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Scribblenauts Unmasked: A DC Comics Adventure review

Highs

  • Truly exhaustive collection of DC Comics lore to draw from
  • Charmingly kid-friendly comic book story

Rating

Our Score 6
User Score 0

Lows

  • Puzzles aren't built to take advantage of the source material
  • Superhero action doesn't fit well with Scribblenauts' style of play
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Scribblenauts Unmasked: A DC Comics Adventure misses the point, with series-standard puzzle-solving and source material never gelling in any meaningful way.

You’re facing off against Aquaman’s brother, DC Comics supervillain Ocean Master, who is perched on the back of a giant crab at the bottom of the ocean. Between the two of you is a deep, dark pit in which Aquaman is hurriedly searching for an object of power while you buy him some time up above. But Ocean Master’s crab steed is just too powerful; Aquaman offers to help, but you’ll first need to lure the crab over the pit. As Scribblenauts hero Maxwell, you can use your magical notebook to summon anything you can think of into being.

Crabs eat worms, so you try that first. Nothing. Maybe a snail or some other delectable mollusk? Still nothing. Algae, plankton, small fish… the crab remains unmoved at the sight of what most other crustaceans would regard as a tasty treat. It isn’t until you chuck a cooked whole chicken that the crab leaps. Sense, why have you abandoned us?

DC Comics wordplay

Scribblenauts Unmasked: A DC Comics Adventure is best described as a well-intentioned series of missed opportunities. Developer 5th Cell’s long-established formula for the franchise – a blend of puzzle-solving and wordplay built around that magical notebook – could have fit well with the comic publisher’s rich library of source material. Unfortunately, instead of working out clever puzzles that challenge you to dive deep into DC Comics lore, you end up feeding a chicken to a giant crab.

Scribblenauts Unmasked: A DC Comics Adventure is best described as a well-intentioned series of missed opportunities.

It gets off to a promising start, at least. Maxwell and his sister Lily take a break from their usual Starite-collecting spend some time running around in the DC Comics universe. The two siblings bring along superpowers of their own – Maxwell with his notebook and Lily with her teleportation globe – but a mishap with the globe scatters Staritesacross the DC Comics landscape. It turns out that these shiny, smiling star-things are mighty dangerous in the wrong hands. Like those belonging to supervillains.

So begins an epic journey through various familiar DC environments, from urban conclaves like Gotham City and Metropolis to the fantastical landscapes of Wonder Woman’s home, Themyscira, and Guardians of the Universe HQ, the planet Oa. Each 2D scrolling space is filled with a randomized assortment of puzzles for you to solve in typical Scribblenauts fashion. There’s also a proper story quest in each location, with yet another Starite to be recovered at the end of it.

Head to Gotham City, for example, and you might find that Zsasz needs an escort to the helipad one floor up. You might crack open Maxwell’s notebook and conjure up a rope that you then tie to the supervillain like it’s a leash. You could also just summon a leash. Or you could apply an adjective to Zsasz, say to make him “tiny,” allowing you to pick him up and carry him.

Starites are still the ultimate goal; you’ve got to complete each story mission to get them and fully reassemble Lily’s globe. They’re much fewer in number in Unmasked than they were in previous games, but there’s also a new currency that you earn as you complete the non-mission puzzles in each environment: Reputation. You spend these points to unlock new locations for Maxwell to visit as well as an assortment of super-suits, all of which can be worn to gain that hero or villain’s powers.

There are some solid ideas at play here, but it doesn’t come together. Too often, you find yourself struggling to figure out exactly what sort of puzzle the game is putting in front of you. The text bubbles that are meant to communicate what a given person or persons need help with isn’t always clear. There’s also just the basic fact that action isn’t handled very well; fighting is a messy affair, especially when there are big crowds. You’ll often hit allies by accident and suddenly find yourself running away from everyone.

Language barrier

Scribblenauts is always going to be a kids game at its heart, but there was some hope that 5th Cell’s commitment to diving deep into the DC Comics universe – there’s more than 2,000 characters, vehicles, gadgets, and suits that you can create – meant comic book fans could expect a more sophisticated approach to puzzle-solving. The content is certainly there, as evidenced by the 30+ variants apiece of Batman and Superman that you can summon into existence, but the deep well you can draw from fails to have much influence on how you play.

There’s a great idea buried somewhere within, along with what may well be the most exhaustive single database of DC Comics characters and lore.

So much for that. The promise of Scribblenauts is a puzzle game in which your imagination is the only barrier to working things out. The reality, on the other hand, is typically reined in by 5th Cell’s own vision of how a particular problem can be solved. In Unmasked, that vision is surprisingly narrow – more so even than in previous games – to the point that you end up with crabs that don’t eat crab-things. A child wouldn’t go to Wikipedia, look up crab diets, and create sensible food items for it; he (or she) would see a hungry crab, and summon a chicken or hamburger or hot dog to use as bait. Sure, it makes sense to balance the level of challenge for young ones. But why not also expand the range of possible solutions? Why can’t our crab example also like worms and algae?

More than that, this game’s subtitle is A DC Comics Adventure. There is an encyclopedic database in the game – realized as the Batcomputer – in which you can learn more about each and every one of the 2,000+ DC Comics characters and items. There are even links in each entry that point to related items. With so many tools available for digging in with the publisher’s well-established lore – and so much time clearly spent on creating that database – it is downright baffling that the game doesn’t feature puzzles specifically built to challenge your DC knowhow.

Scribblenauts-Unmasked-screenshot-2

Scribblenauts is fundamentally a game about reading and writing, but there’s a shocking lack of emphasis on learning. You stand to earn more reputation if you can come up with a creatively DC-inspired solution to a problem, say by summoning Doctor Fate to heal the sick instead of just a “doctor.” But there’s nothing that truly encourages the player to get better acquainted with the source material at the heart of the game.

Conclusion

Scribblenauts Unmasked is a miscalculation. There’s a great idea buried somewhere within, along with what may well be the most exhaustive single database of DC Comics characters and lore. Ultimately though, it’s still just a Scribblenauts game. And a lesser one at that, due to the oddly specific set of solution options tied to most of the game’s puzzles. DC Comics fans may well enjoy the depth of source material contained within, but this one is, as ever, for the kids.

This game was played on a first-gen Alienware X51 gaming PC using a Steam code provided by Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment.

Highs

  • Truly exhaustive collection of DC Comics lore to draw from
  • Charmingly kid-friendly comic book story

Lows

  • Puzzles aren’t built to take advantage of the source material
  • Superhero action doesn’t fit well with Scribblenauts’ style of play