Review: The Wonderful 101 – A Wonderful, Slightly Flawed Action Gem
Let me start this off by saying that The Wonderful 101 is a Sentai-style game, through and through. For those not in the know, Sentai, which translates to “taskforce, group or squadron,” is an extremely popular genre of Japanese shows that features a three to five man band of superheroes wearing multicolored outfits.
Here’s a history lesson: the term Sentai was coined after the Super Sentai series (the inspiration for Power Rangers) and is a sub-genre under Tokusatsu (a blanket term for live-action shows that use large amounts of special effects, such as Godzilla and Kamen Rider). Funny enough, The Wonderful 101 actually covers the gambit of Tokusatsu, with the main characters representing the Sentai sub-genre while the villains are modeled after the Kaiju (giant monster) sub-genre.
Naturally, 101 is just as crazy and action packed as any Sentai show and an amazing amount of attention and effort was placed on the visuals. From the ridiculously evil enemies to the overly long transformation sequences to the camera angles and the random explosions behind posing heroes, this game made me feel like I was taking part in the coolest TV series ever. The swelling orchestra and rousing main theme added even more to the epic nature.
In terms of plot, a secret organization called the CENTINALS trains and dispatches a group of heroes from around the world–The Wonderful 100–that secretly protects Earth from the likes of GEATHJERK, or the Guild of Evil Aliens Terrorizing Humans with Jiggawatt bombs, Energy beams, Ray guns and Killer Lasers (!?), who are hellbent in destroying the world. And in true Sentai villain fashion, instead of the leader and most powerful of the aliens coming down to wipe out the heroes and invade the Earth the first time, they send a constant barrage of enemies that are nice enough to come in order of strength (from least to greatest of course).
When you start the game, you can choose between three difficulty settings: Very Easy, Easy and Normal. If you’d prefer a good challenge, I’d suggest Normal mode, but Easy is good to switch to if Normal becomes too overwhelming. (You can also unlock Hard and 101% Hard after beating the game the first time.) After your decision, the prologue begins but don’t think you can just sit back and watch it all peacefully. That’s right–the game starts off with a playable prologue, which I think is a great idea since it kept me engaged right from the start. During the segment, you play as Wonder Red as the game acquaints you with the controls through some of the least obtrusive tutorials I’ve ever experienced.
One thing I really loved about the prologue was the fact that the developers put in hilarious visual jokes to entertain you while you’re busy taking in the large amounts of exposition in the beginning. Another nice touch was the idea of being able to fight random minions in a training facility while waiting for each operation to load. These kinds of small but very meaningful touches went a long way to keep me completely entertained throughout the entire game.
Every mission is divided into three operations (A, B and C), which are then further divided into several sub-missions. At the end of every sub-mission, you’re awarded a rank that ranges from Pure Platinum to Consolation Prize. Sub-mission rankings are important because depending on which one you receive, you’re given a corresponding amount of O-parts. O-parts are the game’s currency and allow you to purchase items, new Unite Morphs, Custom Blocks and skills. At the end of the operation, an overall rank is awarded based on all the sub-rankings, netting you even more O-parts. But don’t worry, once you complete an operation the first time, you can retry it to get all the Pure Platinums you want–which is what makes this game so addictive.
Speaking of missions, they boil down to fighting large groups of enemies and mini-bosses, before battling against the exciting and large-scale bosses. The Wonder Heroes already have their own squadron to command but must also save and empower normal citizens in order to add to their fighting force, which is accomplished by circling them (citizens in need of help will have “Help!” appear above them) and bestowing Wonder Energy to them. Having lots of allies is very important, as more heroes equal more physical attacks, larger Unite Morphs and longer Wonder chains. You can switch between squad leaders with the GamePad and using a Wonder Hero allows them to level up and improve their stats. This means that you can level all 100 Wonder Heroes in the game, not just the main eight.
Missions can have you do other kinds of tasks, such as using the Unite Hand to turn knobs and grip things, solving puzzles that require you to use the GamePad by itself (a la Rayman: Legends) or even perform the ubiquitous quick time event, although the latter is quite pulse-pounding and really adds to the over-the-top action. The characters even shout their attack and skill names, staying true to the Sentai feel and serving as an indicator for which action to take, making the events far less frustrating. There are also secret missions areas in each operation marked with a sigil, which are actually lairs left behind by the last GEATHJERK invasion 25 years ago. Think of them as bonus levels. It’s fun to try and locate them all.
