Giant Bomb Review

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Scribblenauts Review

3
  • DS

In spite of its wonderfully unique concept, Scribblenauts struggles to fulfill its potential.


 The dictionary here is pretty humongous.
I don't think I've ever wanted to like a game as much as I wanted to like Scribblenauts. The concept grabbed me immediately: a puzzle game that lets you conjure nearly any conceivable object to form your own solutions must surely encourage wild bouts of creativity and liberate you from the constraints that most games place on your problem-solving skills. Here and there Scribblenauts verges on this ideal scenario, but most of the time your creative freedom is hindered by a host of mechanical problems that stop the game from fulfilling all of its potential.
 
The game's tagline is "Write anything. Solve everything." That's a surprisingly honest piece of promotion, because you can open up a text input window at any time and type in any noun you can think of, then have it appear right there in the game world. Scribblenauts is quite literally at its best at the game's title screen, which doubles as a sandbox where you can input sample words endlessly to see what you can create, and how your creations will interact with each other. This demo level acts as the purest demonstration of the game's core concept. You can summon a manticore to fight a vampire, hop on a hoverboard and zoom around, or type in "laser sword" and marvel at how much the resulting object looks like a lightsaber. There's a lot of really clever and sometimes in-jokey stuff you can do by combining different characters and objects together, and experimentation is very much encouraged. Aside from vulgarities and copyrighted terms, the game will accept just about anything you feed it, and the breadth of the dictionary is impressive when you're just messing around with it.
 
Getting around and interacting with things is way more frustrating than it should be.  
It's when you play Scribblenauts as a game and have to start using your creative powers in practical ways to solve puzzles that the limitations of the game's mechanics become quickly, painfully obvious. The biggest problem is a broad lack of consistency in nearly every aspect of the gameplay. You can make a huge number of objects, but a lot of them don't behave in the ways you'd logically expect or want them to. Why doesn't a fire extinguisher put out a flame? How come the stock bridge isn't long enough to cross any of the level designs' chasms? (And who would ever think to try the bafflingly much longer "bascule bridge" instead?) Most importantly, what good is an enormous library of objects if you end up falling back on the same dozen or so reliable ones time after time?

The controls, physics, and general object interactions are all over the place, too. You tap with the stylus to move, and walking and jumping are automated, so it's way too easy to accidentally make your scribblenaut Maxwell fall into a pit of lava or get snared by a monster, which will often kill you faster than you can flee, much less create an object to fight back with. Simple actions like targeting another character to use an object on them are clumsier and less precise than they should be. Non-player characters will often run off of cliffs or fail to properly interact with an object or even the ground, getting themselves killed or knocking down the contraptions you've carefully constructed to meet your objective.

Many of the dozens of puzzle levels impose various constrictive rulesets on your solutions, causing you to fail outright if the wrong character dies or you use an object in the wrong way. The game also doesn't provide a reason when you fail a level, which makes it incredibly frustrating to see a "Try Again" screen pop up unexpectedly and seemingly without provocation. At least you unlock new levels in fairly large chunks, so you're almost always able to skip around and try new ones when you're having problems, but you're just as likely to hit another brick wall when you move on to the next challenge.

 Perhaps a black hole would help?
At least there's an enormous amount of content in Scribblenauts, with 10 themed worlds that contain more than 20 levels each. You can earn even more levels, as well as achievements and new cosmetic-only playable characters, and there's a level editor that lets you make and share your own puzzles. But you're always going to run into the same issues with the gameplay, so you may never even get around to unlocking and experiencing all that content.

Scribblenauts is a great proof-of-concept that struggles under the weight of its own ambition and the expectations that resulted from its uniquely exciting premise. Is the game a victim of its own hype? Would it be easier to appreciate if it didn't fall so short of the lofty goal it sets for itself? Maybe. But the onus is on the developer to take a fresh, brilliant idea, which Scribblenauts has, and turn it into a satisfying and playable game. The concept here is a fantastic one, but the game that's wrapped around it is poorly realized. Brad Shoemaker on Google+
93 Comments
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Posted by Bigandtasty

oh boy, I smell the flames coming
 
Good review though, I can see how the game tried to be ambitious and messed up at times

Posted by RedSox8933

I was way disappointed with Scribblenauts. It's fun as a little distraction, but not as a game. Another victim of over-hyping.
 
But the real shame is that a game like Bowser's Inside Story, which is brilliant, gets overshadowed by a much less superior game.

