Developers: Junction Point
Publishers: Disney Interactive
Gaming is littered with underappreciated siblings, and battles between brothers and sisters. Luigi will always be overshadowed by his fat, red brother; the Williams sisters are always trying to gain the upper hand over one another, battling it out for favour and victory (in fact most of the Tekken backstory boils down to family troubles); Liquid Snake's driving goal is to prove that he's better than his brother Solid Snake; there's Kasumi and Ayane, Dante and Vergil, Kratos and Hercules, and a good deal more besides.
But one of the greatest stories, a real life story, in fact, is that of Mickey Mouse and Oswald the Rabbit. The tale of Oswald's jealousy - envious of the acclaim and success Mickey claimed instead of him - and the story of his redemption, not to mention Mickey's, all came out win the first game. This second title sees Mickey called back to the Wasteland for another adventure. The world of forgotten characters has found itself beset by earthquakes, and though the residents are rebuilding slowly under the direction of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, the mysterious return of a suspiciously friendly Mad Doctor heralds fresh destruction. Now Mickey and Oswald must team up and work together to get to the bottom of The Mad Doctor's transformation and uncover its true meaning.
Of course, the biggest shift with this sequel comes in the form of drop-in/drop-out co-op gameplay. At any point during the game, a friend can fire up a second controller - locally or online - to render some assistance as Oswald. Mickey is one again armed with his trusty paintbrush, able to colour in and thin out various items, objects, and characters in the game; Oswald, however, gets himself a snazzy little remote control that can be used to stun enemies, who may then be painted over to turn marauding baddies into handy allies.
That's not all he's got up his sleeves either. By spinning his long ears in 'copter-esque fashion and inviting Mickey to hang onto his legs, Oswald aerial capabilities instantly unlock greater platforming opportunities. In tandem, using the titular power of two, you can glide further, climb and jump higher, and reach far flung places you wouldn't have been able to access in the original game. We didn't get to see how Oswald's detachable limbs will feed into the gameplay in our hands-on, but we can't wait to find out.
Our first taste of Epic Mickey 2 saw us visit the Gulch: a fresh new area paying homage to Disney's Frontier Land, with rust-coloured canyons sporting totems of tribute to classic Disney stars, and a rickety station with a corrugated iron roofs taunting us with the train we needed to access the next area. There was only one problem: there's was no power. A small handful of battery spheres were deposited across the little level, and herein came our first proper choice. Would we simply take one, and run the risk of greater difficulty in the next area, or look to snaffle up all three to make life easier for Mickey and Oswald.
Of course, there's a price to pay as well. Once again, painting and thinning come with rather different repercussions, with the latter destroying items and objects that, whilst often yielding additional treasures, will not endear Mickey to the locals. The moral decisions that are made across the length of the journey may seem trivial in the short term, but there are far deeper ramifications for each and every action. In order to see everything that Epic Mickey 2 has to offer, the player will have to temper skill will a certain amount of respect too.
The idea behind all of this is to give players their own unique stories. Spector describes this game's morality systems as an "evolutionary step" further on from the first game's "choice and consequence 'lite'" setup. But just as players will be able to write (or rather paint) their own narrative twists and turns throughout the course of Mickey and Oswald's adventure, so too will the dynamic scoring of the game let players uncover their own musical journey through gameplay. Movements and motifs will rise and fall dependent on player action, entire instrumental sections will change as Jim Dooley's score reflects action and inaction, conflict and avoidance, wild exploration, stealth cautiousness, and the occasional failure too. Thankfully, as AI Oswald was a little slow at times in delivering stunning blows to certain adversaries, dying won't set you back too far at all.
The games look drop-dead gorgeous on the HD consoles, and the stunning art direction is finally exhibited in a fashion befitting its splendour. We loved the co-operative nature of the game - the coming together or Mickey and Oswald is a design feature, not simply a tacked on service. Those co-op elements run all through the game's DNA, and even on you're own, you'll have to call on Oswald's services. To be honest, though, the AI could use a little bit of work, with Oswald's pathfinding occasionally a little awry.
The standardised controls on the HD consoles may prove divisive too. In a later interview with Warren Spector, the creator revealed that the detachment behind the aiming reticule and the camera was designed to encourage play rather than precision. But although that worked very well on the Wii (and indeed works fine on the Move), the disconnect is frustrating on a standard controller. To simply say that those attempting to aim precisely are missing the point is Warren's prerogative, but we anticipate some dissatisfaction if it leads to a constant stream of death. To be fair to the game, we can't make a value judgement in that sense based on a short 45 minute demo, but when you're beset by fire, with the ground in front of you disappearing, and your survival is dependent on swift painting action, you'd be forgiven or cursing the disconnect between camera and aiming control.
As I say, we'll need more time to pass full judgement on that either way, but with the Move in hand it's a glorious experience. Spector and his time have clearly put in a massive shift to ensure that this game really builds upon its predecessor. The original game is often thought of in "nearly" terms, as if it was the little game that almost could. But it was a success on the Wii, with the platform perhaps shading some people's perspectives on the game. There's no chance of that this time around, with the sequel firing on all cylinders across all major platforms. It just remains to be seen if Junction Point can really optimise those standard controls and, in doing so, widen the point of entry. Because, make no mistake, on the evidence of what I saw, Epic Mickey 2 is shaping up to be a joyful, colourful, and incredibly thoughtful and thought-provoking title.
Frankly, though, we'd expect nothing less from Mr. Spector.