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Review: The Wonderful 101

By Alex Dale on Sunday 18th Aug 2013 at 9:00 AM UTC

The Wonderful 101 is the gaming equivalent of one of those magic eye pictures, where you stare wild-eyed into a kaleidoscopic pattern for several minutes until it melts into something beautiful and coherent, like the Mona Lisa or a sunset or blancmange or whatever. Except here, the staring phase lasts for several hours.

The good news is that when this furious maelstrom of colour and kinectism finally clicks into place, it does so with such magnificent force that you'll have to check you haven't dislocated your hip. The bad news? Iffy touchscreen controls and signposting mean it's prone to collapsing back into a garish mess at any given moment.

Dubbed a 'mass hero action game', The Wonderful 101 is a delightfully esoteric title, even by Platinum Games' standards.

An isometric hack and slasher, the twist is that instead of controlling one superhero, you control a whole heap of them at once - the titular Wonderful 100. (You're the 101, you see).

While the mass of humanity on screen can be intimidating at first, it's a lot simpler than it first appears. You control the leader of the group (as appointed on a touchscreen menu - you collect new heroes as you play), and the rest of the group tails behind him or her as a single entity. Over the course of a level you can bolster the size of your squad by recruiting members of the public - this is achieved by drawing a 'wonder-liner' arc around them on the GamePad screen.

The larger the squad under your command, the more mindful you have to be of space around you . An overhead attack that just skims past your head will knock straggling team members of six, forcing you to scoot around scraping them back up off the floor again. Fortunately, only attacks that hit you directly count against your life bar, and despite the small size of the characters on screen, it's rare that you lose track of your positioning on the screen.

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You might think that building up your little army would be more trouble than it's worth then, but you'd be wrong because human bodies are the currency needed to form your squadron's 'Unite Morph' attacks.

This is The Wonderful 101's marquee idea. Unite Morph attacks are formed by drawing a shape on the touchscreen, and the bigger the shape, the larger and more powerful your weapon will be.

Sometimes bigger isn't always best. Take the Unite Sword, formed by drawing a simple straight line, as an example. If you make it as huge as it can possibly be, you'll be blessed with a ridiculous amount of reach, but you'll be sluggish as hell and you'll be more likely to get hit, at which point the entire squad gets scattered across the screen and you've got to start over again.

Besides, it pays to keep a few squad members leftover anyway, not least because the team attack button is deceptively important. Activated by pressing X, the team attack button sees your team mob the nearest enemy, preventing them from moving and creating an opening for you to do huge damage with your Unite Morph attack. Once you master this, you'll find that those depressingly large health bars aren't as big as they seem.

Once you're a bit more confident with the controls, you can also have more than one Unite Morph on the go at once - tapping X instead of A gives command of your doodling to the AI instead of yourself. In doing so you can briefly transform your unit into an unstoppable flurry of death - but fussy touchscreen controls will do much to put most players off the idea of such high-end experimentation.

Each Unite Morph is summoned by drawing a distinctive shape, and the game is kind enough to roll them out in stages. At the beginning, you'll only have access to two - the aforementioned Unite Sword (straight line), used for melee attacks and to deflect enemy lasers.

The other starter is the Unite Hand (semi-circle), a fiery red mitt that's just as often used to bash enemy skulls in as it is for more dexterous pursuits, such as turning giant screws, operating a spaceship's steering wheel or cranking on a giant gumball machine, where each ball contains a trapped human (we mentioned this is a weird game, right?).

Later on, you'll unlock new Morphs as you meet key members of the W100 - these include the Unite Gun (a ranged attack that uses heroes as bullets), Unite Whip (rip hunks off of armoured enemies, and swing across gaps) and Unite Bomb (slows down time).

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Effectively what we have then is a fun and stylish way to switch between weapons during combat. The problem is that some of the inputs tend to rub against each other in the heat of battle - with prime offenders being the gun (l-shape) and whip (s-shape), and the hammer/bomb (a line with a circle at the tip) aSince the action pauses during inputs it's easy to recover - and you'll learn that slow and steady does it. But this is a hack and slasher that's built around precision and high-score chasing, so at high-level play the skittish input is more than a temporary annoyance.

As an alternative to the touchscreen, you can also draw your wonder-lines using the right analogue stick, which is in fact essential during remote play or during the fun-but-expensive multiplayer Wonderful Missions (Pro Pads required), where players compete to hoover up each other's spilled squadrons en route to amassing the highest score.

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