First Impressions of Scribblenauts Unmasked: The Good, The Bad, And The Uncertain
I teleport into Gotham City, prepared to fight crime shoulder-to-shoulder with Batman himself. He's the hero the city deserves, but I'm the one it needs--a young boy with a magic notebook and a fangirl sister. A citizen immediately begs me for help from nearby construction scaffolding. I run up to her, notebook at the ready. With the swipe of a pencil I can rescue her from any distress imaginable.
She cries out in desperation and raw anguish, "I need something to tie my beluga whale to!"
Reviews for Scribblenauts Unmasked: A DC Comics Adventure have been mixed, and after playing a few levels for myself last night I can understand why. As much as I love this series, it feels like there are a lot of little things getting in between me and the joy of solving ridiculous problems with even more ridiculous solutions.
Even so, this comics-based puzzle adventure isn't without its charms. Here are my initial impressions of this highly creative (and slightly flawed) game:
The Good: The World Is Surprisingly Beautiful, Thankfully Challenging, and Stuffed With Familiar (and Unfamiliar) DC Characters and Items Alike
Here's something I never expected to remark on at the very top of an article about any game, ever: I was immediately struck by the parallax scrolling in each of the four locations I've seen so far. If you're unfamiliar, parallax scrolling is the effect of having layers in the background moving at a different rate than the foreground, which gives added depth to a scene, and sites like Metropolis have it in spades. Given that you only have access to a small framed section, these stages feel larger and more imposing than they would otherwise, and it's clear that a lot of care went into creating them.
Scribblenauts Unmasked also takes a step back towards some of its more challenging predecessors. Like earlier games (but unlike Scribblenauts Unlimited) Unmasked rewards you for originality. Repeating words on the same map will cut until the rewards you reap for that particular mission in half, as will using overpowered words like "poisoned" or "invincible". To add an extra layer of difficulty, the DC universe's resident troublemaker Mr. Mxyzptlk will randomly offer you challenges to complete a level under certain arbitrary conditions, like not creating any weapons or not using the letter S. This is a lot like the achievements in the first Scribblenauts game, and it's something I really missed in Unlimited (to the point that I've been streaming a playthrough where use of the letter E is strictly forbidden).
Like any Scribblenauts game it's just as fun to play as it is to sit around testing the limits of the game's word bank. In addition to every item from Unlimited, you can also spend hours conjuring almost every obcure DC character you know. While not all of them will be present, the vast majority are, and each even have entries in the game's new reference system. There are even numerous versions of the most popular heroes, accounting for alternate timelines and changes to the character throughout the series. Pair Mother of Champions and Red Son Batman up to take on Bizarro Sugar and Spike... Though that will probably be an anti-climactic match to say the least. When I streamed the game with a few friends last night, that's exactly what we did, and the results were rather insane. If you're a DC fan (or even if you only have a passing knowledge like me) this makes the game a pretty entertaining little toybox, all puzzles and stories aside.
The Bad: Object Interactions Are Hit Or Miss, and The Story Beats Disconnect You From The Action
So I'm minding my own business, running around helping people secure their beluga whales properly, when some mask-wearing scrub starts shooting fire at me. I'm a bit too busy to deal with it myself, so I do what I think is clever and summon a few DC heroes to watch my back. I do, and they orbit lazily around me as Captain Flamehaver or whatever (though he sounds more like a Marvel character) keeps toasting my buns. They couldn't give less of a shit about what's going on. Way to hero, you guys.
It's things like that that make the actual play aspect of Scribblenauts Unmasked feel a bit buggy and odd. There have always been situations where the solution to a puzzle seemed crystal clear to me, but maybe used an object in a way that a programmer didn't intend, but this time it's a bit different. Certainly a hero should fight a villain, especially when they're attacking a fellow hero, right?
And then there's the story. Understandably the game needs one to explain the convergence of these two universes, but I'm already tired of the back and forth in the story missions. I'm used to these games showing and not telling, and Unmasked has a hell of a lot of telling. I might enjoy it more if I had significant investment in DC worlds, but as it is it's just one more thing to click through before the game will allow me to distract the Orange Lantern Corps with a "Delicious Sugar Mogo".
The Uncertain: Randomly Generated Activities and Events Might Add Significant Variety and Replayability, Or They Might Mask a Lack of Quality Content
Every Scribblenauts game tries to add something new to the formula. Unlimited added object editing and creation, which is still present and expanded upon in Unmasked with the Hero Creator, and creations can still be shared and downloaded on the Steam Workshop. Unmasked's own innovation is in the form of randomly generated events scattered across the maps when you arrive there. Each event has the potential to grant you some reputation in that area, which you use to buy costumes that will grant you special powers.
These events, being random, are often incredibly out of place, and that's a big part of their charm.
A mother and her teenage daughter are waiting for me in Lex Luthor's office. Their whale is still dirty.
I give them some soap. They stand there expectantly. I give them a butler. He rides the dirty whale. I give the whale some moist, soapy clothing and hope for the best. Nothing. Finally I give in and wash the damn thing myself. Victory.
The mother, the daughter, and the whale remain in Luthor's office.
Just hangin', I guess.
At street level, Boyhood Clark Kent is in line at the theatre, but he has to pee. He begs me to hold his place in line.
Sure. Why not.
These are often dumb fun, but other missions are time sensitive and a little more dire. If you don't find them and act quickly, too bad. Missions can also be easy to overlook, and I found this side of it a little stressful. Even when you've "finished" everything, you never get that feeling of satisfaction that comes with completing a level. I still appreciate that these random occurrences mean that the area is "different" each time you visit and almost infinitely replayable, but since every location only has one story mission it also means that the game doesn't feel as carefully designed as previous iterations in the series have.
I'm honestly not sure how I feel about this mechanic yet. Maybe it will grow on me after a little more time, but for now it's still a bit jarring.
If you want to check Scribblenauts Unmasked out for yourself, the best deal in town seems to be on from Greenman Gaming, where you can snag a Steam key for $20 until Friday with their current digital games promo. While I may not be head-over-heels for Unmasked yet, I certainly don't regret buying it.
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Iris Ophelia (@bleatingheart, 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.