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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.
 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.  
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?
 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+