The Wonderful 101: Remastered Review
After designing some action classics, PlatinumGames brought the gang back together in 2013 to make an original IP combining fast-paced action and drawing. The result was a flawed yet wholly original action title that flew somewhat under-the-radar. Luckily, thanks to a successful Kickstarter, Wonderful 101: Remastered gives the game a second chance to shine. Many of the game’s unique qualities and masterful stylistic flourishes still enchant and entertain in 2020, while some of the game’s clunkier design choices are exacerbated.
In W101, you lead a group of ordinary civilians who transform into superheroes when they activate medallions, fighting off massive enemies one after the other to save the world. To activate different abilities, you draw symbols — known as Unite Morphs — that create weapons made out of characters in your group. It looks sort of like a strategy game with all of the characters on screen, but it is in fact a pretty pure action game that you would expect from the developer. The extra characters aid attacks and help you distract enemies, as well as solve some rudimentary puzzles. It’s like Pikmin meets Devil May Cry.
While the attacks would have originally been drawn via touchscreen on the Wii U gamepad, they are now performed on analog sticks. This aspect of the game, while novel at the time, has aged quite poorly. It is tedious at best and grating at the worst. Many of the symbols are very close in shape to each other, and you’ll often find yourself breaking out the wrong weapon at an absolutely crucial point in combat. W101 also has a punishing energy/stamina system and you’ll sometimes find yourself just one or two characters short of making a weapon, and effectively useless in combat. This forces you to just run around — you can’t dodge during these times, because dodging frustratingly uses the same stamina bar until the bar slowly recharges. The game is already fairly difficult, and this core aspect of the gameplay doesn’t help very much.
The camera also fights the player tooth-and-nail. The game is isometric, and you’ll often find yourself positioned just a smidgen away from where you thought you were relative to an enemy because of the odd perspective. Some enemies require precision dodging, and you will lose battles because of this. Similarly, there are a few challenging jumping puzzles in the game that are impossible to navigate smoothly because of the limited, zoomed-out perspective. W101 has a pretty forgiving continuation system, and you’ll respawn in the same battle without losing progress when you die. This ameliorates plenty of frustration, but only if you don’t care about your final score or earning more money to buy upgrades. Some enemies have attacks that are difficult to read because of the perspective. You may not be able to see what they are about to do if they happen to be facing away from the screen.
Some other truly strange set pieces now involve action happening picture-in-picture on the screen in a little box, where they originally would have been separated across the two Wii U screens. The box is absolutely tiny now, and the action can be hard to follow, but these truly highlight how creative this game was trying to be and how many ideas it had for the system.
W101 must be absolutely lauded on its visual style and idiosyncratic Saturday morning cartoon tone. The game has a fantastic tilt-shifted look to it, and the main city is absolutely inspired. Blossom City looks like it popped right out of a futuristic anime. The tiny heroes are stylized and have quirks and the main leaders have pretty fleshed out arcs. It’s always entertaining to watch groups of heroes unite and collapse in awkward ways. It has a memorable, wildly catchy theme song with some of the stupidest, most subtext-as-text lyrics you’ll ever hear in a game. At times, the game borders on Starship Troopers-esque satire. There are times when the game feels like it truly could have come out today on the Switch and nobody would have batted an eye. There are other times when backgrounds are simple and bland, and there are two levels that essentially use the same visual assets but with a slightly different color scheme. The voice-acting is hilarious and expressive, and there is no shtick or line of dialogue too silly for PlatinumGames to leave out. The game is consistently amusing, and there are some visual gags that genuinely made me laugh. Above all, the game comes at you with one idea after another to try to surprise you. PlatinumGames combines their love of videogames — especially shmups — and subverting player expectations in a way here that they would later perfect in Nier: Automata. On the technical end, the game runs great but I did encounter a few bugs that would not resolve until I closed and reopened the game.
The Wonderful 101: Remastered is a must-play for those interested in video game curiosities and creativity, with the caveat that many design choices are clunky and tedious, and the game can feel very padded out and artificially challenging at times. However, it’s definitely worth the look if you want to delight in a silly, one-of-a-kind adventure.
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