It takes a brave developer to tackle nostalgia head-on, even moreso when the original game was created by a completely different company and is considered one of the high points of an entire generation. For the first portable entry in the Disney Epic Mickey series, Dreamrift has peered back to the well-loved Mickey Mouse games of the 16-bit era, specifically Castle of Illusion Starring Mickey Mouse.
Just like its 16-bit forebears, Disney Epic Mickey: Power of Illusion is a 2D platformer. In a strange mash-up of Castle of Illusion's and Disney Epic Mickey's respective lores, the evil witch Mizrabel has returned, only this time she's parked up in the abandoned world of Wasteland – she's a forgotten character now, see. Desperate to escape, Mizrabel imprisons several Disney characters, old and new, in her evil castle to steal their cartoon energy. After receiving a distress call from Oswald, Mickey promptly hops back to Wasteland to save the day and his beloved Minnie Mouse.
Power of Illusion takes the painting concept of the console Disney Epic Mickey titles and converts it into a touch screen-based drawing mechanic. As you stomp about a few well-known Disney worlds, you have to solve basic puzzles by scribbling in new objects or rubbing out any that are getting in the way while seeking out as many of the captives as you can.
Find one of Mizrabel's hostages and they'll zoom off to the Fortress, a safe place manned by Oswald. You can visit each rescued character to receive quests, which usually involve you visiting another character to negotiate a trade or digging back through a previously completed stage to find one of their missing friends. Certain characters, such as Duckburg's own Scrooge McDuck, set up shops that sell upgrades. Many of the side missions are shallow – often you read some text, go to another room, read some more text, quest complete – but it's quite nice to see the contrasting characters interact.
It looks great. Cute, detailed sprites populate the world; Mickey and enemies alike are animated well, while the backgrounds clearly represent the appropriate Disney films. Unfortunately the 3D effect is basically non-existent, however, the backgrounds simply further back without any clever layering. Recognisable takes on famous music stream out as you play, though they're punctuated by Mickey's high-pitched yelps a little too much. Small voice clips played whenever Mickey engages in a text conversation are of good quality but don't always fit fully; there seems to be a limited bucket of samples that has been dipped into for every situation.
Unfortunately, Power of Illusion doesn't play as nicely as it looks. It's a pretty basic platformer with balance problems, hugely easy in some areas, infuriatingly unfair in others. The flow is also broken fairly regularly by the drawing mechanic, which pauses the action whenever you're doodling to uncover hidden characters or to build a series of platforms to navigate around a hazard.
The platforming comes to a complete standstill whenever you do this; the main play takes place on the upper screen, and when you enter painting mode the top display freezes while the bottom screen's usual map is replaced by a gigantic outline of the object you need to draw. Given the relative lack of stereoscopic 3D, it might have made more sense to put the platforming on the touch screen so that players could draw into the levels directly without stopping and starting.
The drawing input is accurate, but there's no need for it to crop up quite so often, and there's only a small number of objects to actually scrawl — saving the mechanic and using it more sporadically would have made it feel more special. The difference between adding or removing something from the environment is a little obtuse too: to draw an object, you only trace the outline; to erase, you have to rub over the whole thing. You can call on friends or special items by tapping an icon and carefully splodging some paint in the right places, too. This is never necessary, though we did like that we could summon Tinkerbell and her pixie dust to give us better jumping – er, “flying” – abilities at any time.
Much like Castle of Illusion, the walking speed is on the slow side, while jumping is floaty; the 16-bit game's movement is emulated well. It takes some getting used to, but controls decently once you've mastered it. Unfortunately it's ruined by a horrendous difficulty jump in the frustrating final third of the game. Here the level design punishes movements that were perfectly acceptable in earlier areas. Water streams push you towards spiked walls at a rate only marginally slower than Mickey's strides, ceilings are set so low that you end up bumping them even with the shortest of jumps; you're needlessly shoved into danger at every turn in these sections.
It's not helped by a punishing health system. Again, it's not too noticeable an issue until later stages, as the level design is at least fair earlier on. Certain enemies can snatch away up to three hearts per attack, while a brush with spikes will set you back a heart and a half. You can collect extra health by shooting bad guys with paint or finding them dotted about, but each pick up only gives you half a heart back; fall below a certain level and you face a constant uphill struggle to recoup enough energy to continue.
Enemies can be killed in multiple ways, from traditional mid-air bottom bounces and spin attacks to paint projectiles. The problem is the amount of hits they can take: before you upgrade your powers, it takes an astonishing – and completely unnecessary – six hits to knock out some of the standard bad guys. Improve your butt stomping prowess and you'll find that they can take a few less hits, but the number of enemies also increases to scale with your new abilities, which undermines the point of upgrading somewhat.
All of this is presumably an effort to add longevity to proceedings, as it's more than possible to clear Power of Illusion in less than eight hours – and that's if you take your time and do some backtracking, replaying through levels to find more lost friends tucked away in nooks and crannies. Multiple paths through stages do add some replay value, so it's not too bad to revisit some of the levels another time or two; the earlier ones, at least.
One of the most disappointing things is how few Disney films are actually represented as worlds. There's a decent range of characters from several eras – we enjoyed looking out for who was going to show up next, and there's a good mix of those that youngsters will recognise versus slightly more obscure heroes and villains – but when it comes to the levels, only Peter Pan, Aladdin and The Little Mermaid are given a spotlight. With a grand total of three worlds, each of which only features three or four stages, it falls well short of the promised scope.
Disney Epic Mickey: Power of Illusion dripped with potential upon announcement, but the final result is a more smudged affair. A fun, if basic, platformer lies at its heart, yet it's coated with unbalanced difficulty and drawing mechanics that interrupt its flow regularly, while the number of worlds is very disheartening. Disney fans will get a kick out of seeing which characters turn up, but if you're expecting another Castle of Illusion, you're going to be disappointed.