Platinum Games likes to make challenging titles with deceptively deep systems. Its latest offering, The Wonderful 101, is no exception. It is also a difficult game to describe, as it combines various genres – and indeed abruptly shifts between a few of them at various times – into one cohesive whole.
At its core and for most of the time, W101 is a sort of superhero beat-’em-up brawler akin to the one the team worked on back at Clover Studios, Viewtiful Joe. But instead of just one hero, you will eventually employ dozens (and in later stages even hundreds) of Centinels, ordinary citizens who gain super powers and near-invulnerability via technology-powered amulets. You start with about ten of the Wonderful 100 (read “one double-O”) and can find more along the way, but one of the powers of these amulets is the Wonder-Liner, which can be used to empower citizens and temporarily recruit them to your army. The more heroes you have in your arsenal, the stronger you will be. You can execute charge attacks that sort of rush your army towards enemies, and they will actually cling to larger opponents to make them more vulnerable to your stronger attacks: Unite Morphs.
The Wonder-Liner is really just an in-universe excuse to explain the fact that you will be drawing shapes on your GamePad (or by using the right stick) to activate your Unite Morphs. While some Unite Morphs can provide chains or ladders to climb walls, bridges to span gaps or even a hang glider when the situation calls for it, for the most part you will be using them to attack your enemies. In the beginning, you just have access to Unite Hand (a giant punch) and Unite Sword (self-explanatory); by the end of the game, you will have access to guns, whips, hammers, claws and even time bombs. The larger your draw your symbol, the more powerful the resulting morph will be, as long as you have enough heroes to unite up.
These abilities can also be used to solve some environmental puzzles. For instance, if there is a giant dial that needs to be turned, Unite Hand can get the job done. Morphs are often under your direct control, but you can also assign some of your army to manage them on your own to maximize your combo damage potential. Keep an eye on your Unite Gauge, though, as you can only power so many morphs at once before you need to recharge.
There is much more to fighting than just deploying Morphs and monitoring your energy usage, but you will probably have to discover most of that on your own. Unlike many modern games, W101 doesn’t feel the need to bury you in tutorials. In fact, outside of a barebones prologue and a quick on-screen indication of how an upcoming genre shift will control, there really aren’t any to speak of. This can be a problem if you find yourself overwhelmed by the dizzying array of mechanics and options at your disposal. There are so many undocumented features hidden in this game that the developers have dedicated two blog posts (as of this writing) to revealing just a handful of them. This game is almost impossibly deep, and that can be intimidating for less-experienced players.
It is also quite difficult; even on Normal difficulty, you will die a lot. Continues are unlimited and drop you back into the action right where you fell, with damage done to enemies left intact, but will cost you severely when the end-of-mission scoring tallies up. If you don’t care about your score, then this isn’t much of a problem. If you want to learn the ropes before taking on the standard campaign, the game offers both Easy and Very Easy difficulties right at the start. Naturally, this being a Platinum game, you can also unlock two harder difficulties as well if you’re up to the challenge.
Your success and survival in W101 will depend on how well you read your enemies in the heat of battle. Most attacks or defenses can be countered with the proper Morphs, which will often make them more vulnerable to successive attacks. Various defensive morphs are available in the Wonderful Mart between missions, and should be prioritized. Fortunately, you will almost always have enough cash to buy both after the first mission but Unite Guts (the gelatinous block you have probably seen in videos) is so important, I’m actually a little surprised that it isn’t simply given to you outright instead of simply being one of the cheapest options. As the game progresses, your enemies will develop their own countermeasures, but so will you. It’s a compelling dance, and the steps for learning it can and will be painful until suddenly you hopefully achieve mastery and unleash a wonderful butt-kicking. (I promised myself I’d only use “wonderful” as an adjective once.)
Regardless of your difficulty setting or aptitude with the combat mechanics, the story and characters will provide reasons to keep at it. Each of the primary characters has their own personality, and the excellent localization and voice work really bring them to life. In addition to the usual humorous and twist-filled narrative, there are also elements of physical comedy that crop up at just the right moments for added hilarity. Every chapter just brings more and more ridiculousness as the story ramps up, goes over the top, and then just keeps going. When all is said and done, it is certainly one wild ride.
There are still some noticeable flaws in W101’s presentation, mostly camera-related. Since all of your available input methods are tied up with various attacks and maneuvers, the only control you have over the camera in most cases is zooming in or out by using the L and R buttons. I always played as zoomed-out as possible, and honestly I can’t imagine why anyone else would do otherwise. Oddly, when the game does give you more direct control over the camera, it is even more frustrating because that means you are in a “cave” and the action is taking place on the GamePad screen. In these situations, the GamePad’s gyro sensor is used to move the camera, which never stops being awkward in most situations.
You can use the R button plus right stick to move the camera manually (a necessity if you are using a non-GamePad control method) and the L button to center the camera behind your leader, but this is a Wii U gimmick that has yet to feel “right” to me and this is no exception. A lot of these “cave” sub-levels are innovative puzzles that often require you to divide your attention between the two screens, which I appreciate, but the camera often just detracts from the experience. Those playing without a second screen can use the minus button to enable a picture-in-picture display when necessary, which might be better for most purposes.
Camera annoyances aside, my biggest complaint with W101 is the fact that it was supposed to be a “launch window” title and, like so many Wii U titles, was repeatedly delayed. I waited ten long months between picking up my Wii U and the release of the game that originally convinced me to buy it. Fortunately, the wait was more than worth it. W101 is a game that offers nearly limitless potential if you’re the obsessive type who craves 100% completion, a perfectionist who likes to dig into a deep combo system, the hardest of hardcore players seeking insane difficulty or really any combination of the above. Even if you’re only interested in making one playthrough on Very Easy, W101 will provide more than enough enjoyment if you’re willing to give it the time and, yes, a little more effort than you might be used to. There’s also a multiplayer mode for up to five players that I didn’t have the chance to delve into! As a Wii U exclusive, Wonderful 101 is one of the strongest arguments for owning the console yet, and I hope this is a sign of things to come for the still-slumbering system.
Pros: Crazy over-the-top superhero powers and story, deep combat filled with hidden surprises
Cons: Perhaps too hardcore, many surprises “hidden” due to dearth of tutorials, camera issues