September 30, 2009

Scribblenauts is a shining example of reach exceeding grasp. The team at 5th Cell (Drawn to Life) have an amazing concept on their hands: “write anything, solve everything” is the game’s tagline, and for the most part that’s exactly what they gave us. However, they also gave us an absolutely mind-boggling arsenal with little to no instructions as to how anything actually works, and then tacked on some floaty controls to makes things extra frustrating. 

Once you get past the sandbox title screen (a brilliant inclusion), the game has two main modes: Puzzle stages and Action stages. The object of both types is to acquire the level’s starite; in Puzzle stages it only appears after you satisfy a certain condition, and in Action stages it’s in plain sight and the challenge is to get your character to it without destroying it or yourself. You get a hint of varying usefulness when the stage begins and then you’re on your own.

This is when the game’s concept kicks in. You have a notebook at your disposal, in which you can write/type just about any noun that isn’t vulgar, copyrighted, or otherwise restricted (the game is rated E10; use common sense here); a few adjectives like “large” are also recognized in certain cases. If what you’ve written is included in the game’s incredible dictionary, the object you’ve suggested will appear! If there’s a question as to which homonym you meant it will ask for clarification (“bass” the instrument or “bass” the animal?), and if what you typed was misspelled or otherwise not recognized the game will offer you a choice of the three closest examples it could find or give you the option to back out and try something else. There are some absolutely crazy items, creatures, and other assorted objects contained in this game, even if a few synonyms ultimately give you identical results.

If the object is a vehicle (or several types of animal), you can ride it. If the object is a weapon, you can wield it. If the object is a rope, vine, chain, or whatever you can tie each end to other objects. You get the idea. Some objects interact with each other in somewhat logical ways (almost anything that’s alive will be attracted to food, water extinguishes fires, ninjas fight pirates on sight, dropping a toaster in water will do bad things to anything swimming in that water, and so on), but a lot of the time you might have no idea how you can put your item to any actual use.

And herein lies the first problem with the game: just because you have (almost) everything at your disposal, that doesn’t mean that everything is equally useful. It’s incredibly easy to keep using the same handful of proven items over and over again to solve your problems, and that will suck some of the fun out of this game for you. Alternately, you can try to be creative and experiment, but that will lead to frustration more often than memorable moments of brilliance (which will still happen and are awesome when they do). Either way you’re probably going to get tired of it quickly, and there’s over 200 stages in the game. For completionists, each stage must be completed four times, using unique items on each subsequent run (within reason; you can use adjectives to cheat that requirement if you really want to, but then why did you even bother to replay the level?).

At least that problem can be mitigated by how much effort and patience you’re willing to put into the game. The one that’s harder to overcome, however, is the irritating control interface. Tapping an empty space will move Maxwell to that location (assuming he can reach it) — whether you wanted to move him there or not. It’s incredibly easy to accidentally cause him to move too close to danger while trying to manipulate an item in the right way, which is itself a challenge in some cases. The d-pad moves the camera, not Maxwell, and after a short idle time it re-centers on Maxwell automatically. When you repeatedly fail a level thanks to this — and you will — your tolerance for this game will quickly be tested.

Scribblenauts is a hard game to recommend, and equally hard to dismiss. The nearly bottomless well of creativity is something that needs to be experienced, for all of its faults. Those who don’t want to plumb its cavernous depths will probably find its charm wear off quickly, but this is the biggest virtual sandbox ever offered; there’s even a level editor that allows you to swap your creations over WiFi (using friend codes, obviously) for those who can’t get enough. In the end, what you get out of Scribblenauts is what you put into it.

ESRB: E10 for Cartoon Violence and Comic Mischief; how the ESRB rated this in any sane manner is beyond me.

Plays like: Everything…. nothing… I dunno. Let’s just say it’s unique.

Pros: Amazing, nearly incomprehensible depth of available items.

Cons: User interface for said items needs some serious work.

Score: 3/5

Questions? Check out our review guide.