The story follows the Wonderful 100, part of the CENTINELS Planetary Secret Service. They are the defenders of Earth and their goal is to stop the alien invasion from the evil GEATHJERK army. While the concept of alien invaders may sound overdone, the execution is anything but that. Even the intentionally stereotyped characters are brilliantly realised, ranging from an inexperienced, brave leader who never gives up to a fat guy who's always seen with something to eat in his hands. If that wasn't already enough, the writing proves that the game simply doesn't want to take itself seriously and prefers to provide funny moments around every corner and nicely contrast what's otherwise a desperate struggle to prevent the complete destruction of Earth.
The game is divided into operations, most of which have three parts with the final part being a boss fight. Each sequence has about a dozen missions on average and each is graded based on the completion time, number of amassed combo points and amount of damage taken. On top of the satisfaction of getting good scores, they are also a great way to earn O-Parts to buy consumable items and upgrades at the Wonderful Mart. Once an operation is completed, each part can be replayed immediately with all obtained team members, powers and items intact to find things missed the first time around, earn more O-Parts or simply achieve a better rank.
There are three initial difficulties to choose from called Very Easy, Easy and Normal but they really feel more like Easy, Normal and Hard instead. There are also two harder modes that have to be unlocked by completing the game on the highest available difficulty. The two easier ones also contain a Full-Automatic Custom Part that - when equipped - will fight automatically and essentially enables just about everyone to beat the game if they are just playing for the story. However, operation and mission results won't be considered official when shared via Miiverse if this Custom Part was involved.
Don't be fooled by uninformed comparisons to Pikmin when it comes to the gameplay. The only trait they share is that there are dozens of units on the screen at a time but even then they all act as one unit in The Wonderful 101. The game plays completely differently as it's a demanding, intense action game. The main mechanic is called Unite Morph, a technique that enables The Wonderful 100 to transform into gigantic weapons and objects using something called the Wonder-Liner. They are activated by drawing shapes with either the right analogue stick or the touchscreen on the Wii U GamePad. Both are valid options and work well but for advanced play the right analogue stick is definitely the better choice, particularly with the Speed-Liner upgrade that significantly increases the drawing speed.
There are seven main weapons, each with their respective shape. Unite Hand requires a circle, Unite Sword a straight line, Unite Gun an L-shaped line and Unite Whip a wavy line. Slightly more complicated is the Unite Hammer that demands a short line with a circle on top, the Unite Claw with a Z-shaped line and the Unite Bomb that needs a circle with a short diagonal line acting as a fuse added to it. There is definitely a learning curve to climb to really get a grip on this mechanic and while the recognition is fairly lenient, mistakes during the heat of battle are common and part of the challenge is to keep a cool head no matter how insane the action gets. On top of messed up drawings, players also have to be mindful of certain enemies that will interrupt the Wonder-Liner if it touches them and the size of their team, as that dictates the maximum length of the Wonder-Liner.
While it seems like it's best to just draw the largest weapon possible and freely hack away at enemies, the combat is far more complex than that and one that's made for the dedicated gamer who's looking for a challenge. Team attacks are very useful to stun enemies, which can then be launched and juggled in the air by following up with a Unite Morph. Each weapon has different attributes that need to be used in clever ways to outsmart enemies and uncover their weak points. For example, the Unite Sword can be used to reflect lasers and deal heavy damage while the Unite Bomb can temporarily slow down time and leave even extremely quick enemies vulnerable to attacks. Support Unite Morphs can also be acquired and used to block or dodge attacks and much more. Knowing when to use a specific Unite Morph against which foes is extremely important, resulting in a battle system that requires much more strategy from the player than the typical action game. While only hits to the team leader decrease the vitality gauge, every other affected unit will be knocked out and has to be touched by either the controlled character or the Wonder-Liner to quickly re-join the team. It's critical to regroup as quickly as possible as defensive Unite Morphs also need at least 10 units to be activated.
Combo points and a slight increase to the combo multiplier are awarded for each successful hit depending on the Unite Morph that's used, but they can also be gained by stunning enemies, blocking attacks or dodging them altogether with perfect timing. Combos can actually be continued after taking a hit as long as only a few seconds pass after the last successful attack. The best combos involve a variety of Unite Morphs and this is where the Multi-Morph mechanic comes in handy. Spare team members can be used to form an independent Unite Morph that attacks automatically for a few seconds and it allows up to four Multi-Morphs at once. It's a fairly advanced technique and has a lot of potential for strategic play when it comes to racking up high combos. There is a drawback to it, though. Going overboard with Unite Morphs can quickly drain the battery meter that is essential to creating them. The gauge will slowly recharge but it's best to not play to recklessly to avoid ending up completely helpless for a short period of time.
As if the regular combat wasn't already exciting enough, the boss fights are absolutely incredible. Each one is massive and puts everything the player has previously learned to the test. Thinking of counters for many of their attacks can prove to be quite tricky but it makes it all the more satisfying to finally figure them out and turn the tide of battle. They are also where most of the QuickTime-Events in the game show up. Surprisingly, they are a lot of fun to do and often require weapons to be drawn in 5-10 seconds, which are then used in cinematic attacks, manoeuvres and finishers. Failing to create them within the time limit usually results in an amusing sequence and a slight health loss before the QuickTime-Event starts over. Speaking of failure, there are a maximum of five allowed deaths in each chapter and they negatively affect the final award. Less skilled players shouldn't be discouraged, though, as bosses retain all inflicted damage and the fight continues right where it left off.
There are a number of items that can be obtained and used during battle. Wonderful Noodle Soup will recover health while Wonderful Cake will recover battery power. Their normal versions are used immediately but there are also ones that can be stored and used at any time. Batteries are scattered across levels and collecting them will increase the maximum size of the battery gauge. A majority of the Wonderful 100 also need to be found throughout the stages and recruited as the initial size of the team is quite small. Thankfully, civilians can be rescued and turned into temporary team members, which is particularly useful during the first playthrough when many of the Wonderful Ones have yet to be united. Wonderful Ones are assigned one of the seven main weapon types, although some are more common than others.
Each member can also earn experience and level up to Platinum Rank by using a Unite Morph or - less effectively - by simply being part of one. Another way to upgrade The Wonderful 100 is by equipping Custom Parts. They can be bought at the Wonderful Mart and put into up to seven free slots. They can have a huge effect on the performance of the team such as granting Double Power but much higher battery consumption, making the battery meter recharge much faster or making enemies drop an item for each successfully blocked attack.