Unlike most action games, 101 requires quite a bit of strategy, as you must know when to switch between the different Unite Morphs. As you might already know, there are several different types of Unite Morphs, each with a special use; for instance, the Unite Sword is very useful for when your group of heroes are surrounded, while the Unite Whip is the only Morph that can get rid of Spiky Armor. What makes the game so frenetic is that you must switch between each type on the fly, requiring some snap judgements (although time does slow down when you draw, which helps a lot).
Every Unite Morph and action possesses a unique shape that must be drawn on the Wii U’s GamePad; a circle for Unite Hand, a straight line for Unite Sword, a right angle for Unite Gun, etc. As you use the Unite Morphs more, you learn new techniques which add to their attack combos. As a note, you can use the right analog stick to draw out shapes instead of the touchpad but I would personally only recommend it for forming the Wonder Line, as using it for anything else feels sluggish and clunky.
The main source of difficulty in this game comes from the lengthy, epic, sometimes cheap and always exhilarating boss battles. Bosses aren’t just larger versions of foes you’ve faced in the past but are instead multi-layered slug fests that require fast reflexes and actual strategy. Sometimes these bosses can be incredibly frustrating but it also goes a long way in showing how powerful and dangerous this alien threat really is.
Going into a boss battle, I find myself tensing up and mentally preparing for the fight–something that action games rarely have me do. This also means that finally defeating a boss comes with a stronger feeling of achievement that I’ve felt in a long time. Of course, since this game does not hold your hand, it’s very easy to spend an obscene amount of time simply taking damage until you figure out how to beat them.
The humor in this game is well-timed and well-written. Every joke had me rolling in my seat, especially from the surprising hilarious Wonder Blue. Also, it’s amazing how many unique burns for Wonder Blue that Wonder Green can come up with. It’s rather refreshing to play a superhero game that doesn’t take itself too seriously. That doesn’t mean it lacks serious moments but that 101 never gives up its sense of humor just to indulge in the cheap melodrama that many other games revel in.
Even though Story Mode is the meat and potatoes of the game, the Wonderful Missions Mode is a great way to go on a slugging spree in several missions without worrying about dying in the single player. You can choose to go solo or take up to five player teams with you in some crazy co-op action. Going solo can really help with practicing your battle technique, as well as your drawing speed and accuracy. However, the co-op is guaranteed to provide you with hours of hysterical mayhem because you will not have a clue as to what is going on.
In terms of positives, the game has plenty. It’s clever, charming, action-packed with surprisingly smart combat, the characters are all very likable and the graphics and music are great. 101 is split up well so you don’t have too much on your plate in terms of tackling missions. The ease of acquiring O-parts doesn’t require the player to grind for abilities that are absolutely necessary for early game, such as Unite Guts and Unite Spring. Also, this may sound strange, but I enjoy the lack of hand-holding and sometimes obtuse objectives.
Growing up, hard to solve puzzles were a staple of almost any game. There were no red lines or a convenient mission control yelling constant advice; you only had yourself to figure out what to do. Seeing that in a modern game is nostalgic and surprisingly empowering, as the developers are trusting you to find your own way. Finally, 101 has great replayability value, as obtaining those Pure Platinum trophies for each operation becomes an unhealthy obsession.
There are some negatives, however. The controls are a bit loose and imprecise at times, both with the touch screen and analog sticks. For instance, it can be inconsistently difficult at times to make a proper straight Wonder Line, especially when trying to create a bridge. When using the GamePad for indoor puzzles, the camera can get a little wonky at times and drawing Unite Morphs is almost impossible. Another issue is that occasionally, when the battles really heat up, you can accidentally open the sub-menu on the GamePad and loose the input panel, which will ruin your day.
Overall, The Wonderful 101 is an unique and relentless gaming experience. While there maybe some technical faults, most of them can be worked out with a bit of practice. 101 is a game that rewards effort and hard work, and as long as you come with an open-mind to both the plot and the gameplay, you’ll find a Wonderful gem underneath.