Posted by ververdan0226

That was about the vibe I've gotten from the game since it picked up steam at E3. It's still a very good concept that's worth checking out, but I think it'll wait a while before playing it, if at all.  Maybe next year sometime when it maybe drops in price.
 
Good review Brad.  :)

Posted by Brunchies

yeah, it doesn't help that when you fail a level they don't help you at all and that the control and reaction time of your character sucks. It's not that good when you try to do the puzzles but at least you get the title screen.

Posted by Brad
@RedSox8933: Loving Bowser so far. Review on the way for that one.
Staff
Posted by ververdan0226
@Brad: And a quick look?!?!?!?
Posted by RedSox8933
@Brad: I'm really glad, it's one of my favorite games this year.
Posted by Death_Unicorn

Damn, talk about a hype-killer. I'm having second thoughts about this now...

Posted by JJOR64
@Bigandtasty said:
" oh boy, I smell the flames coming "
I do to.
Posted by RHCPfan24

Oh, I didn't see this coming. I honestly haven't played it yet so I don't know how it really is but I still definitely want to play it because it looks like fun, or at least impressive from a creative standpoint. But good review overall, Brad.

Posted by DanielJW

Yeah I don't entirely know what to think of this game. If the game play is as broken as you say than it seems like the fun will pretty much be sucked out of it. Great review Brad, really informative.

Posted by Jimbo

Thanks Brad, good review and saved me some money.
 
Glad to see the GB community didn't fall for or propagate the hype, most were right on the money with their initial reactions to this game.

Posted by Turbo_Toaster

I got pretty bored with it after about an hour and the stylus-controls need to be abolished in my opinion. It's cute but not much outside of the, "I wonder if ____ is in here" factor.

Posted by Yummylee

Awww so no throwing 9 pounds of fesces at 50 cent? :'( 
None the less, a great review for a good game.
Online
Posted by Scorched

similar to how I felt about the game
but when I show this game to other friends (gamers and nongamers alike) people just get excited about it
I had one friend go out and  buy a ds just to play the game
and another friend who bought it shortly after I demoed it with him
definitely not a great game
but an exciting concept

Posted by MasturbatingBear

Great review he seems to have had same problems as me,controls,bridge.

Edited by FoolishChaos

I just opened up the game and spawned a flame. Used the fire extinguisher on it. 
 
It worked. You so silly. 

Posted by JackSukeru

Aw I was really hoping this would be a four, will try to adjust my expectations then. 

On the topic of Bowser, I hope it will be a return to form for the series.  Partners in Time was a good game, it just wasn't as good as Superstar Saga in my opinion. The villain/story wasn't as interesting, the funny moments not as many and the babies made the game too easy. I'm crossing my fingers on that one.

Posted by Daryl

I'm buying it anyway so I can STICK IT TO BRAD!

Posted by Contra

I have to say I agree with a lot of it. 
I like it.  It can be very fun.   I find myself playing it in 10 minute chunks.
After that the controls either piss me off too much, or I find something doesn't work the way I want it too.
 
So perfect game for the toilet if you are into that sort of thing; or in add breaks.  
 
If they make a sequel I'd want better puzzles, objects that are reasonable (I spawned drawbridge to get the longest one I could), but most importantly the controls.
 
I try to get my blob to kill the dragon, and Max jumps into the lava because he was bored.  Or I fail because I refocused on Max at a silly time. 

Posted by Babylonian

Well this breaks my heart a little bit.

Posted by iAmJohn

Great review, Brad!

Posted by eznark

Harsh but fair.  I love the game but I can totally understand the complaints.

Posted by buzz_killington

With so much hype behind it, Scribblenauts coudn't help but to somehow and to some extent dissappoint. And as it sounds, the gameplay is practically broken so I'm holding off purchasing this one.

Posted by Dynamitekyle
@eznark said:
" Harsh but fair.  I love the game but I can totally understand the complaints. "
Exactly how I feel.
Posted by LordAndrew

The weird-ass control scheme is baffling, but I still want to try out the game for myself. Being able to create just about anything is the main hook for me, and it's certainly got that.

Posted by Kohe321

Really well written review Brad. You hit the nail on the head IMO, I completely agree. The idea is awesome, but the gameplay is lacking.

Posted by NarcolepticBat

i love that picture of brad, so realistic.

Posted by RsistncE

Pretty much what I figured it would score. What now all you "Scribblenauts is GOTY" peoples???

Posted by Sugalumps

I definitely agree with the complaints.  However, I still think that this is a four-star game.  Yes, I constantly use the winged sandals and grappling hook to solve a lot of the puzzles, but the game is still a blast even in spite of the control scheme.

