Review: Scribblenauts Unlimited

5th Cell’s fourth Scribblenauts game, Unlimited, is the first to make the leap from handheld devices to PC following 2011’s fantastic Scribblenauts Remix on iOS. Oh, and it’s hella late washing up on European shores. Pressure’s on.

Scribblenauts Unlimited

The airmen have riddled King Kong’s hulking frame with metal, and that’s the good news! New York lies in ruins; the skeletal remains of a dozen prehistoric beasts serving to remind of the dreadful ruckus that occurred moments earlier. The crowd bay for revenge, but none comes. The aeroplanes about-turn victorious having extracted the life from Kong. But lo! Maxwell, hero to the people, cuts through the New York skyline; a half-slice of equity strapped to a jetpack; a diminutive champion decked in cloak and visor; Batman by dint of the Rugrats.

Our paragon hovers ahead of the murderers, reaches for a dog-eared notepad and gets to scribbling. The crowd bend ears, listening for the telltale din of justice brewing. Without warning the metal monsters of the sky stall, plummeting like concrete playthings their engines sabotaged. King Kong sits up and lumps death in the face as Schadenfreude washes over the whooping audience.

The story of King Kong as viewed through the lens of Scribblenauts Unlimited is a markedly improved one, as I’m sure you’ll agree.

Four instalments on and the Scribblenauts blueprint remains simple and unchanged in any meaningful way. You take the reigns of doe-eyed ankle-biter Maxwell who’s blessed with the power to summon objects into existence by scribbling them into his notebook. Fancy hopping aboard a big velvet cockroach? Jot it down in the notebook. How about a big velvet cockroach with a jetpack? Better yet, a big velvet cockroach with a jetpack and a nuclear missile? Everything in Scribblenauts is a word or six away from being, and Unlimited boasts the greatest wealth of combinations and possibilities seen in any Scribblenauts yet, with adjectives adding a dash of flavour to things (true heroism is saving a crook from the gallows by converting the hangman to pacificism).

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This being the first Scribblenauts game to make the transition to PC and console, Unlimited features a handful of new gimmicks, few of which do much to better a formula 5th Cell nailed an iteration back.

Perhaps the most dramatic of these new features is the open world map that lets you walk through 50 themed zones instead of choosing puzzles from a menu. It’s not a particularly meaningful addition, serving only to extend the time between the more typical and entertaining puzzles and filling that time with 400 uninspiring, non-puzzling puzzles. A man has lost his hat: “Hat.” A spillage needs cleaning: “Gone”. These short and tedious problems fail to embrace the creative spirit of the franchise and feel more like busywork designed to extend the play time.

Fortunately, there are enough true-to-form missions peppered throughout the small worlds to offset that. These multi-tiered puzzles take place independently of the larger open-world and represent Scribblenauts at its best, with a medley of eccentric and imaginative scenarios fostering the familiar sense of experimentation that Scribblenauts has always thrived on.

Here, 5th Cell’s charming toy box captures the essence of play better than most games manage – more a digital playground championing experimentation than a game – the upshot of which is a title that proves most entertaining through its moments of unbridled, uproarious failure – dishing out claymore swords to school bullies, rocking up to a date in a turbo rainbow tank, plugging a black hole with a big, friendly bear.

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There’s something delightful about being irresponsible and overzealous when helping people, too. One chap wants to capture footage of Big Foot, but there’s nothing stopping you giving Big Foot a shotgun. Kill a school bully and a poindexter comes bursting out from his hideaway to dance on the corpse of his late tormentor. Everything here is wrapped up in a saccharine story about adventure and love, but that’s little more than a skeleton to hang your personal tales from. And almost all of those come from the core puzzles.

Pawing through my notes, at least half of which are anecdotes, it’s clear that Scribblenauts Unlimited still gives itself to the delightful little stories that 5th Cell have built a franchise from. It’s warm, beguiling and guaranteed to make you laugh. But unless you’re a die-hard Scribblenauts zealot I can’t see any obvious reason to play this over 2011’s iOS Remix, which is cheaper and benefits greatly from being the purer Scribblenauts game; that 5th Cell have chosen to dilute the creative spirit of the franchise with a raft of new and unnecessary features is nothing short of perplexing.

Play a Scribblenauts game – play a Scribblenauts game for tall tales of King Kong, vengeful poindexters and romance-gone-awry – but perhaps don’t play this Scribblenauts game.

6/10

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