Scribblenauts Unlimited: Unbridled creativity at play

December 16, 2012

Scribblenauts has always been a fun little creative sandbox, and increasingly so in the sequels. More freedom can be more fun, if you don’t take things too seriously, and while at some point in the past it dashed beyond the point of there being any challenge at all, it’s really not the reason you play.

Scribblenauts Unlimited marks the series’ first appearance on big screens, gracing the Wii U and PC, and it makes the transition well. The platforms are smartly-chosen; both allow for the hybrid pointer-and-direct-control format of the last DS game, and we can’t imagine trying to place objects any other way. (We can imagine a lot of things. It’s Scribblenauts, after all.) The art style upscales well, with its cel-shaded, cut-out aesthetic.

Unlimited tries an actual plot this time, in which Maxwell has to save his sister Lily from being turned to stones with “the magical power of the Starites.” When we first saw the original game, we were told “Starites don’t mean anything; they’re just a thing for you to get.” Either way is fine; it really doesn’t matter to the gameplay. You’ll be wandering around a (connected, but best navigated through the overworld map anyway) world, writing out objects and handing them to people, as well as modifying things with adjectives.

The original game’s restrictions had at least some challenge to the item spawning. With adjectives, it’s not really the case anymore. A guy’s sick? Sure, you could give him medicine. You could also just add “healed” to him, and you’re all set. This also applies to traversal obstacles; with a few tiny exceptions in scripted sequences, you can just add “flying fast tiny immortal” to Maxwell and do what you need to do with no hassle.

Most of the objectives are one-off things in the overworld, but each segment has one or two scripted challenges that have you doing a few things in a row. They’re not hard, and most of them are “give each of these people a thing they’d like” tasks, but the little vignettes in them are charming. Some are homages to pop culture or fairy tales or… anything, really. It’s a weird world. Along the way, you’ll unlock the ability to play as Maxwell’s many, many brothers, which works a lot like the cousins in the Katamari Damacy series. They don’t function differently, but they each have character. (He only has the one sister, but Lily is playable when you complete the game’s main objective of 60 Starites.)

The fun of the game comes from doing silly things and setting up challenges for yourself. You can spawn the game’s creators (that tend to be very effective at many tasks), you can use a time machine to make everything sepia or you can spawn Zeus and Cthulhu and see who’s stronger. Another interesting task is to try to use the same object for all a level’s challenges at once. If you walk around and plan out enough adjectives for a thing, it can be done. Or you can do dumb things like add “artsy” to everything you spawn in the art museum, which just attaches paintbrushes to them.

The Wii U version of the game has a few special functions. First is the two-screen setup: you play mostly on the GamePad, but the TV shows a wider view and lets spectators enjoy themselves. You can play entirely on the GamePad if you wish, and if you check a box in the menu, the off-TV mode seems to be solely comprised of sending the audio to the GamePad (which it doesn’t normally do). That worked fine; the game’s good to curl up with while also watching a show or sport, as it doesn’t have time constraints or stress. The second feature is a local multiplayer mode, which lets three players with remotes point at the screen and select things to control. You can walk around and perform actions with things. It’s very susceptible to griefing, but just having someone spawn things while three people goof around is great. Finally, the Wii U version features Nintendo characters and items, like Mario and Link. You can’t attach adjectives or use too many items with them, but you can totally spawn a Yoshi and ride it around stages. Definitely do that.

Both the PC and Wii U allow you to create your own objects in the editor and share them with others. As many have pointed out, this definitely leads to some copyright infringement sprees. Still, you can add any object you want into the game, and give it all of the qualities that the developers had at their disposal. It’s very powerful, and very easy to use on the GamePad. You’ll find patterns and shapes, scripting and scaling. Sharing (at least on the Wii U) isn’t so easy, as the browsing process is set up like an actual area, but if you know what you’re searching for, you’ll be fine.

For any other game, we’d require limits; there’s no challenge without them. With Scribblenauts Unlimited, though, it’s about a different pace and a different feel. Have fun. Fight a big blue raptor with a vampiric astronaut. Whatever. Really.

Pros: Many items, and the ability to make anything that’s missing; fun humor
Cons: No challenge at all

Score: 4/5

Questions? Check out our review guide.