Scribblenauts was quirky but generated enough of a following to become a solid franchise. As more critics and gamers discovered the game, 5th Cell kept plugging away, adding in more mechanics that deepened the gameplay without losing sight of what made it fun in the first place. After transitioning from portables to home consoles to PCs and with an iOS stopover in-between, the franchise is set to add something it hasn't done before: a license. Scribblenauts Unmasked: A DC Comics Adventure is something of a test for both the developers and the franchise.
The story does a good job of making sense of the situation. Twin siblings Maxwell and Lily love comic books but disagree on the best superhero of all time. Seeing no other way to settle the score, Maxwell combines the power of his magical notebook with Lily's globe to transport them to Gotham City. Unfortunately, the globe breaks and scatters Starites, the magical items that power the globe, all over the comic book world. To make matters worse, the page from the notebook that Maxwell uses to jump dimensions also brings along his nemesis Doppelganger, who teams up with the villains to harness the power of the Starites for himself. To set things right, Maxwell must team up with all of the DC heroes to stop Doppelganger and return home.
You start off in Gotham City in what amounts to a giant tutorial level that reacquaints you with the powers of your notebook. Throughout the level, you'll be asked to help civilians, heroes and animals with issues great and small, from demolishing a building to finding a place for a plane to land or clearing some trees blocking a path. Each completed task earns reputation points, which are important for unlocking new worlds and costumes. Starite tasks have you teaming up with a big-name DC hero against his or her respective villain and Doppelganger in a series of missions and tasks that you need to win before obtaining the Starlite. Once you pass Gotham City and reach the Batcave as your new base of operations, you can freely explore other worlds like Arkham Asylum, Central City, Metropolis and Oa, to name a few.
Maxwell only has knowledge of the basics as far as physical skills are concerned. He can walk, jump and hit enemies, but he isn't the most adept at any of this. Fortunately, he makes up for this with his magic notebook, which spawns any object by simply typing it out. Put in any noun, and it'll pop up in the world, free for you to manipulate. Typing out the word "bulldozer," for example, produces one you can drive, but typing out "rope" conjures up a rope you can attach to a person or object — or you could give it to the person. You can also throw away these objects if you have no use for them or stash them in your utility belt for later. Aside from nouns, adjectives are useful on the created objects and anything else in the world. You can change the bulldozer into a different color, and that robot dinosaur you're facing can be described as "rusty" if you want it to slow down. People can have their sizes and states change on a whim, and you can apply it to yourself if you want Maxwell to be faster, immune from radiation or cured from being undead. The sky's the limit as far as which words you can use and how many adjectives you can attach to a noun.
The use of nouns and adjectives as your primary means of solving problems opens up the idea of solving any issue any way you want to, a hallmark of the series. Each task doesn't have one absolutely correct solution. In fact, as long as you accomplish the task, the game considers your method correct. The near-absolute freedom afforded to the player in this regard really encourages them to be inventive and adventurous in their solutions, and that kind of encouragement is always welcome in a game.
While the bulk of the game is exactly the same as Scribblenauts Unlimited but with a DC skin, there are a few mechanics that are unique to this title. The first is the reputation system, which has three different versions, each representing Gotham City, the Justice League, and Metropolis. The various categories of reputation can only be earned in certain areas, so revisiting older stages is key if you want to open things later on. While the idea of revisiting levels appeals to no one, at least the various side missions are randomized when you visit a stage. Even if this ends up being too dull, Mr. Mxyzptlk appears now and then to give you double reputation in exchange for following restrictions, like only using words starting with the letter S or only calling on DC characters to help out with an issue. Finally, the game encourages users to have some variety in their vocabulary; words that are repeated in a world start to only provide half of their expected reputation points.
Quite a big deal has been made about the extensive roster of DC characters included in the game, and the final product rings true. Around 2,000 inhabitants of the DC Universe are in Scribblenauts Unmasked, and they can be summoned via the notebook if they aren't already in the game world. The big names are all here, like Aquaman, Batman and Wonder Woman, but they have different variations. Selecting Superman means choosing from a few versions like the original, New 52 and Red Son, just to name a few. The secondary tier are here as well, with guys like Deathstroke, Martian Manhunter, Robin and Starfire filling the ranks, and even some of those guys have different variations. Then it gets into the more obscure ones, like Calculator, Calendar Man, Elasti-Girl and Jonah Hex. Whole teams like the Birds of Prey, Doom Patrol, Suicide Squad and Teen Titans are here, and even animal heroes like Krypto and Zoo Crew are present. It'll take near-encyclopedic knowledge for anyone to stump the team as far as who's in or not, but those who aren't that familiar with the DC Universe, there's a Bat-computer that keeps a database for you.
