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Epic Mickey - Power of Illusion review: Uneven strokes

Jim Squires

Evil witches – they're always up to something. In the case of Mizrabel, that something typically involves the Castle of Illusion. That's where she wreaked havoc on the Sega Genesis back in the early 90s, and it's where she's breaking out her bag of evil tricks once again, this time on the Nintendo 3DS.

A spiritual successor to Castle of Illusion with an Epic Mickey makeover, Epic Mickey: Power of Illusion sees Oswald the Rabbit calling on his old pal Mickey to once again quell trouble in the Wasteland. People have forgotten about Mizrabel and her castle, so both have been banished to Oswald's dimension of forgotten Disney properties. But she's not just going to sit there and take it. Instead, she's kidnapping plenty of popular characters and stealing their "heart power," all so she can make the return trip to Toon World.

Gallery: Disney Epic Mickey: The Power of Illusion (E3 2012) | 12 Photos

As Mickey, players will attempt to thwart her evil plans in classic side-scrolling fashion. Mickey controls in a manner similar to the original Castle of Illusion, complete with butt-bumping combat, but those classic controls have been given a sizable upgrade thanks to the addition of Epic Mickey's magic paintbrush. Using both paint and thinner, players can tap on the lower screen to erase hazardous obstacles, draw platforms, and complete "sketches" to activate special objects and helpers – all with a few swipes of the stylus.

Paint can also be used as a ranged weapon, letting Mickey take out foes from a safe distance when needed. As a bonus, switching between paint and thinner helps dictate the kinds of perks that will pop out of enemies when they die. Destroying them with paint makes health refills more likely, while thinner will typically net you currency that can be spent at Uncle Scrooge's shop between levels.

There's a surprising number of things to do between levels, actually. When you rescue Disney characters, they head to a section of the castle called "the Fortress." Every character has their own room, and they each have their own hopes and dreams that Mickey can help fulfill. This usually comes in the form of finding missing friends, gathering items from other characters or drawing something on the lower half of your screen. At its core, missions in the Fortress feel something like a Disney version of Animal Crossing, albeit an incredibly basic one.

The missions provide a nice carrot on a stick, and completing them often results in perks like increased maximum health or paint capacity. The Fortress is also the place where Disney fans are going to feel the strongest tie to the bigger Disney universe. You'll be able to help Alice with her tea party, pair Beast up with his lady friend, and make sure that Pluto has enough water in his bowl. There's more Disneyana here than you can shake a paintbrush at.

Fan service isn't just extended to Disneyphiles, either. There are a few nods to classic video games in Power of Illusion. Mickey's nemesis Pete will show up as a Mario-inspired thwomp in some of the game's earlier levels, and he'll later don a spiky blue turtle shell that looks like it came right off a disgruntled koopa. You'll even get to see Scrooge McDuck use his cane like a pogo stick, just as he did in Capcom's NES classic, DuckTales.

But fan service can only go so far, and Disney fans may feel that Power of Illusion falls a little short. While rescuing different characters and placing them in themed rooms is a nice touch, it's hardly the focus of the game. Those interested in Power of Illusion are probably hoping for a wide variety of levels based on their favorite Disney properties. Instead you'll get only three: Peter Pan, Aladdin, and The Little Mermaid.

Each of the films is given its own wing of the castle, and each wing is comprised of several levels. These levels mirror the progress of each film, so you'll still experience some variety, just not necessarily the kind of variety you might be looking for. For example, Peter Pan's wing of the castle features levels set in London, the jungle, and aboard Captain Hook's ship. Each looks and feels different, but there's no avoiding the fact that these levels could just as easily have been based around three different characters instead. If you're here for the game, it's an easy thing to look past. If, on the other hand, you're hoping to experience a cornucopia of Disney worlds, you're going to be in for a bit of a shock.

Aesthetics aside, the level design manages to impress throughout. You'll discover branching paths, hard to reach areas where new characters to rescue are hidden away, and plenty of tricky situations. Things feel a little too easy for the first half of the game, to the point I assumed developer Dreamrift was aiming Power of Illusion squarely at kids. The difficulty picks up by the end of the second world though, offering up the old-school, 16-bit challenge fans were likely hoping for. One particular sequence in the Little Mermaid levels will haunt me forever, wherein I had to drop Mickey down a series of underwater platforms, surrounded by spikes on either side. I probably died a dozen times and, with only one checkpoint in each level, I spent plenty of time just making my way back to the watery gauntlet.

The central problem, however, is that it takes so long for Power of Illusion to deliver challenges like these. You'll be about halfway through the castle before it really throws something meaty at you, and before you know it you'll have defeated Mizrabel and finished the game. All in all, the main story lasted me about 5 hours, a short amount of time that feels even shorter considering how easy the first half is. There's a bit of replay value here if you're trying to "catch 'em all" and complete every Fortress mission, but it wasn't enough to make me want to continue playing after I'd wrapped things up.

Epic Mickey: Power of Illusion ends up feeling like it doesn't know what kind of game it wants to be. Is it an easy game for kids, or a tough game for seasoned players? It offers some great level design, top notch fan service, and a decent challenge, but that challenge arrives a little too late. Combine that with a dearth of Disney worlds, and Power of Illusion can best be summed up with the words "unrealized potential." It's good, but it could have been a lot better.

This review is based on a retail copy of Epic Mickey: Power of Illusion for 3DS, provided by Disney.

Jim Squires is a lifelong gamer from the Great White North. His work has been published in a variety of publications, including the Toronto Star, and is currently the Editor-in-Chief of Jim once won an Atari 7800 on Let's Make a Deal, but he doesn't like to talk about it. You can follow him on Twitter at @jimmycanuck.

Joystiq's review scores are based on a scale of whether the game in question is worth your time -- a five-star being a definitive "yes," and a one-star being a definitive "no." Read here for more information on our ratings guidelines.

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