By John Walker on September 26th, 2013 at 9:00 pm.
The adventures of Maxwell, and his notepad on which anything written comes to life, have proven quite the lucrative run of games for 5th Cell. This latest version – out on Steam now for a sizeable £27 – comes with a massive DC tie-in, pitting the kid hero alongside the biggest (and smallest) names in the comic universe. How does the format hold up in such a strange place? Here’s wot I think:
Scribblenauts has always been an incredible concept in search of a game that can usefully contain it. The very first release, on DS, missed that mark entirely, but ever since developers 5th Cell have been better applying the sheer magic of a game in which you can create anything. Unmasked marks the first attempt to take this beyond a series of loosely themed puzzles, into a properly narrative game.
Kind of. This is most similar to last year’s Scribblenauts Unlimited, but with some attempts to work in consequential stories featuring familiar DC heroes and Max’s nemesis, Doppelganger. That pesky clone is teaming up with famous DC baddies, attempting to steal Starites for nefarious purposes. So Max and his sister Lily must fight crime, rescue the in danger, and help rabbits escape stampeding bulls in order to defeat him. It is, in essence, the scattered, open-world of Unlimited, but much more themed.
Putting Maxwell in the world of DC comics, and thus inevitably into Gotham City (as well as Metropolis, Oa, etc), makes for an odd contrast of the game’s inevitably child-like presentation, and what actually takes place. Yet again this is a Scribblenauts game with an introduction that appears to be aimed at toddlers (I say this not disparagingly – it looks like something that might be on Cbeebies), leading into a game where the correct solution for one of the first puzzles could be to equip Maxwell with a knife and have him stab an enemy to death. (Admittedly in a very cute, non-bleedy way.) Getting congratulated by uber-fascist Batman for doing so only further underlines the game’s confusing focus. Presented as a pre-school game, but requiring sophisticated reading abilities, quick reflexes, and letting you run around killing everyone with machetes. It’s an odd one.
The DC inclusion is pretty comprehensive, too. Incredibly so. When I say every DC character is here, I think I mean it. There’s a database within the game, containing the most obscure heroes and villains imaginable, and all variants of each better known name, each individually drawn and correctly powered. You can spawn them in the world whenever you like, and a great deal show up during challenges. It’s definitely not just a bolt on – this game is DC through and through.
The lunatic joy of Scribblenauts remains, of course – that attempt to see just how mad a thing you can create, and how the world will react to it. So if you want to make a “TWEETING BACTERIA”, a green blob emitting bird noises is yours to place in the world.
But then again the aspect that spoils them all is as present as ever. Things not appearing in their database always feels like you’ve been let down, while things that absolutely should work failing always shows the cracks. Why, when being attacked by elementals and not allowed to create weapons, would giving one of them the adjective “pacifist” not stop them? Indeed, “theoretical” only made one of them greyed out, but still fighting me. Even switching them from the named “angry elemental” to a “happy elemental” made no difference. (“nonexistent” resulted in a Reputation dent, reasonably enough.) I eventually sent them all off into a wormhole.
The issue this time out, in this DC world, is that failed solutions feel more starkly awkward. With a tighter grip on purpose, reasonable responses not being programmed for starts to grate a little. However, at the same time a lot has been done to try to make how you approach the game improve too.
One of the largest problems Scribblenauts has always faced has been the ease with which many problems can be overcome, when you give the player absolute freedom. In a few of the incarnations, the puzzles have been as good as your imagination has let them. Unmasked attempts to deal with this more directly, with a Reputation system. As a superhero in a superheroic world, you need to build up your rep by doing good deeds. But do them using words or solutions that the game deems over-obvious or repetitive, and it will affect your Reputation score. So, type in “NUCLEAR BOMB” and it’s going to frown at you, offer you less rewards. It’s a smart way to try to force people to be more ambitious, think more laterally, and better employ imaginations, and thus have a more fantastic time with the magical tools.
This means that the opening challenge of transporting a prisoner can be done by just chaining him to Maxwell, or, you know, making him ride on a tiger and then tie a lead to the tiger and take it for a walk. Worked for me.
This is then further driven home by the appearance of Mr. Mxyzptlk, a creature from the 5th Dimension who I guess must have been a thing from previous games (Edit: so yes, he’s a DC character, and the game tricked me). He will occasionally pop up and set you limitations in an area, for double Rep. So in Metropolis, I agreed to solve all the challenges without creating weapons, and of course was further pushed to be original in my approach.
Sadly, this is also packed with bugs. Maxwell can die here, meaning sections must either be started over, or you can continue for a small Reputation price. Except, the game will then respawn you touching the thing that killed you, so you instantly die again. Over and over. (When that something is a spiky ball that you’ve given the adjective “soft”, such that its appearance has changed, and it still kills you, that starts to suck rather a lot.) You’re also supposed to be able to click on green words to get taken to their location, but more often than not this doesn’t work. More than I’ve seen in the series before, these failings to respond to changes you make, combined with glitches, show the series at its very worst.
Then at the same time, the ability for events to madly unfold against the plot of the game is also pretty fantastic. A zombie outbreak could occur, killing off all the mission givers. Or a fight between a couple of heroes might draw in others, set something on fire, and leave a car you were supposed to do something with burned to a crisp. Because you can reset a zone without losing progress, these moments of unscripted lunacy really show the series at its very best.
Eventually you reach that point where you’re flying around, with vampire fangs growing out of your mouth, carrying a pneumatic drill, wearing a builder’s helmet made of gold. And faced with a bomb, discovering that typing in “BOMB DISPOSAL EXPERT” creates you a suited figure who’ll diffuse things is just a great pleasure. A smoking prison needed repair, but I was restricted to things beginning with D – in desperation trying “DAPPER” I was left with a prison wearing a top hat and monacle.
And there is of course a massive amount to do here. Revisiting previous locations sees them packed with new puzzles and characters (and in the case of Oa, rather disturbingly filled with what appear to be game developers in their pants), and gaining reputation lets you unlock more locations still, creating an utterly vast game.
So as you may be able to tell, I’m really in two minds about this one. As ever, there is the plain magic of this series, this time including absolutely everything imaginable from the DC universe. But then there are the frustrations, the seemingly obvious solutions that aren’t recognised, or the changes the game reports are made but have no real effect. But then, it’s hard to ever stay mad. It’s so silly, so cheerful, and so capable of offering you those peaks between its disappointments, that it’s hard not to keep on going, seeing what might happen next. I think I’d recommend Unlimited over Unmasked, for someone deciding where to start – it feels less clumsy, if less direct. And since that one’s nearly half the price of this, it makes it even more tempting.
Disclaimer: It’s probably worth mentioning that one of RPS’s directors, Kieron Gillen, writes comickybooks for Marvel – the arch-nemeses of DC. I can assure you that this hasn’t influenced my review in any way, because my love for Harley Quinn won’t let anything come between it.