Wonderful 101 is by far the most surprising game of the year so far. Bearing in mind this is a year where we’ve had Tomb Raider, FFXIV:ARR and Metal Gear Rising, that’s pretty impressive. Originally appearing to be a kind of Pikmin-esque game, you control a group of heroes (up to 100) as you fight your way through cities, occasionally solving puzzles and making the most of your numbers to overwhelm challenges. Except it’s not like Pikmin at all, it’s more like Ninja Gaiden or Devil May Cry, and it’s wonderful.
Each level is split into many much smaller missions, which usually involve you crossing parts of the city under attack, or even climbing across larger robots while you save civilians and battle aliens. Regularly throughout your travels you can recruit civilians to serve as temporary heroes and new heroes are found pretty regularly, each with their own entertaining ID card and costume. The heroes are fantastically designed with a huge amount of personality and detail, even when they’re on screen with 99 of their brethren. There are major heroes who take up more of the screen-time in cut-scenes and give you special powers, and these are assigned specific colours making it easy to see what you’re doing in the midst of combat. Fighting is handled in an unusual way. My using the right stick you can ‘draw’ shapes (on the Wii U gamepad you could use the touchscreen too but it’s easier to just use the stick) and then either hit X to send them off as a short lived AI companion, or press ‘A’ to create that weapon which you can then use. You start off with a sword and a fist but quickly advance up to guns, claws and whips, each with their own particular situational uses. You can also command your army to build bridges and ladders with the right stick, depending on the context. Sometimes just circling an object will change it or provide some kind of reward so it’s worth circling whatever you can find just in case. At the end of each group of missions there’s larger boss that you need to take down, usually follow by a fun cut-scene to progress the story. The whole game takes around 14 hours, but much longer if you’re trying to 100% everything.
The surprising part of the game is just how difficult the combat can be. This is the complete antithesis of a button masher as flailing around will get you nowhere fast. You need to be able to command the other heroes and without good, speedy management you’ll just be a shambling mess, getting beaten down by even the meekest enemies. The first hour or so of the game usually consists of fights that you’ve scraped by, constantly getting hit and having to revive all of the heroes before the enemy charges up for another attack. A little later in though, and something clicks. You buy the dodge and block moves from the store, you begin to predict enemy patterns. Soon you find yourself breaking off a group of heroes to serve as a sword to keep a pack of robots busy while you dodge behind an enemy tank, form into a fist and then smash it into oblivion. When that works, it’s a beautiful moment, every hero suddenly seems useful and each for is a unique challenge to be over come. You go from scraping by to completely dominating the opponents as you learn to avoid taking damage and when to strike for the best results. After each mission you’re graded and it hurts to lose points just because you got hit. The game is never unfair and if you got hit, it was your own fault. Just like Ninja Gaiden, you have the potential to avoid pretty much everything, the only question is do you have the skill?
Despite the slightly childish look to the game, this could easily be a game to please the hardcore prize, such is the level of finesse required to get the higher medals. It’s a pity you can’t restart missions individually once you get the results with an instant button press, or if there were leaderboards getting higher scores could easily become an obsession. As it stands there just comes a sudden realization that this is actually a hard game, but never unfair. Once you learn your abilities you’ll be able to take on even the biggest foes, dancing around them and manifesting weapons but that takes experience and time.
One of the greatest assets the game has is the Wii U hardware itself. While much has been said about how underpowered it is compared to nex-gen, having Wonderful 101 sticking pretty close to 60fps throughout is an absolute joy and the tiny characters feel very responsive as a result. Everything in the game looks polished and clean, with reflective textures possibly being overused on the heroes themselves, but then again they are supposed to look like action figures and give you a chance to suspend your disbelief.
There’s even a multiplayer mode for up to 5 players, where you can each control your own group of heroes and use classic or pro controllers to marshall the extra troops in set missions. Playing with other people leads to a little more chaos then is found in the single player but watching your friends form into fists and whips is a lot of fun while you slice your way through a robotic alien horde.
If you’re buying this for a child thanks to the kid friendly aesthetic, make sure you put it down to easy at least because anything higher will punish even avid game fans. Once you complete the game a hard mode is unlocked and this is going to be the realm of the hardcore. There’s enough charm and humour with the hero characters and enough skill within the combat to keep most happy, even if the setting can feel a little like a one-trick pony.
If you remember the scene near the end of the Avengers when they’re fighting in New York, Wonderful 101 is similar to that but stretched over many hours. The pace is relentless and times to go back to your ship and buy new moves or items are rare. You’re usually always pushing onwards towards more and larger enemies,hopefully eager for another chance to prove you can take on an entire squad of aliens without losing a single bit of health. You’ll spring around, turn into jelly to avoid attacks, create bazookas to attack the larger robots and sweep the map as a sword when there’s only the little ones left. Most importantly you’ll feel as though you’re in control of your actions and you’re the one pulling all of this one.
Graphically it’s a beautiful game, with a bright colour palette and 100s of characters moving around on screen with few hints of slowdown. Everything has a not-so-subtle tilt-shift effect that gives it a toytown feel which really work with the idea of this massive group of superheroes. Little in the levels is really interactive though and sadly lighting effects leave a lot to be desired, but on the whole it’s a fantastic looking game with buckets of charm.
The lack of an instant restart is a pain, and there is a certain degree of repetition, but so far this is the closest Nintendo have got to a ‘killer app’ Wonderful 101 is an incredible series you’re not going to find anywhere else in the near future so if you’ve got a Wii U, you owe it to yourself to pick it up. It’s wonderful.