The Wonderful 101, by Platinum Games and their outspoken, ambitious director Hideki Kamiya, has been both praised and criticized from many different angles, with some calling the superhero action game inaccessible or too difficult, while others refer to it as one of the best games of the year. As usual when it comes to divergently extreme opinions, the truth lies somewhere in between.
If games were judged on presentation alone, The Wonderful 101 would have likely received 10’s across the board. Its cut scenes and dialogue are relevant, engaging, and often humorous, with the opening sequence in which Wonder-Red (otherwise known as schoolteacher Will Wedgewood) must rescue a bus full of people standing out as one of the grandest, campiest, most exhilarating game intros of all time. Impressively, The Wonderful 101 manages to maintain its brand of monumental heroic energy throughout, as the superb voice acting never falters, new characters reveal themselves to be more and more outlandish, and the game’s fantastic symphonic soundtrack matches the epic heights of the action with every step. The entire presentation makes the game feel like it was designed by someone with something to prove, and on all of the above levels, Kamiya has proved it.
Unfortunately, however, The Wonderful 101 must also be played, and while it is genuinely fun at times, exhibiting several original gameplay concepts (like drawing Unite Morphs on the gamepad), the gameplay is significantly hindered by several factors that often make the game more frustrating than wonderful.
Yes, the game is difficult, but in all the complaints leveled against The Wonderful 101 that call it complicated or overly demanding, few seem to have pointed out that complications in the game don’t arise because it presents a well-crafted challenge. Instead they arise because of inherent gameplay problems like the sheer number of things happening on screen that distract the player from his or her objective, controls that are far too loose, the frequent inability to draw Unite Builds as long as they need to be on the gamepad, or a camera that unnecessarily follows the protagonist’s every move, making the player’s viewpoint as frantic as the action….just to name a few.
The ability to buy new power-ups helps sustain interest in the game, and while its boss battles offer methodical challenges that do a good job of blending together the wide variety of controls and moves at the player’s disposal, the gameplay throughout the levels too often gets reduced to button mashing, with the Unite Sword tending to be the go-to weapon for warding off swarms of enemies. Additionally, the unwillingness of Platinum Games to explain techniques or objectives necessary for advancing can often make the accomplishment of those tasks rewarding for the player, but sometimes the lack of information means that large portions of the game can be missed the first time through. And with so many rough areas in the gameplay, the replay value is not high enough to warrant the desire to return to the beginning and bridge those missed gaps.
While The Wonderful 101 picks up points for uniting an original concept with some stellar aesthetic presentation, the game purports to be much more fun than it really is, as a severe lack of clarity in its controls and gameplay prevents this band of superheroes from being truly wonderful.