The best way to think of Miitopia is as a silly little playground, and that it’s a very personal playground. The experience that you’re having with it is only ever going to make sense to you. A friend or family member, should they walk into the room, are likely to say “what the hell is that?” and they’re not likely to be any less confused once you explain to them that it’s a turn-based JRPG about creating and collecting faces. Miitopia is Nintendo at its most surreal. It’s just as well that the whole game is also a delight to play.
Let’s see if I can explain this in a single paragraph without making your head spin: In Miitopia you go on a very traditional JRPG adventure (to defeat a Dark Lord, no less), using Miis. Miis, as in “the amusing little avatars from the Wii and 3DS era that Nintendo has since abandoned.” This release on Switch is odd if for no other reason that Miis aren’t really a thing anymore. Anyhow, tou create your own Mii hero, and then start populating the world, including the townsfolk and party allies, using Miis that you either create, or grab from other players online. The customisation system is really quite deep and it’s easy to make passable abstrations of a massive range of characters and personalities. To give you an example: my party currently features Hatsune Miku, Iron Man, Gandalf the Grey and Rin Tohsaka on a quest to defeat the Dark Lord Ghostface (from the Scream films). I just finished a quest that was given to me by a Minion, and I just accepted one from a Mayor Baymax. To adventure, you pick spots on a map, travel to them on rails (i.e. you don’t control your party’s movement), fight enemies to take their faces, and finally shack up at an inn at the end of each day, where your Mii heroes can share rooms and become closer “friends.” I’ve got Hatsune Miku and Rin Tohsaka sharing a room, and therefore Miitopia is, in a very real sense, realising my dream fanfiction.
As I said, none of that is going to make sense on casual observation of someone playing their own Miitopia, but the point here is just that. Miitopia is your game, and you have fun with it on your terms. You don’t have to personally make all of those Miis, as you can download other people’s creations (I actually only created my original Hatsune Miku), but there are so many options already available that between you and the community, your game is going to suit your tastes and aesthetics, and look nothing like anyone else’s. It’s very much like the Drawn to Life series, but with so much more personality and humour, and it’s executed far better.
In fact, everything about this game is specifically tailored towards humour. Every animation is carefully crafted to convey twee charm, and characters are constantly quipping and bantering in such a way that, given that they’re “Iron Man” or “Ghostface” is often hilariously in character. Or out of character. It’s just as much fun when that happens too. The art has all the vibrant charm of Nintendo’s “toon” craft aesthetic, and this is the kind of game that just about everyone can fall in love with, because it’s all of Nintendo’s attention to detail channelled into something so deliberately frivilous.
Anyone that comes to this game expecting something deep and intelligent is going to be disappointed. That’s not why Miitopia exists. The combat system is as streamlined as JRPGs come. You only control your own character in battle (you can have up to three allies, but they all remain AI-controlled), and while you get a fair few classes to choose between, they all have very standard progression through those jobs. There’s the standard bevvy of support and healing items and abilities, but you’re not getting a mechanical system more textured than a SNES JRPG here. Furthermore, as I mentioned before, you don’t directly control movement in “levels.” Sometimes you’ll get to choose the direction from a couple of options, but for the most part you’re just watching your party move around on rails. This is very much a “casual” JRPG, of the type you might expect to find on mobile, though it’s blessedly balanced to be free of the predatory microtransactions.
Is that a reason in itself to pass over the game? Not in the slightest. There are plenty of options for “serious” and “hardcore” JRPGs on the Switch already. Many of them published by Nintendo itself. Having a “casual” alternative for those times that you just want to kick back and enjoy the basic systems is great. What holds too many “casual” games back is that there are all kinds of corners cut in their making, which results in an inferior experience. Miitopia has no such issues. It’s perfectly balanced, tightly designed, and of an exceedingly high presentational standard. Rather than allow the game to grind down to become a repetitive bore, Nintedo taps into its sense of humour and wildly creative enemy design to maintain the joy from start to finish, and while it’s streamlined, the game never feels like it’s on auto-pilot. You’ve got far too much control over the entire experience to feel like it’s playing you.
Miitopia is an example of a “casual” experience done right, in other words. It’s best played in short bursts (and indeed, the game will make an overt recommendation to take a break after every hour or so’s play), but when played in the right context it’s the perfect way to unwind after a long day, or wake up on a lazy Sunday morning. It can be played and enjoyed in super-short bursts, and is therefore also perfect for the commute. It’s not “shallow,” as I’m almost certain some pundits will chalk it up as. It’s meticulously and expertly designed around eliciting a particular response from the audience, and it nails it.
Miitopia is the right kind of silly nonsense. It’s oddball, but never random for the sake of randomness. There’s method to the madness, and in giving players such control over the experience, Miitopia ends up becoming something resonant on a personal level. Part of the reason I had so much fun with this game was because I had a direct hand in crafting what I experienced. I rarely laugh out loud as much as I have had with this one, and that is more impressive of a feat than Nintendo will get credit for. It’s hard to get humour right over something as extended in length as a JRPG, and Nintendo nailed it.
– Matt S.
Find me on Twitter: @mattsainsb