkpoints are placed after every enemy encounter, and dying, while destroying your score, lets you restart from the exact moment you gave up the ghost. It’s relatively balanced, never feeling too unfair despite taking a cheap shot or nine.
Figuring it all out is what makes the game, rewarding the diligent with a spectacle unmatched by anything on the Wii U. Getting a Platinum award on a section that originally gave you a hard time is a feeling unlike any other. Itâ€™s just a shame that some may give up before they experience that elation.
The 100 characters fight as a giant amoebic blob, changing shape, and â€œUnite Morphingâ€ to attack as various weapons by drawing out the morphs by hand. The Wii U Gamepadâ€™s touch screen can be used to scribble out the shapes, but I eventually found the analog stick more efficient; I used the Wii U Pro controller, as the touch control became nonessential. When the shape is a simple line or circle, you can get them out often, but then the game introduces more difficult forms. Frustration sets in when youâ€™re working on big damage, only for it to be lost because the game wasnâ€™t sure what shape you wanted. Outside of these moments, the â€œUnite Morphâ€ system makes combat enthralling once you get the flow down. Boss fights are particularly exciting, with most of them providing opportunities to lay on huge damage with multi-form combos.
There are complex special attacks, such the “Stinger” and “Cyclone”, performed with analog stick commands, like Devil May Cry or Bayonetta. The multiple advanced moves, cancels, and juggles, become essential to scoring high ranks and the various bottle caps (achievements). These techniques add layers to the game, giving the player more options in the constant chaos of combat, and making the game far deeper than the admittedly slow beginning would have you think, which is pretty wonderful.
The game can be played completely on the Gamepad, a convenient option outside of the dual screen puzzles. Fortunately, Platinum was considerate enough to allow a display mode that shows both screens on the GamePad. The puzzles that use the approach are hit or miss, though messier ones are kept short.
Interspersed are shooting segments, and, uh, Punch-Out!! fights. Like, they are Punch-Out!!, down to the knockout animations. They mix up the gameplay just enough so the combat and exploration donâ€™t get tiring. Some of the boss fights play out in these styles, which doesnâ€™t really challenge the skills built up through combat, but still provide good fun. The sections are usually paired up with standard combat, so they donâ€™t get in the way.
Wonderful 101 is a significant challenge. Itâ€™ll let you progress if you arenâ€™t very good at it, but itâ€™ll make you feel terrible for performing poorly. Its score system offers a reason to replay stages and improve, if the shame of multiple deaths can be tolerated. Losing can be hilarious, but only the most masochistic will get joy out of failing often. Fortunately, positive feedback comes in frequently; doing well is rewarded with strong audio design and currency to purchase the games many upgrades. For those willing to struggle a bit, the rewards for mastery are worth it.
When the game starts to make sense, it seriously comes together. Chaotic situations become chances to rake up big combos, and manipulating the action to let you slow down time or nullify damage is empowering. Finding more heroes to add to your permanent team lets you perform more attacks in succession, and devising ways to keep big enemies in the air, while abusing weaknesses and tells, puts you in a stream of positive feedback that can only be earned through practice.
Graphics & Sound
The visuals stay super colorful and varied throughout. There are low resolution models and textures up close, but the tilt-shifted camera perspective makes every environment feel like a living playhouse, allowing well animated bosses to dwarf everything around them. Often, thereâ€™s a bit too much on screen, but the game can become a beautiful display of controlled chaos. The framerate drops when thereâ€™s more than 200 individual characters running around; itâ€™s pretty amazing that the game never become unplayable because of it.
The artwork in the game is fantastic, beautifully rendering the surreal world. Blur and lighting are used intelligently, giving everything a clean look even when itâ€™s engulfed in violence. The character designs are all top class, and some of them manage to actually be disgustingly fleshy in the games aesthetic.
Music is a mix of wonderful and fairly standard tunes. The W101 theme song is a high note, along with the in-game shopâ€™s cheery, calming beat. Everything is orchestrated, and it all sounds great, but only a few compositions really stand out; making up for that, the sound design is amazing. Sound here is all about giving feedback, from the chunky, hard hitting attacks to the subtle roars and whirring of enemies about to strike. It makes attacking and dodging feel really solid, and assists in making the chaotic action more comprehensible.
There is a mission mode that allows up to 5 players to command 150 teammates in a score attack. Itâ€™s pretty basic, and there arenâ€™t very many stages to play, but it takes away the limitations on attacks that are in the main game, letting players pull off crazy combos in tandem that take enemies sky high and create a different kind of play style. Thereâ€™s more fun to be had with experienced players, since the game isnâ€™t the most accessible to new ones. The multiplayer is fun, but the game is no better or worse for having it.
Thereâ€™s no network support, not even leaderboards. In the place of that, you can post screenshots to Miiverse with your scores in them. Kind of lame for a game focused on scores.
Parts of the game become a hassle to play because of the camera or the amount of things going on at once. Enemies will attack off-screen at times. Platforming sections, while cool to look at, have impossible-to-judge jumps because thereâ€™s no depth perception and everything is so small. Said sections are a pretty big pitfall, and there’s enough of them that they feel like they get in the way.
Sometimes the game just doesnâ€™t let you know what youâ€™re doing wrong, and you can be stuck running around in a fight until you accidentally find the solution, causing some fights to drag on too long. The puzzles are perfectly solvable when you know one is there, but that’s not always clear. The game is solid technically, but there was a moment where I had to use the Gamepad to aim a weapon, and the gyro-sensor wouldnâ€™t let me aim upward, forcing me to redo part of the stage.
This isn’t an issue for everyone, but if it hasnâ€™t been said enough, the game is really hard. If you donâ€™t want to put the effort into learning it, struggling through might feel like a discouraging chore.
Many characters and moves are unlockable, expanding the variety in combat greatly. There are character bios, music and art galleries, and model viewers to unlock, and secret items placed everywhere, some only acquirable on a second run of the stage. Â Multiple difficulties unlocked after the initial run add to the value, but the Bottle Cap (achievement) and scoring system add real longevity to the game. Upon completion, any stage can be played at any unlocked difficulty, with everything earned in the first play through.
With some of the most overwhelming, yet rewarding, gameplay I’ve ever experienced, I donâ€™t think the Wonderful 101 just accept everyone, nor will everyone accept them. The game is built for players who intend to master it, no matter how much it wants to tear them down while they try. While its issues get in the way of sections of the game, for those with a strong stomach for punishment, joining the Wonderful 101 is quite a ride.