Posted by JeffGoldblum

I saw this one coming.

Posted by FoolishChaos
@Sugalumps said:
" I definitely agree with the complaints.  However, I still think that this is a four-star game.  Yes, I constantly use the winged sandals and grappling hook to solve a lot of the puzzles, but the game is still a blast even in spite of the control scheme. "
Agreed. This game shouldn't be hanging around with Wet and Call of Juarez.  
Edited by Diamond
@FoolishChaos said:
" @Sugalumps said:
" I definitely agree with the complaints.  However, I still think that this is a four-star game.  Yes, I constantly use the winged sandals and grappling hook to solve a lot of the puzzles, but the game is still a blast even in spite of the control scheme. "
Agreed. This game shouldn't be hanging around with Wet and Call of Juarez.   "
I dunno, this game is also hanging around with Raiden Fighters Aces and I had way more fun playing that than my Scribblenauts play time.
Posted by MeatSim

Still a real cool concept to bad they couldn't execute it well enough. 

Posted by Jeffsekai

Good review, will pick this up when the DS gets cheap.

Edited by pakx

i agree with the review Brad, but i think it's worth saying that anything this interesting, original, and revolutionary in concept, deserves all the support in the world. is it perfect? certainly not. it's deeply flawed in the ways you described quite astutely, but as Ego said in Rattattouille :
 
"In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face, is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new. The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations, the new needs friends."

Posted by Metal_Mills
@Meatsim said:
" Still a real cool concept to bad they couldn't execute it well enough.  "
I knew it. Look at Drawn to Life.
Edited by Nomin

People could plaster the same justifications for games like the Darkest of the Days, as being new and different, yet realized poorly in the trappings of poorly conceived gameplay. Sometimes one just have to look at a mediocre game and call it as it is. That is the real call to profession, not taken in by whipped up expectations and hype. I am looking forward to this site's Borderlands review in this respect.

Posted by crusader8463

Great review brad, i give the review *****, and the game a **. It was fun in theory but everything you mentioned above just ruined what could have been a truly awesome game. Not to mention the mission goals where very vague in later levels, and the missions them selves where just frustrating to play after the 2nd or 3rd level.

Posted by Crushed
@Nomin said:
" People could plaster the same justifications for games like the Darkest of the Days, as being new and different, yet realized poorly in the trappings of poorly conceived gameplay. Sometimes one just have to look at a mediocre game and call it as it is. That is the real call to profession, not taken in by whipped up expectations and hype. I am looking forward to this site's Borderlands review in this respect. "
Problem: Darkest of Days is universally considered terrible in all aspects, while I know many people who love Scribblenauts and feel it lived up to the hype with only a few minor complaints.
Posted by PercyChuggs

But Jeff, you can spawn hip, cool internet memes, so without even playing it, it should have gotten Game of Year.

Posted by Bigandtasty

Actually, I was wrong, there isn't much flamebait to be had here. I guess the GB community knew what was coming, and there are no ads or big names attached to this either.

Posted by TimesHero

Here's a hint.  Cthulu destroys all.  Keyboard Cat rules the world.

Posted by Driadon

I can understand the argument that the controls do not work, but for me, personally, I've only had one or two bouts where the controls didn't do what I wanted. (5 hours into the game, no less)  Oh well, the review was very well placed.

Edited by Milkman

Yeah, this seems to be the general consensus on Scribblenauts. Fantastic idea but poor execution, which is a real shame because the idea is so so good.

Posted by Milkman
@Brad said:
" @RedSox8933: Loving Bowser so far. Review on the way for that one. "
Sweet. I've absolutely love the Mario & Luigi RPGs on the DS so far. Really excited to play Bowser's Inside Story.
Posted by Davola

Scribblenauts was one of the games that I was hoping to get when I finally bought myself a DS. This review basically confirmed my biggest doubt concerning the game, that its awesome ideas won't translate into a great game. 

Posted by PureRok

I remember the level where you have to stop the ants from taking the food. So I built two walls and put them down on either side. Lo and behold, the ants just pushed the walls out of the way.
 
... What? That's not how brick walls work.

Posted by pakx
@PercyChuggs: jeff didn't review this game unless he lost a bunch of weight, got a dye job and was from the south all along...
Posted by mikehaar

Bummer. Ah well, I'd rather play an interesting and flawed game that does something new; instead of a game that more or less plays it safe. But... only once. Thanks Brad.

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