It’s surprising that it took Nintendo more than 10 years to come up with a game like Miitopia.
The charming Mii characters have dominated much of the company’s branding since the release of the Wii back in 2006, starring in a plethora of casual games with simple premises. These range from the forgotten — Wii Music’s a good example — to the iconic, like Wii Sports. But the Miis rarely got a chance to play the leads in a game that didn’t just use them as avatars, let alone one that was more than a cutesy budget title.
After taking a stab at expanding the brand with the social sim Tomodachi Life, Nintendo has given the Miis a more serious platform that plays to the characters’ strengths. Miitopia isn’t just a perfect showcase for those indelible customizable characters; it’s an engaging role-playing experience in its own right.
Miitopia starts off with a familiar story: A heroic Mii is called upon by the citizens of the vast kingdom to save the land. With a party of three other Miis, the character journeys from town to town, battling enemies, unlocking treasure chests and taking down bosses throughout their quest.
But the Nintendo 3DS game does more than embrace RPG tropes. Every character in the world is a Mii, from the people you save to the ones you fight alongside, and many of them are left to the player to design. That includes the Dark Lord, the being responsible for terrorizing Miitopia. And the Dark Lord isn’t just casting some generic evil over the land, either: The being rips the faces off of Miitopians, attaching them to all kinds of monsters that the player’s party must defeat.
It’s a smart way to incorporate the inherent appeal of Miis into the story itself. And if you’re wondering what that inherent appeal is, I assure you that it goes beyond Miis being cute and big-headed. They can also be redesigned to resemble anything or anyone you want. I put a lot of consideration into constructing my party and the game’s other key characters using my real-life friends and co-workers as inspiration. When the Dark Lord wiped my pal’s cartoony faces clean off their little Mii bodies, you bet I was pissed.
Customizing Miis is the most obvious appeal of Miitopia, and that extends beyond simple character design. I also had to choose every hero’s personality type to finish off the creation process. Each of the handful of personalities comes with appropriate scripted lines that define the Miis as more than bug-eyed recreations of my co-workers; they became characters with likes and dislikes, hopes and desires. They were my trusted teammates and, with some expert downtime matchmaking, my best friends. I was upset with the game’s main villain for kidnapping the Miis and erasing my hard work — and making my new close friends disappear.
Miitopia is more than a costly version of Mii Maker with a few added features. The RPG aspect is as crucial and considered as the design part. Miitopia’s superficially generic storyline belies the hidden intricacies of its turn-based battle system. Every party member must be assigned a job, which includes classics like “warrior” and “mage” and some more ... inspired choices, such as “cat” and “flower.” And these jobs have genuine effects in battle — which wouldn’t be surprising, were this not a game about those silly, smiley Miis.
Mages can use special magical skills, for example, with their powers continuing to expand as they level up. Cats are more offensive, literally scratching up enemies in a variety of ways. It was a lot of fun to see how different jobs play out in battle. Since everyone had a specific set of weapons and outfits to collect, I was even more excited to level up my team and try out different jobs with new heroes.
Even personality types come with in-battle “quirks,” as they’re called; a cautious Mii may suddenly decide to conserve its magic points, and a stubborn one may at times choose not to fight at all during its turn. The pros and cons of these personalities were never telegraphed to me before I chose them for my characters, but finding out what they were was an alluring mystery. For every personality type’s drawback came a benefit — a stubborn Mii wouldn’t always be a team player, I discovered, but on their next turn, they’d often unleash an even stronger hit to make up for it.
Learning to work around these intractable traits is where the core strategy comes from, which is a nice, casual change of pace from more intense games in the genre. But the system comes with its own complexities eventually, especially when the challenge picks up; these Miis have self-sabotaging tendencies that can be catastrophic if left unchecked.
At times, stopping a Mii from killing itself — usually by having them sit out, or quickly healing them — is a satisfying battle to fight. My party members’ recklessness was compounded by the fact that I had no control over them. I only had control over the hero, my little Allegra Mii, which might be agonizing for more obsessive players.
I can definitely get obsessive about my RPGs: I’m the kind of player who gets addicted to skill trees, optimizing my party’s equipment and balancing my team based on jobs and class. Miitopia doesn’t meet all of those needs with the depth or breadth that I’m used to. Instead, it just lets the Miis do their thing, as if watching them play around with each other is supposed to be enough.
It often was, but not always. There were times when battles felt repetitive, a distraction from the lighter customization stuff that really drew me in. The auto-battle function became a crutch; there were many, many times when I ran into a random encounter, immediately turned on auto-battle, and did something else until the fight was won. I especially felt this as the story wore on and goofy cutscenes became infrequent, replaced by ferreting Miis from dungeon to dungeon, battle to battle.
Thankfully, like its bouncy starring characters, Miitopia is rarely comfortable to stand still. Nintendo did something smart here: It made the game dynamic, shaking up the entire cast, map and combat often enough to keep me soldiering on. Even when I tuned out, I knew it was a temporary break; the game’s sense of humor was always moments away, driving me forward. It’s the hilarious characters that are Miitopia’s most important and winning assets, and I got plenty of chances to hang out with them, each a little different than the last.