Scribblenauts Unmasked review for Nintendo 3DS, Wii U, PC

Platform: Nintendo 3DS
Also On: Wii U, PC
Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive
Developer: 5th Cell
Medium: 3DS Cart/Digital
Players: 1
Online: No
ESRB: E10+

On the surface, Scribblenauts and the DC Comics Universe seem like they should fit together pretty seamlessly. I mean, if you think about it, Maxwell — the magic notebook-wielding protagonist of the Scribblenauts series — isn’t that far off from Green Lantern? After all, both are limited in what they create only by the extent of their imaginations. And the whole point, speaking generally, of Scribblenauts games is going around helping people and solving problems. It’s hard to think of a better fit than that.

At least, that’s probably the thinking that went in to Scribblenauts Unmasked. In practice, however, the combination of the two doesn’t work out so well. It’s not hard to see why, either: rather than making the game a reskinned version of Scribblenauts Unlimited — which would’ve been lazy, to be sure, but it also would’ve worked — the makers of Scribblenauts Unmasked seemed to have looked at the “great power, great responsibility” mantra and decided that the responsibility half was what they were going to make the game all about.

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Or, to put it more simply, this is roughly how it would look if you took all the side missions out of a superhero game, made them all even more mundane, and then turned those into a standalone game. Scribblenauts Unmasked may feature every character from the DC Comics Universe, but you’ll still spend about 95% of your time with the game doing things like giving people flashlights, rescuing lost cats and creating friends for the lonely. While I’m sure that’s probably what metahumans would do if they really existed, it doesn’t make for the most compelling action.

And as for that other 5%? It’s not much better, I’m afraid. There are boss fights, sure, but never particularly exciting ones. You fight alongside Superman, but he takes on Lex Luthor while you’re stuck with Metallo. You take on Joker and Sinestro…but only in the sense that you’re stuck with minions and lesser known characters while the big baddies have to deal with Batman and Green Lantern. What’s more, even if you’re battling iconic characters, the fact of who they are is kind of irrelevant; it may take special knowledge to beat Livewire or Larfleeze in the comics, but here they’re dispatched just with a run-of-the-mill bazooka or some tempting food.

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Which leads to another complaint: even if you can draw (literally, pardon the pun) from the entire DCU, it doesn’t add a whole lot to the action. I mean, if you’re being attacked by Professor Zoom, you can draw the Flash…except then he’ll just stand around doing nothing while you get killed. Coupled with the previous paragraph, it leads to a persistent feeling of Scribblenauts Unmasked being a series of wasted opportunities.

It should be noted here that the 3DS version of Scribblenauts Unmasked is also missing one aspect of the game that would go a long way towards making it seem like you really are controlling a superhero: the hero creator. Both the PC and Wii U versions of the game have that tool, and — at least on the PC version — it works really well. Ever wanted to create a baton that shoots out explosions and makes your enemies fiddle — AKA the Baton of Exloding Fiddling Justice? Well, you can. Or, at least, you can if youre not playing on Nintendo’s handheld; if you’re playing the game 3DS-only, you’re out of luck.

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Of course, that leads to the obvious question: should you even be playing it on the 3DS to begin with? And that, quite frankly, is where I’m struggling. I’ve always thought that failing to enjoy Scribblenauts — a game in which your imagination is basically the limit — is more a reflection on the person playing than on the game itself. Here, though, I’m not sure if that holds true. While Scribblenauts Unmasked has all the elements of a Scribblenauts title, it doesn’t have the same room for creativity — and that’s probably what makes the whole thing feel a little off. Without room for imagination, all that’s left is a game that tells you what to do. Admittedly, it’s frequently superheroes doing the telling (and that may be more than enough for some people), but that doesn’t make it any more fun.

Grade: B-