Video Game Review: "Scribblenauts Unmasked: A DC Comics Adventure"
Scribblenauts Unmasked: A DC Comics Adventure is the fourth original Scribblenauts game to come out in as many years since the release of the original Scribblenauts for the Nintendo DS, and as always “Write anything. Solve everything.” is the simple but powerful promise that has been the essence of this series’ appeal. With your avatar Maxwell you can run and jump around an area and whack things, but to own a Scribblenauts title is to own a game of puzzle and problem solving. The structure is a simple and basic one: the player is constantly presented with objectives to complete that usually require conjuring some kind of object or even people, which you can do by simply writing their names down. Need to calm down a distraught child? Conjure a teddy bear. Are zombies attacking? Why, that just might be a good job for a flamethrower. Need to get to a hard-to-reach spot? Some wings for Maxwell would fix that – or maybe a springboard he can jump on, or a jetpack he can wear, or a stealth aircraft to fly, or…..
What makes Scribblenauts Unmasked: A DC Comics Adventure special and distinct from last year’s Scribblenauts Unlimited, of course, is its crossover with DC Comics. Just as prior installments accommodated our imaginations with a staggeringly comprehensive dictionary of objects, Unmasked grants access to hundreds upon hundreds of characters and things that have existed throughout the publisher’s long history, including DC’s current “New 52″ continuity. If your knowledge of the DC universe doesn’t go very deep, worry not: Unmasked has a thorough in-game database that can be perused at your leisure. Even for the most hardcore of fans, the selection ought to be satisfying. This is a lineup that allows you to conjure any named member of the Green Lantern Corps, every single iteration of Batgirl and Robin (and yes, Barbara Gordon as Oracle also), multiple iterations of teams like the Teen Titans and the All-Star Squadron and most heroes and villains anyone could name, all the way down to obscurities like the Newsboy Legion, Crazy Quilt and Detective Chimp. For many prominent DC characters there are also plenty of iterations to choose from, whether you’re looking for the first version of Wonder Woman or Superman in his Superman Beyond costume or Batman in his battle armor from The Dark Knight Returns. Everything and everyone is portrayed in the simple and cartoony Scribblenauts style that has defined the series so far. For my part I think the designs, bright colors and basic sounds of the game suit the series’ whimsical nature; anything resembling a “serious” presentation simply does not fit in a game that will reward you for dealing with Superboy Prime by conjuring a vampire wielding a kryptonite sword.
Adding to the fun is the player’s ability to assign adjectives to modify any person or object, which drastically expands a player’s options and allows for no small amount of hilarity. Objects can take on nearly any property and change size, characters can be transmogrified into ghosts and zombies, and so on. If you want to do it, odds are the game will let you. However, the game’s application of adjectives is not perfect and demands refinement in further sequels. For an example from time to time I would have a challenge to move something, and to address this I would shrink the object to pick it up. Making it “tiny” was sufficient to do it, but making it “small” was not even though I could not discern a difference in the physical size of the object.
All of this is framed around a story and a structure to the game, which does about what it needs to and no more for better and for worse. After a brief introduction where Maxwell and his sister Lily use his magic notebook and her globe to conjure the DC Universe to settle an argument over which heroes are best, they inadvertently get stuck there and must reclaim the powerful “Starite” objects scattered across the DC universe in order to get home again. Unfortunately his troublemaking counterpart Doppleganger turns up pursuing the Starites himself alongside an assortment of DC villains, leading to an alliance between Maxwell and the rest of the Justice League to stop their mischief. As you guide Maxwell on his quest Unmasked offers a fair selection of stages to visit that are related to the big guns of DC’s lineup, although most have to be unlocked by earning a certain amount of reputation points. To keep the player moving around instead of grinding in one stage, these are divided up by type. Helping Batman at Gotham City will give you enough to unlock Wayne Manor and the “Joker’s Funhouse”, helping out in Metropolis will unlock Superman’s Fortress of Solitude, helping Hal Jordan and the Green Lanterns on Oa will build trust with the Justice League and open access to Themyscira, Central City, Atlantis and even the Justice League’s watchtower. In addition to smaller tasks every stage has a “mission” where Maxwell aids a DC hero against Doppleganger and at least one other DC villain to claim one of the lost Starites. These missions are the most fun to do by far, as they require a succession of challenges to overcome that rely on good thinking and can’t be simply overpowered by typing in “God” or calling in a horde of heroes. On more than one occasion Maxwell will definitely need to evade danger or defend himself, which can be done by calling on friendly heroes or outfitting Maxwell with whatever gear and equipment that strikes your fancy.
Following the story mode and gathering the Starites will eventually unlock a final stage and the longest and best mission of them all, pitting Maxwell and the League against – well, that would be telling. For better and for worse, this is not at all the meat of the game; five hours or less is plenty of time to unlock all the stages and beat the story. This doesn’t mean the end of things to do by a long shot: your points can be spent to unlock special costumes for Maxwell that give him the look and powers of a DC character, while the variety of tasks to complete is randomized and diverse.
The downside of this game’s open-ended nature is that very obvious solutions will often work more often than they should, while there is apparently no such thing as a randomized mission that’s on par with what’s in the story content. Scribblenauts Unmasked balances against this by offering the player access to the very versatile “hero creator”, a feature carried over from Scribblenauts Unlimited that lets players create and share their own objects and original heroes. Hours could be spent toying with that feature alone, and it offers a way to fill in some regrettable gaps that do exist in the game. For example Milestone characters were something I couldn’t find in Unmasked, but within a day of release an enterprising player had created Static Shock. Finally, for an extra challenge every now and again Mr. Mxyzptlk will appear at random and tempt you to accept some kind of condition in exchange for earning double the points. These can range from trivial to infuriating or hilarious, depending on your point of view. For instance one condition is only being allowed to write adjectives and the names of female DC characters, while other times the challenge might be getting restricted to words starting with K, facing a zombie apocalypse or random objects being generated no matter what you write. These challenges are entirely optional and often ideal for those willing to give mental gymnastics a shot.
In the end Scribblenauts Unmasked is more of the same except with even more to create, which is by no means a bad thing. Fans of the series will find plenty to like here once again, while I think DC fans of any stripe will find it an amusing and bemusing novelty. The game’s lack of structured content and imposed challenge is a problem to address going forward, but ultimately I view Scribblenauts to be a playground as much as it is a game. This is akin to being six years old again, sitting in a sandbox with your favorite action figures and feeling like you have all the time in the world to goof off. With Scribblenauts imagination and freedom is everything, and so it can and will be as challenging and as fun and as enduring as you’re willing to make it.