On paper the Scribblenauts games have always piqued my interest. The idea of using my imagination to solve gaming problems is an enticing one. When Unmasked was announced, it was finally time to satiate that curiosity considering my love for the DC lore. Having an encyclopedia of my favorite characters at my disposal was a dream come true. Scribblenauts Unmasked certainly has a plethora of DC fan service, and I enjoyed a lot of what it was trying to do, but I couldn’t help but feel like the overall mechanics and game play fell short of my expectations.
For anyone who hasn’t played a Scribblenauts game, the premise is simple. Maxwell (our lead character) has a magical notebook. Anything he writes down in it becomes real. Maxwell also has a sister, Lily who has a magical globe that can take her anywhere in the world. Unmasked is born out of these two ideas. Maxwell is a huge fan of DC Comics, so one day he conjures up the idea to write the words Gotham City in his notebook, and then slap it onto Lily’s globe. It works.
This is where things begin as Maxwell and Lily are then transported into the world of DC Comics. What Maxwell didn’t know though, is that another word was scribbled onto the back of the paper he used; doppelganger. This, in turn spawns an evil version of Maxwell inside the universe, who ends up aiding the DC villains, thus setting the backdrop for the game.
Unmasked continues the tried and true formula set by its predecessors. Its addition like I said is a vast encyclopedia of DC characters that I could call at my discretion. The game also allowed me to create and summon my own creations, so if I wanted to manifest my own superhero persona, it was available. The Bat Computer is where everything is stored, and it is vast. I spent nearly as much time cycling through it as I did playing the actual game. I also loved how I could simply select items from within it, instead of having to type them out.
Combat plays a big role here, and this is not a desired functionality. Simple as it may be, it is also chaotic. Maxwell comes in swinging his arms, and encounters are often too much of a jumbled mess to fight effectively. Of course spawning Batman with power armor and super adjectives will solve almost any problem, but that takes away most of the fun of a Scribblenauts game. Thankfully if I cared about points, my lack of creativity would keep me from abusing the system. Earning bonuses for coming up with clever solutions works most of the time, but the missions started bogging down early on, thus removing my will to keep trying to come up with new ideas for situations.
This is Unmasked’s biggest problem. There is a solid 6-8 hour game here that feels forced. This is further torn down by the fact that in order to progress the story portions (which are by far the best pieces) I had to grind the same areas over and over as they were locked behind a progress wall. This makes these menial tasks feel like a chore. The boss battles are some of the best parts of the experience, but sadly there are only one per level, and make up very little of the overall play time. It feels almost like the team was forcing length into the experience, and padding parts that generally aren’t very enjoyable.
Even with these shortcomings though, it was hard for me not to smile when Mxyzptlk would show up to offer me challenges, or when I summoned an obscure character just to see if they were in there. Of course my favorite line had to be when I summoned Robin to aid Batman in a fight, and it informed me that Robin was of no use here. Perfect.
Playing on the Wii U also felt more like a hindrance than a joy. The game itself is vibrant and beautiful to look at on an HD screen. It is too bad I spent most of my time starting at the darker, lower resolution image on my Gamepad. Most of the game requires me to type in words, or select items on the bottom screen. Meaning I spent the majority of my time looking at that output. This completely eliminates my ability to look up. So much of the game requires me to look at the pad. I don’t like that design, and feel perhaps an actual keyboard, or the option to see my choices on the big screen instead so that I could enjoy the unique presentation.
I really wanted to love Scribblenauts Unmasked a lot more than I ended up enjoying it. The focus on trial and error, and repetitive mission structure really starts to grind on an already brief experience. The encyclopedia of DC characters though is impressive, and clearly where they spent the bulk of their time in development. I almost could lose myself in that aspect, and never actually play the game itself. That speaks volumes about a $60 title. I just wish there was more focus on the unique boss battles and ideas that could have helped create a better experience.
Review copy of game provided by publisher.