Sunday, November 23, 2014

Wonderful 101 - Thoughts

I come away from my time with the The Wonderful 101 feeling very... ambivalent towards it. I've greatly enjoyed every Platinum entry I've played, including the slightly shallow MadWorld, but this title has left me more stupefied than impressed. My issues with the game only partially lie with its unique combat system; the bulk of transgressions involve the design of its larger whole, specially the "mini-game" sections. The Wonderful 101 feels more like a collection of half baked ideas than a solid character action game, stifling its quirky gameplay with diversions better left on the cutting room floor of development.

Summarizing the game's style isn't the easiest thing to do; essentially, The Wonderful 101 is Bayonetta meets Viewtiful Joe, smoothly blended with a reverence for collectible action figurines and Super Sentai programs. It's gaming's closest analogue to Gurren Lagann, and though the bar isn't set all that high, it does feature Platinum's most engaging and entertaining story thus far. The plot is very character driven so there are some unfortunately loooong cutscenes, and the individual members of the Wonderful one-double-oh are bombastic stereotypes that veer between being entertaining and annoying at times. Luckily the highs outweigh the lows (mostly), and for every vexing Luka segment there are a couple of excellent Vorkken moments (I could listen to him chide "Blunder Red" all day).

The central tenants of character action games are present here—dodge, parry, ways to extend combos, points to spend on upgrades—but the way in which you execute the combos in The Wonderful 101 is a bit trickier than its kin. To utilizing different attacks, the player is forced to get very comfortable with drawing shapes or using the right analogue stick with blistering precision. While at first it may seem shallow (there's not much beyond a single string of combos for each weapon), combat can be surprisingly dexterous once you get a handle on it, allowing for some absurdly impressive ways to weave attacks together—provided you can draw them fast enough. I found myself personally enamored with ending everything in Unite Tombstone, not being this obsessed with a vicious finishing attack since Ninja Gaiden's Izuna Drop.

Where the gameplay falters for me is in a few aspects. I'm a huge fan of Viewtiful Joe but I admit that it cruelly locks fundamental mechanics behind an upgrade system (the Ukemi most notably). The Wonderful 101 takes this error and pushes it further; almost everything that makes the game fun is quarantined off behind expensive gates, and it's not until you're about halfway through that you have a chance to fully explore the options available to you. Being deprived of Hero Time or the Speed Charge is practically criminal when you're trying to learn the basics of the game, which ties into my next point—combat is too punishing.

Two factors contribute to the cliffside-steep learning curve: how fast the Unit Gauge is drained and the stun duration of your allies once you get hit. I understand and respect the implementation of the former—after all, you can't have the player pulling out massive attacks willy-nilly—though I feel the recharge rate on the batteries could be a bit quicker. But having your troops be stunned really drags the game's frenetic energy into a bog. All of your abilities are based on whether or not you have buddies by your side, and a single attack against you can not only waste your Unit Gauge but render you helpless before the enemy. This is especially prevalent at the final Vorkken fight, where his attacks cover half of the screen, meaning that if you fail a proper dodge or parry you'll be completely at his mercy for a few seconds. I know it's purposely meant to be penalizing, but flinging your allies afar seems to serve no purpose other than widening the gap between amateurs and good players.

Though I take issue with the combat in this regard, at least it's fun when you start to grasp the mechanics. What isn't fun is the amount of "flashy" gameplay shifts sprinkled throughout each mission that makes the prospect of replaying the game a chore. While they were present in Bayonetta and Bayonetta 2, they're dragged out in excess here, largely devoid of depth and at times very cheap (many of my deaths could be attributed to the isometric shooter sections). Mission 007-B is perhaps the utter nadir of this whole ordeal, and I found myself mentally comparing it to the werehog stages in Sonic Unleashed in terms of length and spiritual exhaustion. I know trying out different gameplay styles can add some variety to a game's pacing, but doing it in a title where the action and enemies are robust and demand a lot of experience to understand, diverting from this seems wholly unnecessary.

The only place where I finally found myself having some decent fun was in the first two parts of Mission 008, and it was clear why—minimal dialogue intrusion, a straight action focus, and reasonable level length. It was only there that I was able to see the glimmer of the true game I was playing, having finally honed my skills so that I could enjoy the challenges set before me. And then it devolved into some more wild and goofy gimmicks for its final mission. Looking at clever combo videos on Youtube gets me salivating to learn more about the inner-workings of the The Wonderful 101, but the missions being so heavily bloated drives me away. Perhaps I'll come back to it after spending some time away, but so far it's clear to me that Bayonetta 2 is the Wii U's premier action star.

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