"It was the primatologist!" The androgynous, blue-skinned, inexplicably naked corpse gasps as it flops across the floor on its back. I'm aghast and amused and, maybe, a little horrified. This is what you get when you take the easy way out of a crime investigation, apparently: an epileptic talking cadaver.
Scribblenauts Unmasked: A DC Comics Adventure, like all of its predecessors, is sordidly cute, so much so that it can be easy to forget the game will let you be a right bastard if you so choose. In the last few days, I've done everything from wrangle unicorns to drowning a Bizarro Robin in the sewers to accidentally gunning down a brave police officer as he faced off against a flesh mask-wearing Joker to painting pandas green. If there's anything to learned from Scribblenauts Unmasked, it's that words have power. Weird, wonderful powers.
To take a step back, Scribblenauts Unmasked is the tale of Maxwell and Lily, two comic book-loving siblings who find themselves living the DREAM. Thanks to a fortuitous turn of circumstances, they get sucked into the DC universe where they are introduced to their favorite superheroes and given license to fight in the name of good. And home, of course. To get back to the real world, the two must collect all the missing lost 'Starites' from Lily's globe, which was broken upon entry, before the bad guys can. It's not the most inspired story. If anything, the plot seems almost entirely supplemental, an excuse to introduce new areas.
But what Scribblenauts Unmasked lacks in depth, it makes up for in child-like wonder. There isn't a single sharp edge to the game. The pastel world of Scribblenauts Unmasked is all cutesy, pudgy mannequins and soft, blobby lines. Neither Maxwell nor Lily make any attempt at disguising their ecstasy at meeting the super-powered cast. They squeal relentlessly, kids at a comic convention. Weirdly, this preschool-friendly atmosphere works. You'd think that Gotham City would look absurd when viewed through such a lens but it doesn't. Chalk it up to the magic of Maxwell's notebook.
For those new to the series, Maxwell's notebook is the central gimmick in the franchise. With it, he can bring make anything real; he just has to write the appropriate word down. Gameplay-wise, it's exactly what it sounds like. Let's say there's a fire in downtown Metropolis. You want to extinguish it by bringing in a localized shower. Hit enter and you'll be prompted to key in a word - rain, in this example. Once you're done, a cloud will manifest and you'll be able to position it over the flames.
This works with just about anything. Want to summon Cthulhu? Type his name. Think he'd look better with a monocle? Make one and attach it to his tentacular majesty. Scribblenauts Unmasked even lets you adhere adjectives to almost any object in the world (Super-sized puppies anyone?) and toy with the game's sprawling repository of licensed DC characters.
As grandly imaginative as it all may sound, Scribblenauts Unmasked still has rules. Invisible rules that, by and large, succeed in hiding from view but rules, nonetheless. When you're operating within the constraints of the game, Scribblenauts Unmasked genuinely lets you feel like anything is possible. But every now and then, you'll find yourself at odds with the world's sense of logic. Batman won't always tango with a rampaging Bane. Petrified superheroes won't, uh, un-petrify if you label them 'fleshy' but instead change to resemble bipedal burgers. And Green Lanterns will occasionally decide you are, for no real reason whatsoever, more of a threat than Mister Freeze.
(Characters will, from time to time, freeze in place for no reason whatsoever but this is a mostly harmless error.)
Keeping it simple and by-the-book frequently seems integral to success in Scribblenauts Unmasked. The big, elaborate plans you concoct don't always work. Sometimes, it's easier to just hitch a leash to an offending super-villain and drag them out of a window. Which is a disappointment, really, because for a game that invites so much creativity, Scribblenauts Unmasked seems most inclined towards rewarding the practical. True, the game will penalize the bluntest route out (a nuclear bomb never solved anyone's problems) and will punish you for repeat usage of a word but it hardly feels like there are any real impositions. A sword by any other name is still a length of sharpened metal.
In spite of all that, however, Scribblenauts Unmasked has kept me coming back. The Reputation system, which accords the points required to purchase access to a new zone, is a fun thing to toy with. Each time you step into a location, you're greeted with a panoply of opportunities to do good deeds. What this actually entails is cruising through the various locales in search of NPCs with medals above their heads and solving their problems. At times, these can be whimsical: a favored pet that is of the wrong color, a starstruck fan that won't leave a hero alone. Other times, they can be of a more marginally serious note; a hero in need of rescue, a murder mystery, a a fight to the finish with the Injustice League. And while the combat is, sadly, about as thrilling -- right-click to win, honestly -- and as heart-pumping as an evening with the grandparents, the goofiness of the world's many perils is likely to make you smile.
(Mr. Mxyzptlk, an imp-like gentleman, is a total treat too. From time to time, he'll challenge you to meet some ridiculous demands in exchange for bonus reputation points. Some are easy enough (Don't use weapons), while others will have you laughing ruefully as you ponder exactly why you thought it was a good idea to agree.)
And if you're a bonafide DC universe fan? It gets even better. Scribblenauts Unmasked practically drips superheroes. Typing in 'Batman' won't give you one or two hits, it'll give you a list of practically every version to have ever existed. Finding a character-shaped hole in the exhaustive database, according to some, is like finding a needle in the haystack. The spandex-wearing menagerie, now pocket-sized, seem happily conscious of the fact they're caricatures, which makes them even more delightful. Batman made cute is a thing of beauty, folks.
For everyone else, Scribblenauts Unmasked is probably best likened to that toy you really wanted when you were ten. It doesn't quite hold up to the adult's critical eye, is more limited than you might have recalled but is still innocently enjoyable - as long as you remember this was most likely meant for children. Scribblenauts Unmasked doesn't quite deliver on its promise of boundless, free-form adventure but it comes close enough and is adorable enough to warrant forgiving many of its sins. (Still could do with a less imposing price tag, though.)
- Visuals:Scribblenauts Unmasked is tooth-achingly adorable, a children's book brought to grade school life. It isn't terribly different from the other games in the franchise, but that's not a bad thing.
- Music:Music is happily evocative of the many iconic destinations you'll meet, wholesome and unobtrusive like any good kid's show.
- Interface:Arrow buttons to move. Right-click to beat things. Keyboard for typey-bits. (Very, very straightforward interface).
- Lasting Appeal:It'd take you anywhere between six to ten hours to finish the game. However, depending on your stomach for such things, Scribblenauts Unmasked might have you occasionally re-visiting to enjoy the dynamic puzzles and to test out stuff you've made in the Hero Creator.