Disney Interactive's Epic Mickey could turn out to be very serious business indeed. Really, forget any preconceptions you might have of this being just another throwaway cartoon license. With proper gaming legend Warren Spector (Deus Ex, Thief) at the helm, this is a game stuffed with enough ideas and cool concepts to make it an absolute classic.
How do we know? We recently met Spector and had the Epic Mickey demoed at the game's world premiere press conference. Here, in words, pictures and video, is what we found out.
Blending real-world Disney history with the parallel reality of the cartoons, Epic Mickey’s story concept is one of the most exciting we’ve seen in a very long time. And if you’re an animation nerd, it will make you haemorrhage joy from your eyes.
Starting with Walt Disney’s notorious inability to throw away any idea, sketch, or even contract, the game assumes that he created a world for his forgotten characters, so that they would have a sanctuary to enjoy once their fame had faded. Pulled into this world by antagonistic means, Mickey rapidly finds that things aren’t right. Built from decaying Disney iconography, the Cartoon Wasteland as it's known is in a bad state and getting worse, and for reasons currently undisclosed, he is responsible. And if he’s going to succeed in fixing things, he’s going to have to heal a very old family rift with a brother he never even knew he had. But more of that a few paragraphs down...
Literally. Mickey’s central powers revolve around paint and paint thinner. Painting is a constructive ability, while paint thinner, taking a cue from Who Framed Roger Rabbit, is a destructive force, able to wipe out character and landscape alike. Find a broken bridge? Just paint it back in. Can’t pass an obstacle? Splash it with paint thinner to get rid of it. But from the game footage we’ve seen, this won’t be a simplistic, scripted mechanic.
Both paint and thinner come from a limited resource pool, meaning that you can use as much or as little as you like while navigating a certain area. You can paint all of that bridge back in for total safety if you like, but you’ll do it at the expense of a lot of paint. You can conserve if you just recreate a few platforms, but you’ll have to be careful that you construct a path navigable enough to get across alive.
The level of attention to Disney detail in Epic Mickey is insane. Seriously, Mr. Antista is going to explode. With a plot that essentially gives a narrative to the company’s history, it’s packed with ancient Disney characters in exactly the right roles. Chief antagonist The Phantom Blot originally appeared in a 1939 Mickey comic strip and has been an occasionally recurring cartoon villain since. The Mad Doctor is a secondary bad guy who originated in the following 1933 cartoon. Watch it. It’s awesome, and it’ll give you an idea of the kind of tone this game seems to be going for.
And Disney’s Gremlins make a return. Not the “Don’t feed them after midnight” variety, these ones were actually created by Roald Dahl and adapted by Disney for an aborted fantasy WWII film. They’ll help you out, but you’ll have to help them first. And of course, long-serving Mickey nemesis Black Pete is also back.
But most significant of all for Disney geeks is the inclusion of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit (above). Essentially the proto-Mickey, Oswald was the first mascot character Walt created, back in his early days while working for Universal. Oswald is the ultimate forgotten Disney creation, spurned by Walt after his real-life firing from Universal left that company with the character rights. Walt adapted his design to create Mickey, and the mouse went on to become the biggest cartoon star in history. Bitter and resentful, but certainly redeemable given the right treatment, Oswald is key to the whole story.
Seeing Oswald’s jealousy at the vibrant world and cast of friends that Walt has created for Mickey since his success, the Mad Doctor has built an equivalent set of friends for him. But like most things in the Cartoon Wasteland, they’re pretty screwed up, being broken-up, part-finished animatronic versions of their inspirations. They’re pretty creepy and very cool.
The Spatters seem to be the game’s default grunt enemy. Living splats of paint at the command of The Phantom Blot, they’re archetypal Disney “silly minion” characters, described by Spector as “popcorn units”. Numerous, fun and disposable. Most interestingly though, we were told that something very bad will happen if Spatters interact with Oswald's numerous kids (he's a rabbit, think about it). No details, but we saw a short video clip of a baby rabbit eating a Spatter, so we reckon some kind of enemy possession affair is incoming. Now how would Mickey deal with that without wiping out the innocent bunny?
And Finally we have the Beetleworx, another robotic creation of the Mad Doctor. We don’t know a huge amount about them yet, but they’re a definite antagonist, and being robotic, are totally immune to paint thinner. Apparently you'll need a very different approach in order to deal with them.
And don’t go thinking that limited resources of artistic materials is the only consideration in how you approach things. Epic Mickey also contains a Fallout 3 style morality system which dynamically changes Mickey’s character class depending on how you play. Navigate the world aggressively, getting into every fight you can and wiping out obstacles willy-nilly, and he’ll become the Scrapper; personally powerful with more effective paint thinner, but shunned and mistrusted by the world’s characters.
Play benevolently, helping out NPCs wherever you meet them and generally being an all-round nice guy, and Mickey will become the Hero. His creative paint power becomes more powerful and the world becomes a visibly brighter, happier place. And with both moral extremes your experience of the game will change, as Mickey’s augmented powers and differing character interactions will open and close certain parts of the game, meaning that some levels just won’t appear depending on how you play.