There’s an oddly profound moment at the beginning of Scribblenauts Unmasked: A DC Comics Adventure in which Batman tells Maxwell, the series protagonist, that “no one respects a hero who takes the easy way out.” That one line, though innocuous as it may be, actually sets the tone for the rest of the game. It’s a reminder that this series should be appreciated for what it does for its players rather than simply being shelved once the plot has run its course. Underneath its vibrant and welcoming exterior, Scribblenauts is a game that wants the best from you, and it wants you to push yourself to deliver the best that you can.
Events are set in motion when Maxwell and his sister Lily are sucked into a comic book and subsequently have to help out the DC comic heroes whose space they’re inadvertently invading. Much like North American Wii U launch title Scribblenauts Unlimited, the plot here is merely a device used to frame the gameplay. It may include countless entertaining references and hilarious jokes pertaining to the heroes and villains featured, but the reality is that the plot is a thin veil. As a series that focuses much more on its distinctive gameplay, however, a weak plot is somewhat forgiveable.
For those unfamiliar with the series, Scribblenauts games are all about solving puzzles using your imagination. Taking control of Maxwell and his magic notebook, you can create almost anything that you can think of and use it in the game. Need to climb a mountain? Create a jetpack. Want to help a hungry citizen? Summon a hamburger. Scribblenauts Unmasked's heart is in the same place, but it strays away from friendly puzzles and instead shifts more of its focus on tasks that require direct action. Everything is still based around creating and supplying appropriate objects, but you'll find yourself spending more time creating weapons and fighters to get rid of enemies than you'll spend entertaining and feeding civilians. This action heavy direction makes sense with the game being based on superheroes, but fans of the previous games might not take too kindly to the shift in priority.
Not only can you summon objects and characters, but you can also combine them to craft your own unique Frankenstein-esque creations in the game’s Hero Creator. Starting with a base object or character, you can add or subtract to your creation in many ways until it feels like your own. There is a bit of a learning curve in terms of getting your unique objects just the way that you want them, but once you’ve figured out the finer details of the Hero Creator then it’s a surprisingly simple system to use. You also have the option to upload objects that you’re created, which players around the globe can then download.
Accompanying the focus on action is a completely new system used to unlock additional stages and costumes. Rather than rewarding you with a Starite – the staple collectable in the Scribblenauts series – for each completed task and relying on them to advance, a new currency system has been put in place. Completing missions now rewards you with one of three different types of reputation points. Each different type of reputation can be used to unlock certain areas and extras, making it necessary to complete a variety of missions in different locations that reward the different currencies.
The world map is broken up into several small open worlds based on DC locations such as Gotham City, Metropolis, and Atlantis. As you gain reputation points in each location you be able to unlock new areas that both contain unique missions and advance the plot. Reputation is also rewarded for creating original objects in any given area, but it is deducted from your total if you choose to create the same object or use an adjective more than once per location. In this sense, not only does the game reward you for your creativity, but it also punishes you for your lack thereof. Not only do reputation points open new areas, but they can also be spent on accessing origin stories for a handful of DC’s most popular heroes. These origin stories make for an engaging way to learn about the history of these characters, for those interested in a deeper understanding of the DC Universe.
One feature that has unfortunately remained unchanged from Scribblenauts Unlimited is the local multiplayer element; it's just as lacklustre as it was in the previous game. Referred to as “Sidekick Mode” to go along with the superhero theme, up to three additional players can join in the fray by using Wii Remotes to take control of objects that you have created. It may be fun and endlessly comical to take control of various heroes, villains, and otherwise inanimate objects, but the experience is shallow and wears thin after a short time. The idea of being able to take control of your favourite DC characters is exciting, but it doesn't take long to realize that it doesn't lend much towards completing the tasks at hand if it requires anything beyond pummelling a foe.
GamePad enthusiasts will have every reason to rejoice with this new Scribblenauts title, leaving decriers of Nintendo's innovative input frustrated. As the game focuses heavily on Maxwell's notebook and the creative element that it provides, the GamePad's touchscreen is crucial to gameplay; whenever the notebook is opened, everything is displayed on the touchscreen. Not only does having touch controls associated with typing out words work well, but it also makes sense as a meta-game. Through the GamePad, not only does Maxwell get to work with his notebook in the game, but the player has a stronger sense of connection with the notepad via the touchscreen, almost as though you’re actually holding the book in your hands.
The GamePad's small screen also makes Scribblenauts Unmasked a perfect candidate for off-television play. Not only is Maxwell's notebook accessible on the controller, but the environments are displayed on it as well, exactly mirroring what is present on the television. Multiplayer gameplay is unfortunately missing when playing solely on the small screen, but the assumption is likely that if you're not playing alone, then there probably isn't someone else in the room attempting to Bogart the television. Making such obvious use of the GamePad's technology is indicative of the series' original inception as a DS game using the handheld's technology, but the idea carries over so well to the Wii U that it feels like a natural fit.
If there’s one thing that makes a Scribblenauts game immediately identifiable in a superficial way, it’s the unique art style that blends cartoon with the look of 2D paper craft. Though not as fully detailed as they are in the comics, the DC characters are represented well in the game’s iconic art style. The figures look a far cry from what they do in their usual forms, but they’re still easily identifiable. Not only does the art style work well, but the soundtrack also does its part to enhance the overall experience; combining classic Scribblenauts tracks with more booming beats makes the songs feel natural in the DC environments. There may not be many, but the songs present here are sure to lodge themselves firmly in your brain.
It’s difficult to determine whether this game was made for superhero fans or to those who already enjoy the game series, but Scribblenauts Unmasked: A DC Comics Adventure finds a good balance that should appeal to both crowds. Not only does it manage to retain the charm and wit of the Scribblenauts series, but it also adds an action-oriented twist that breathes new life into an otherwise predictable series. New games in this series tend to expand on the formula rather than improve upon it, and that phenomenon is present in this iteration as well. Srcibblenauts Unmasked doesn’t really improve on the formula, but it boldly makes slight tweaks that fit its new costume.