Of course, the claim that the list is extensive does come with an asterisk of sorts, as only characters under the original DC imprint when they were created are in the game. Characters from the Milestone imprint, like Static Shock, aren't here, and the same goes for WildStorm characters like the WildC.A.T.S. team. More mature entries like the Watchmen and anyone from the Vertigo line, like Sandman and John Constantine, are also missing. There are a few exceptions to these rules, like the appearance of Swamp Thing and Nite Owl, but for the most part, the lineup should be friendly enough for all ages.
Fortunately, Scribblenauts Unmasked gives you the tools to create original heroes. It works similarly to the object creator in Scribblenauts Unlimited, which means you can do a great amount of things as long as you can deal with the somewhat-complicated menu system. You can share your creations with the world, and with Steam Workshop support, the roster of heroes becomes limitless. We've already seen a few missing DC heroes get filled in this way as well as heroes from other comic book publishers, video games, TV and other forms of media. In a way, the roster will always be up to date even though there's no official DLC support.
The game does have some issues, the least of which is the fact that there's no controller support despite the game being out on the Wii U, where thumbsticks and buttons are used often. Characters are quite fickle in their attitude toward you, especially the heroes. For the most part, calling them up when there's a villain in the area causes them to fight the enemy, but if you want to accelerate the fight and join in, accidentally hitting a hero quickly turns him or her against you. Then they'll completely ignore any enemy until you trash the hero you've wronged or die. The random assortment of side-quests keeps things interesting, but there are times when they repeat but with different actors in the same roles.
The open nature of the world means that some quests will magically solve themselves, and the solutions for some quests vary wildly between obvious and obtuse. Then there are the side-quests that start and end too quickly, making them completely unsolvable until you encounter them again and know exactly what you need to do. Finally, while it's appreciated that you can go straight to the Starite mission the moment you enter a level, you get to the point early on where the side-quests can feel like grinding busywork due to the reputation level gates blocking access to each area. Once you realize that, the fun of these small quests can diminish quite a bit.
Graphically, the game hasn't changed much. The backgrounds and characters are presented with very solid colors and heavy bordering that gives the whole thing a child-like attraction, with very slight hints of color gradients used in the deeper background elements. Levels feature various scrolling planes that provide a sense of depth with the camera movements, despite the areas being smaller in stature and sometimes completely viewable once the camera is pulled back. The characters have a very interesting style, with several parts looking and animating like they're marionettes or figures with circular joints in a shadowbox. It looks funny but works well, and the DC characters fit in fine with the style. The simple nature of the graphics means that it looks great on the PC, and a decently powered rig should have no trouble pushing the game to 60 fps with a very high level of anti-aliasing.
The only issue with the graphics has to be with the word balloons. When the area is especially crowded and several characters decide to speak, the balloons begin to overlap one another. It becomes a problem when the balloons refuse to disappear once they activate. It doesn't affect the story much because the important portions are always told in cut scenes and during boss fights. When the incidental information and jokes get covered up by the balloon crowding, it tends to ruin the mood.
Sound-wise, the game also remains relatively unchanged from previous versions. With the exception of the introductory movie and ending cinematic, the game is entirely voiceless. All of the dialogue is presented in text bubbles and accompanied by silence, and while that's pretty authentic to the comics, it is a little disappointing when you think of how many of these characters have associated voices from various animated series and movies. The music tries to be exciting but not epic, and it works on both counts. While it isn't memorable, it does a good job of creating enough of a mood for the level while remaining in the background and not interfering with anything.
Scribblenauts Unmasked: A DC Comics Adventure is good for what it is. The main quests have a decent level of difficulty, the open nature of quest-solving is still present, and the large cast of DC characters is more than impressive, especially since it can be supplemented with original downloadable creations. It still looks great and is a good learning tool for those hoping to expand their vocabulary. Having said that, the fickle enemy and ally behavior toward you, the early feeling of grinding, and the seemingly unfair nature of some missions can be frustrating. It doesn't put the title up there with Scribblenauts Unlimited, despite how liberally the game may borrow from its predecessor. Fans of the franchise and DC Comics will be happy with this game, especially since the PC version sells at a much lower price than its Wii U counterpart.
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