At the heart of The Wonderful 101 is one of those nagging questions: why? The game focuses on combat with a cast of several weapons. In order to choose one, you'll have to draw a shape representing it using either the Wii U's touch screen or the right joystick. (The latter option allows you to take up the Wii U's Pro Controller, and it makes great use of the right stick's prominent placement.) So, you'll run down a city street, come across a big bad alien, and stop to doodle an L to create a gun weapon. Why in heaven's name would you ever want to draw your weapon? Er, so to speak. It's not hard to imagine a system where you achieve the same effect with buttons. Wouldn't combat strike a faster pace without having to stop and draw something every time you wanted to switch weapons?
I dunno. Maybe it's just that drawing stuff is fun.
It's not without its hitches; as you earn more shapes to draw, separating certain ones can get a little dicey. The biggest offenders are the jagged line and the squiggly line. For the vast majority of shapes, though, I found success in breaking them down into 90 degree angles. Time will slow to a crawl as you draw, too, allowing you plenty of time to screw up and get a feel for how things work. That's just one of the accommodations The Wonderful 101 makes for drawing. The game is well aware of how unusual the process is, and it does everything it can to let you into its weird world.
Drawing larger shapes gives you bigger, badder weapons. In order to draw more, you'll need more ink. Naturally, your ink here consists of people. You'll lead a band of heroes through each stage, although your leader's heinder is the only one that can take damage. In order to acquire more drawing capacity, you can recruit temporary civilians or permanent heroes to your band, the likes of which contain illustrious names such as Wonder Beer and Wonder Toilet.
Everyone gets the same mask to wear, and their names all begin with the word Wonder. Then, when you think of the drawing-giant-weapons mechanic as a take on Megazords, the whole package dons a Power Rangers vibe. A few multicolored heroes take front and center, though, moving the story forward often with comic quirks and occasionally with cliché character flaws. Even the overly serious Wonder Red gets his fair share of laughs, having a penchant for memorizing ridiculously long titles and creating even longer ones if there isn't a title available.
Of course, there's no use having heroes without villains, and The Wonderful 101 will see you dispatch with an army of invading aliens. Operation 003B (that's the third chapter, second scene) starts you off against standard alien mechs. Like every enemy, they employ obvious tells well in advance to make sure you're ready for their attack. You better be ready, too, since appropriately dodging and blocking is often key to finding an opening for your own attack. It's also central to the story's themes, appropriately enough.
But from there, you'll need to take the helm of a giant airship to shoot down an enemy spaceship and protect a friendly airplane from a missile barrage. After leaving the helm, you'll battle through a gaggle of cute little flying saucers and leap through a spinning barrel of breakaway platforms. After that, get ready to guide a hang glider through a storm of mangled metal and operate a turret to shoot down more enemy craft.
Early on, The Wonderful 101 embraces the feel of a hectic action flick, throwing gameplay twists your way at a breakneck pace. If you have trouble with these segments, a somewhat inelegant and score-destroying solution is to use the continue option, which lets you pick up from the moment you died with full health.
Operation 005B doesn't have that feel, though. Here, you navigate a volcano. You'll twist columns to divert the flow of molten rock, fight enemies as you balance on a teetering platform above a bed of magma, and run from a giant sending waves of lava your way. These segments vary up the gameplay, but nothing downright changes its genre.
It's also soon after you recruit Wonder Black, whose time-slowing bomb weapons are perfect for the speedy enemies of 005B. Combat functions on a number of levels, giving newbies and pros alike something to latch onto. Newbies will find satisfaction learning which weapon to use against which enemy. This is often pretty clearly telegraphed, but it's always neat to experiment on older enemies with newer weapons.
Moderate players will have their hands full with the wide variety of attacks and enemies. They'll need to observe unspoken rules; for instance, you can block most blunt attacks, but you'll have to dodge most sharp attacks. You'll also need to keep an eye on how much ink you use at any one time. Use up too much, and you might not have enough to dodge or block an oncoming attack. Ink will regenerate gradually on its own, but you can also recover ink quickly by killing enemies and knocking over certain bits of scenery. An efficient assault manages ink by creating the biggest weapons while still allowing for defense.
Finally, adept players can make the most of certain combos from certain weapons. Enemies will fall to just plain button mashing if you use the right weapon, but killing enemies lickety split is a different matter. Each weapon has a host of attacks, and you'll need to learn the best context for each. The ability to draw helper weapons adds another layer of depth here, too; you can draw a shape and summon it to have your teammates pull off a combo on their own. Swords make wide sweeping swipes, so I found they were great at clearing large swaths of foes while I focused on punching out a single threat. Or, in 005B, I'd operate the speedy claw weapon and summon a bomb on the side so I could slice and dice a sluggish foe.
And by Operation 007A, I felt myself leaning more towards the advanced player. The Wonderful 101 regularly introduces new enemies, but new gameplay mechanics start to peter out. The setting of 007A is certainly odd enough, putting you and your heroes in a strange world of living platforms. But for gameplay variety, it contains some tricky platforming. Aside from that, it's a straight shot of combat, which let me dig my heels in and focus on tightening my combat strategies.
Granted, boss fights always mix up gameplay significantly. The final scene of each chapter will consist entirely of taking down one huge villain, featuring a string of different gameplay scenarios held together by an over-the-top sequence of events. Don't be surprised if you have to clear a rail shooter portion or box with a giant robot. In fact, the game often likes to use rail shooter gameplay as concluding punctuation, so you'll see plenty of flying around and shooting during boss scenes. (The ninth and final chapter contains one homage to an arcade game that just about killed me.)
It's an odd take on progression. I found myself overwhelmed with gameplay variety early on, only to feel more at home the farther in I ventured. In another sense, though, the game traces a path from fun to depth. The Wonderful 101 begins with an introduction to doodling out attacks and throws in tons of frilly but outlandish and fun scenarios. Over time, those variety segments fade away, leaving the game to focus on and vary up its core, the combat. It's the old bait and switch; the game brought me on with wacky fun and stealthily led me to an appreciation of weapon-drawing combat.
+ Develops a sense of fun and variety while remaining lenient enough to keep solid pacing
+ A combat system that is at once approachable and deep
+ Plenty of side elements to get into, such as equipable attribute modifiers and extra missions that you can play with friends
- Can take a while to master the wide array of gameplay changeups
- Drawing weapons is an unusual idea
The Wonderful 101 is a kid-friendly introduction to action games that still has enough to keep the interest of more experienced gamers. That is, by gameplay standards; the story, not so kid-friendly. Best of all, it manages a continuum from amateur to skilled play which can lead anyone to learn as he or she goes. Just be prepared to learn a new weapon-swapping mechanic and deal with a boatload of gameplay changes early on.