Right off the bat, it is evident The Wonderful 101 is a game that doesn’t overlook a chance to poke fun at itself. Attempts at self-deprecating humor (and general cheesiness at times) may indicate otherwise but at its core, its actually a pretty dedicated action game. It just turned out to be one that really never resonated with.
The premise of The Wonderful 101 is pretty typical save-the-earth-from-an-attacking-alien-race fare. The main plot device is that instead of one hero you, in effect, control a growing horde of heroes to fend off the alien threat. The attacking alien force is named GEATHJERK which, by the way is an acronym that, when you discover what it means, is a pretty telling of the developer’s humorous approach.
The positive first impression made by the slick presentation, over-the-top shiny visuals and the premise of an interesting control mechanic was hurt by two things: the idea of drawing shapes to engage special weapons works better in theory than in practice and there’s little direction in how to play this game with even less of a sense of discovery.
Each of the playable characters in The Wonderful 101 are all named after colors. Each possesses a unique Unite Morph which, when engaged, calls on all companions under the player’s control to morph together and create a special weapon or tool to further themselves in the game. Unite Morphs are initiated by drawing a specific shape on the Wii U’s game pad or tracing the shape with the right thumb stick. This hardly ever worked for me as intended.
I should note I used only the game pad controller for this review but I tried both the thumb stick and drawing on the game pad methods. Neither worked to my satisfaction. In fact, I couldn’t seem to make the inputs with the thumb stick work at all. Even when it did work, too often the wrong Unite Morph would be triggered. There’s no mention that I saw but it appears you have to also account for the three dimensional geography of environments. For example, I had to account for the right angle between a building and the ground in order to properly trigger a Unite Morph at one point in the game. With no on screen prompts to help this became an issue of trial and error. While some might, I don’t equate trial and error game play to be fun. And that’s probably why I’m not a big fan of boss fights.
Speaking of which, there are plenty of boss battles. The battles themselves are extensive but, for me, its too much of that trial and error game play that I just don’t like. Wonderful 101 tries to break up the combat heavy game play with a few different elements and mini-games that make for novel uses for the screen on the Wii U’s game pad. I also found this game very difficult to learn to play. There is little to no instruction or tutorial. Instead you are left to your own devices to figure things out. Hardcore and skilled players may relish this challenge. I did not. Thankfully, for my sake anyways, you don’t lose lives. Instead, when you die you lose a bit of your score and start right back up from where you left off. If you’re the type of person that doesn’t care about score (like me) there is virtually no penalty for dying. I’ll leave it to you to decide whether that’s a good or bad thing.
Wonderful 101’s multiplayer is made up of a cooperative mode that supports up to 5 players. The first player uses the game pad and up to four other players can use Wii Remotes to join in the fun. This mode is only available locally. You cannot play with friends online.
I don’t think I’ve seen a game that’s this shiny since Perfect Dark Zero debuted on the Xbox 360. The comic book graphic style doesn’t lend itself to a whole lot of textures but overall The Wonderful 101 is still a sharp looking game. It is crisp, colourful and there is a nice sense of scale. As your team gets larger, the camera sort of scales back in a Katamari Damaci way. There’s less individual character detail naturally but action on screen is always busy.
The soundtrack in The Wonderful 101 does a good job of rounding out a nice presentation package with fun, cinematic music that fits well with the action. The voice acting is competent enough if not a bit cheesy and with some obvious stereotypes. Cheesy often works for me and it does so here.
I wanted to like this game more. It’s charming, technically competent but ultimately I could not get past it’s shortcomings to consider it much more than an average game. What I hoped was a steep learning curve in drawing the various special moves never got any easier and most often just led to frustration. I kept wondering to myself, “Am I missing something here?” That’s disappointing because I like the idea of the game but the execution just isn’t there.