Iris Ophelia's ongoing review of gaming and virtual world style
Scribblenauts Unlimited is the latest installment in the sandbox-style Scribblenauts puzzle game series, and it offers a few substantial changes from previous titles. It adds an incredibly cute back-story for the notebook-toting main character, a new field-based level system instead of menus, but most importantly the WiiU and PC versions add the ability to create your own objects and avatars for your Scribblenauts world. I decided I wanted to play as an adorable little Scribblenautsified Iris instead of main character Maxwell, for example...
Even better, in the PC version you can share your creations on the Steam Workshop as well as downloading other peoples' to use in your game, and even though the game's only been out for a week there are oodles of amazing objects available already. What about a Bearsharktopus? A mythical 3-headed president lizard? You can even download the Dovahkiin, who fights using blasts of air. There are also these awesome screenshots parodying famous movies, games, and tv shows with awesome accuracy. So given all this awesome creative potential, I had to share this game with my favorite community of content-creators and sandbox-lovers. Keep reading for my full review!
As you can probably tell, these creation tools are incredibly robust. They let you define the appearance, movement, and even the behaviour of your objects. If you want to make a pink unicorn with rabbit ears that fires slices of bread, you can absolutely do that and I totally won't question your decision to do so. If you've had your eye on Linden Lab's Creatorverse, it might be worth looking at Scribblenauts as well; although it's not quite as open-ended, there's still a lot of potential for fun with this set of sandbox toys. The downside is that the amount of options you have can be a bit overwhelming at first, especially if your unfamiliar with Scribblenauts' minimalistic interface. As I learned, it's worth watching a video like this one to get a sense of what you're doing before diving in head first:
Of course the core mechanic of the Scribblenauts games, the ability to turn words into reality, is the most important tool, and there are so many words built into this game. If you're ever doubtful, try giving Maxwell's notebook to a random NPC and watch them start generating random objects like "necrophobic violinist bowler hats", "perceptive gutters", "gooey termitic ears", and "biophilic centaurian titanite" (whatever that is).
Of course, there's a game behind these creation tools, and it's a game I'm personally pretty fond of for better or for worse. I love Scribblenauts as a series because I know that if it had existed when I was young, my world would have revolved around it. Like most kids I loved cartoons, but I also loved words and language, and being able to control this little animated world with a string of nouns and adjectives would have blown my mind. Honestly, it still sort of does-- which is probably how I completed every level of this game in under 14 hours, spread across only two days. Even as much as I love shooting things in the head in most of the other games I play I will still gleefully devour a new Scribblenauts game. It helps that the developers have a great sense of humor, embedding easter eggs in every game (like the Blade Runner reference in my header image). This time, there are memes galore including Keyboard Cat, Nyancat, and more. I'm also fond of using the Time Machine, which gives your avatar a top hat and mustache and tints the game sepia.
That being said, my main criticism of Scribblenauts Unlimited comes from a slightly complicated perspective. Believe it or not, although I write about virtual fashion and gaming I have an Education degree and I'm a qualified (though not employed) teacher in Ontario. As both a gamer and a teacher, I feel like the approach Scribblenauts has taken underestimates both the appeal of their product and the abilities of their audience. The target audience for these games has gotten younger, and the level content much more simplistic as a result-- but once children get to the age where they should be using a DS, WiiU, or PC to play a game without a parent on hand, they can probably handle puzzles more complex than giving a crab a new shell, for example. And even though these games look simple and cartoonish, the over 2000 uploads to the Steam Workshop make it fairly clear that it's not just kids who are interested in playing.
There are still breadcrumbs of humor and slightly harder puzzles thrown out for older players: Answering the Sphynx's riddle, running through the steps of a CSI scenario (down to finding a skeleton in a pile of snow), or waking Cthulhu at the bottom of the ocean for a task named "WHAT HAVE YOU DONE?" to name a few.There were enough of these slightly meatier gameplay moments to keep me playing, even though I had been expecting just a little more based on my past experience with the franchise.
The first Scribblenauts game felt slightly more challenging due to action levels that combined word choice with timing and game skills, as well as the optional achievements you could earn for using new words, no violence, etc to solve a puzzle. More importantly the puzzles were much less guided than they are now: In Scribblenauts Unlimited, nearly everything is straightforward and even bigger problems will hold your hand and walk you through each necessary step. I suspect most kids can handle a little more than this, and it would make the grown-ups who still love these games feel a bit less silly playing them. Ultimately it feels like they're trying to cater to two separate groups, but by underestimating the problem-solving power of their younger audience and the interest of an older audience, this game isn't everything that it could be for either.
All of that probably sounds quite harsh, but I did still enjoy this game a lot and I was quite sad when I'd finished all the levels. I still have big plans for those creation tools, and I know they'll keep me busy for awhile yet. Even though Unlimited's gameplay wasn't everything I'd hoped for, you shouldn't let that keep you from playing any game in this whimsical franchise. The mistake that I and other people reviewing this game might be making is to approach it looking for a puzzle game, rather than for the vocabulary-expandingtoolbox that it really is. Scribblenauts itself is still a must-try series for fans of creative sandbox-style gaming (especially those with kids), even if it may not tie your brain in knots. You can pick up Scribblenauts Unlimited for the 3DS, WiiU, as well as PC via Steam, but if you just want a little taste of the Scribblenauts games without making a commitment I highly recommend Scribblenauts Remix for iOS.Tweet
Iris Ophelia (Janine Hawkins IRL) has been featured in the New York Times and has spoken about SL-based design at the Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan and with pop culture/fashion maven Johanna Blakley.