Scribblenauts: review

  • Format: DS
  • Unleashed: Out Now
  • Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive
  • Developer: 5th Cell
  • Players: 1
  • Site: Scribblenauts Site

Scribblenauts has been pegged as the next big puzzle franchise for the DS, mostly thanks to a very successful showing at this year’s E3 which garnered the game a surprising level of industry buzz. The game, which can best be described as a thesaurus-em-up, puts the player in the omnipotent position of being able to conjure up almost any item they can think of. These items are then used to solve a series of puzzles with some action and platform elements. The puzzles vary in character between action levels and puzzle levels. The puzzle levels forces you to complete a random task, at which point a so-called Starite will appear, signifying a mission well accomplished. The action levels are slightly more straightforward in that the Starite is already in full sight on the level, and you just need to be able to reach it. It’s no wonder that the hype machine has hit critical mass with such an ingenious concept, but is Scribblenauts able to surpass the buzz and deliver a game worthy of all the buildup?

Did giraffe a good time? *slap*

Did giraffe a good time? *slap*

Weeeeeeeell, no. We really wish it would, but the more time we spend trying to find forgiving factors, the more obvious the glaring flaws become. The more we try to love it, the more out of love we fall. The problems begin early on when you realise that the game is not nearly as clever as the developers think. The whole mechanic which the game is built on sounds exciting in theory but in practice it actually is much more of a hindrance than an aid. Out of the thousands of items you can conjure up, there is very little genuine variety between them. You can easily separate them all into a handful of categories like “things that dig”, “things that eat smaller things”, “things that break other things” and “things that have absolutely no use whatsoever but which the developers presumably thought hilariously to include”. It just seems that it might have been preferable if 5th Cell had included only a handful of items and spent their time programmed them properly, instead of trying to show us how witty they are by putting in Rick Astley, Keyboard Cat and the Large Hadron Collider.

This would have been a minor gripe if the actual puzzle part of the game had been up to scratch, but sadly it seems 5th Cell had so much fun animating paper doll versions of Cthulu that they forgot to channel that resourcefulness to the puzzles themselves. The whole point of the “create anything”-mechanic is that the puzzles can be solved in a myriad of ways, but this falls apart when you realise that most puzzles are far too easy or too cheap to induce any real creative thinking at all.

A raptor wearing a fez, swearing at a wall, and the game still sucks.

A raptor wearing a fez, swearing at a wall, and the game still sucks.

For example: on an early level we are told to protect a picnic from two groups of hungry ants. Our first idea was to distract them with sweets, which seems to work momentarily but as soon as the ants have eaten the sweets, they once again turn to the picnic and the mission is failed. The next idea was to block off the picnic with barriers, walls, even by placing buildings on either side of it. The ants then proceeded to bend all laws of physics by simply pushing the buildings aside and once again reach the picnic. After trying several different methods including nets, duplicate picnics, anteaters and seeing them all go awry we were at a complete loss. At last we tried to simply pick up the picnic and run away, more in frustration that anything else. Amazingly, this is when we’re awarded with the Starite.

In the end, all the game wanted us to do was to pick up the food we were standing right next to. It didn’t want us to poop about with all these other perfectly logical ways to stop the ants from eating the picnic; it just wanted us to grab and run. This is not gaming that inspires creative thinking, but rather does the exact opposite. Almost any given puzzle where a solution seems too simple to be correct, it will almost certainly be the right one. This would probably still lead to a serviceable puzzler, if it wasn’t for the fact that sometimes the game throws a hissy fit and glitches out. Several times you will fulfil every requirement to succeed, but the game refuses to give you credit for solving the puzzle. More than once we hit on a correct solution only for the game to seemingly ignore our advances. A retry later, using the same items and methods, and the Starite was ours.

If Four Weddings was turned into a GBA game.

If Four Weddings was turned into a GBA game.

Add to this a ghastly control system which uses the stylus both to move your character and to interact with and move items. This means that several times you will attempt to drag an item and miss it by a pixel, only to see your character career across the screen towards it. In many of the later levels this will often spell doom. It is an incredibly cumbersome system and it would have been much desired to at least have the option to control your character with the d-pad instead.

A brain-twister of this variety should above all else provide you with that aha!-sensation when you finally manage to beat a tough problem. In Scribblenauts you almost never feel this satisfaction. Because you’re able to use so many items it’s almost impossible not to just go for the most obvious and easy solutions. Imagine you were playing an FPS and at the get-go you were awarded every weapon along with infinite ammo. It would be almost impossible to force yourself not to “cheat” and use the most powerful gun and just run through the game. It isn’t a satisfying experience if you have to force yourself to make the game purposefully harder when the game does not penalise you for taking the easiest route.

The most fun we got out of it was playing around in the sandbox mode on the title screen, and we can’t help but think that any game whose best part is the title screen must be doing something wrong.


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Written by Rikard O

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