Mickey Mouse’s power is purely totemic. He’s not really a character. How would you describe him if you couldn’t mention what he looks like? He’s friendly? Not always. The Mickey in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is a dick. Walt’s rodent is fuel rather than a personality, an ember to spark whatever inferno you want. Want to build an all-encompassing corporate empire? Use the Mouse. Want to make a freaky role-playing game about existentialism like Kingdom Hearts? He’s good to go. Something about the surreality of talking, glove-wearing vermin makes almost any idea more digestible. In order for the Mickey magic to work, the structure surrounding him needs to be sound. Epic Mickey: The Power of Illusion is a fun game to touch, but it’s so incoherent that the power of its protagonist is lost.
Some of its lack of focus is due to its origins. Power Of Illusion is actually a sequel to not one but two different series, Epic Mickey and the decades-old Castle of Illusion. The latter provides the setting and antagonist here, a shifting castle ruled by an evil witch named Mizrabel, as well as the run and jump style of game. The former is the source of this Mickey’s primary tools, a brush that can paint objects into existence or use thinner to erase them. Illusion also features an ensemble of displaced Disney characters like Epic Mickey, but rather than a cast of scrubs like Oswald the Rabbit the castle is full of A-listers to rescue like Ariel the mermaid and Peter Pan.
There are eleven levels in the castle, each one filled with googly-eyed monsters, bats, and wandering Petes between their platforms and spikey floors. Mickey moves slowly, falling like gravity’s an after thought, to hop on enemies and shoot them with various paints. It feels great. Momentum isn’t a factor like it is in Super Mario-infused platformers, making the running and jumping more intentional. Bopping enemies requires you to press the button twice to butt slam them, but if they’re standing on a breakable block there’s a risk of ruining your footing after the attack. If there isn’t a clear path forward, the second screen of the 3DS might show the outline of a new platform or weapon you can draw into the world. Maybe there’s a giant octopus in your way, so you need to erase him. The dreamy pace is fitting for a game about an ephemeral castle, and by the end that stages get downright nightmarish with obstacle placement.
There’s plenty of time to familiarize yourself with the castle’s vagaries. Getting through the stages isn’t enough to break through Mizrabel’s illusions, you need to find the lost Disney characters scattered in them first. Some you’ll find your first time through. You can’t help but run into the Peter Pan but you’ll have to replay the first few stages multiple times to find some Lost Boys and Tinkerbell. Just exploring the hidden nooks and crannies of the castle isn’t enough either, since most of the characters don’t pop up until the others have you asked you go find them.
Pals like Donald Duck and his Uncle Scrooge won’t just ask you to go check on their pals. Usually they need an errand run first. The Beast won’t ask you to go find Belle until you’ve found his talking candelabra and drawn him a rose on the touch screen. The busy work doesn’t always send you back into the castle proper, making you just talk to the other characters milling about instead. Rewards are doled out—more life, upgrades to your paints, money to buy the same—but on the fourth or fifth arbitrary play through of a level the illusion starts to wear off. Why are there so few stages for so many characters? Why are there only environments themed on Aladdin, The Little Mermaid, and Peter Pan and why the hell would Tiana from The Princess And The Frog be trapped at the bottom of the ocean? Why are there only snatched glimpses of the actual castle sometimes in the background? Aren’t those clamshells Ariel’s wearing uncomfortable? Why the hell am I doing any of this?
The very best video games starring Mickey Mouse all have some vital binding agent to hold the weirdness together. The old Mickey Mania had Mickey run through stages based on his iconic features, so it could get away with wacky conceptual shifts like a black-and-white steamboat level followed by a fight with some gangly mad scientist. Castle of Illusion and its sequels picked an unfamiliar setting and stuck with it. Even the unwieldy Kingdom Hearts has a molten core of mythos and melodrama to keep it from collapsing. There’s no tie to bind together Epic Mickey: Power Of Illusion’s myriad borrowed parts. Nice to touch, nice to see, but there’s nothing to hold. Mickey’s only a useful tool if he’s used to build something real, but even century-old totem like the Mouse can’t hold together a house of smoke and old mascots.