Disneyland has the slogan, "The happiest place on earth," but you won't find much joy in Mickey's adventure through this Magic Kingdom. This evocative trip through Disney's hallowed history offers clever twists to the characters and imagery that have become ingrained in the popular consciousness, but these artistic touches are not enough to salvage the rest of the dour experience. A number of fundamental design flaws derail this colorful adventure before it ever has a chance to get going. Sloppy controls and a woeful camera continually stand in the way of your progress, but it's the preponderance of dull objectives that smothers any whiff of enjoyment. It just isn't fun to play Epic Mickey; even though the thoughtful story and imaginative visuals do their best to urge you along, it's not worth trudging through the uninspired and frustrating set pieces to get there. Epic Mickey uses nostalgia to suck you into this world, but its reliance on antiquated gameplay makes it a difficult game to endure.
Mickey has made a terrible mistake. Among all of the characters that have been created in Disney's illustrious history, a few of them have fallen to irrelevance along the way. These forgotten critters have retired to The Wasteland--a retirement home of sorts where characters from yesteryear exist far away from the outside world. But that darned mouse couldn't leave well enough alone. He spilled ink into this world one fateful day, drowning its citizens in a sea of black that ruined their peaceful existence. This is not a happy story, and the characters you meet along the way embody their decades of neglect in striking ways. It is this story that provides the strongest reason to experience Epic Mickey because it not only circumvents what you would expect from a Disney product, but it also provides heartfelt moments. The visuals suffer from low-resolution textures, but the artistic touches are certainly there. From the shabbily constructed Ventureland where sad pirates live out their existences to the neon bright Tomorrow Land, each area has its own personality.
It's just a shame that the gameplay in this 3D platformer doesn't do justice to this insightful look at Disney's history. You run and jump in a sluggish manner, so even though you eventually get where you want to go, there is no joy to the movement. The one element in Mickey's repertoire that separates Epic Mickey from other games in the genre is a magic paintbrush that has the power to create or destroy specific objects. This is a neat idea and does lead to a number of interesting situations. For instance, you can remove a piece of a mountain to find hidden treasure inside or paint a bridge to cross a dangerous lake. But even though this feature is used well at times, there isn't nearly enough freedom in how you use it. You can only interact with specific objects, and it's not always clear what you can and cannot spray. More troubling is the lack of permanence. Every time you exit and reenter an area, all of your hard work is erased, so even if you paint every object into existence, it disappears as soon as you leave the screen. Furthermore, your aiming cursor isn't always accurate, which means you have to line up your shot multiple times before the ink hits the right spot. Thus, this cool concept loses its impact as soon as you realize its limitations.
Unfortunately, Mickey's magic paintbrush is the only gameplay element that is even marginally unique. The rest of the game is a retread of countless games that have come before it. Your objectives are particularly stale. In each location you visit, there are characters you talk to who give you tasks to complete. But these boil down to tired fetch quests that are incredibly dull and time consuming. For instance, to help a pirate find true love, you have to travel from Ventureland and Ozland to the Mean Streets and then back to Ozland before you finally return to Ventureland where you complete your quest. While you dutifully walk from place to place, there aren't any fun jumping sequences or interesting battles, either; you just walk until you find the correct item and then return. And that's how much of Epic Mickey plays out. Its lifeless experience is further hampered by the bland 2D platforming levels between each section. The first time you play one of these stages, it's a treat because it looks like an old Disney cartoon. But the level design and controls are so stuck in the past and the collision detection is so poor that they aren't any fun to play, and once you slog through the same level a half-dozen times, you'll wish you could skip these portions entirely.
When you're not traipsing from one point to the next, there is combat to take part in, but this has issues as well. You can perform a spin attack to stun your ink-blob foes, but you need to use your brush to finish the job. Mickey has the choice to either convert enemies to his side by spraying them with paint or dissolve them with thinner, but this option isn't as simple as it sounds. Certain enemies cannot be converted at all, which removes any tactical element. But even if you just use thinner all the time, combat still isn't any fun. You have to spray an enemy for quite a while before you defeat it, which is not only tedious, but its downright annoying when a bunch of enemies are chasing you down and you need to fight them all at once. Battles consist of you running around and spraying anything that moves while you desperately try to get the camera to focus on what you want.
The decision of how to deal with enemies is a choice that has an impact on how the story pans out. Mickey can either be an upstanding mouse who tries to save the inhabitants of Wasteland, or a mean-spirited rodent who uses thinner to make everything disappear permanently. It's in the boss fights that this concept is pushed to the forefront. Depending on how you finish the job, you can gain a valuable ally or banish your foe into the ether. Although the binary decision making is a concept that stays on the backburner most of the time because it doesn't have a big impact during the majority of your adventure, it still makes battles a bit more unpredictable than they would have been otherwise. Your face off against Captain Hook is particularly noteworthy, and it's moments such as these that make you appreciate the care that went into bringing the lore of Disney to life.
But the little touches here and there are not enough to lift Epic Mickey up to a respectable level. Problems layer on top of problems, creating a suffocating atmosphere that makes it hard to see the good stuff that lies ahead of you. The puzzles that crop up are just as maddening as the other elements that come before them. During one such conundrum, you have to align paintings in a proper order. But the directions are so vague that you'll spend minutes wandering around, trying to figure out what you need to do before you can even begin to work out the solution. And that's one of the biggest problems that crops up all throughout this adventure: lack of direction. You always feel slightly lost in Epic Mickey because the game does such a poor job of explaining where you need to go next. Once you enter a new area, you wander around until you happen upon the solution to whatever was halting your progress. For instance, in the aforementioned pirate love quest, you need to collect flowers. But they are only a few pixels wide, and you have no idea where they are hidden within the city you're wandering through. Just about every quest vaguely points you a direction and expects you to know what you to do and it's a serious pain figuring out what the game expects from you.
Epic Mickey has so many issues that once you overcome one thing there are a half dozen more problems beating you down. Imprecise controls and boring objectives make progress a chore, and a troublesome camera ensures you won't even be able to see where you need to go a lot of the time. It's a shame the gameplay is so frustrating in Epic Mickey because the story and visuals do give you a solid incentive to play. But it's just not worth the effort. Every gameplay scenario is fraught with problems, and there are very few good moments to look forward to after enduring all the lousy parts. Epic Mickey shows that even a good implementation of a cherished license can't overcome an abundance of fundamental design flaws.