Review by David Newton
It's taken me a while to get around to this one, hasn't it? You know this already by now, but it's especially disappointing when a highly anticipated game turns out to be... a bit tatty. Scribblenauts is a prime example of a game not living up to how good it sounds - but not for the reasons that I expected. 2/10 seems a little harsh for something that I really wanted to enjoy, but the description that GameFAQs is giving me of the score just now - "Severe problems prevent any real fun" - are spot on for this game.
As a technical achievement, the concept is quite wonderful - each of the game's little levels has an objective stated in it. Your own abilities are limited to dashing left and right and jumping a bit, but the game emphasizes that you can summon anything at all by typing its name in and then use that to solve the problem at hand. When given the puzzle in one level of having to clean up a park and get litter out of a tree, for example, you could type in "litter picker" to conjure one up, pick it up and then use it, or less subtly, give yourself a flamethrower instead and use that to forcefully remove the offending bit of tissue paper. Or you could try a different approach, and use the words "axe" or "chainsaw" or any other kind of cutting tool to obliterate the tree entirely. I showed this to a non-games-playing friend and he was amazed that a game could do something like that - have a library of objects hiding somewhere in the cartridge and know how each of them should affect everything else. As a theory it sounds really interesting, and the dictionary of items is very impressive, although as the main character's name is "Maxwell", "Silver Hammer" is curiously absent.
But the concept is marred by the actual game, because once you're past the introductory levels you'll quickly notice that the controls are utterly woeful. You have no direct control over Maxwell, and can only vaguely point at where you want him to go on the touchscreen, prompting him to do his best to get there in a demonstration of failed pathfinding not seen since the circular-railway-building AI in Transport Tycoon. If you're not navigating completely flat terrain, then what most often happens is that your directions will send him running at full tilt knocking over everything in the way until he runs up against a mild step, where he'll hop about like you've just typed in "tin of ants" and poured it down the back of his jumper, until you free him from his futile wall-bashing cycle by pointing somewhere else and trying again from a couple of pixels over. This renders the more action-oriented levels pretty much unplayable in one efficient movement - you just can't play something where the intended command "cross bridge" is usually interpreted as "knock this bridge down into the lake, jump down after it and be eaten by piranhas".
But there are some levels that rely more on your ingenuity to think of how objects can work together - all the objects physically interact with each other happily ignoring the fact that game physics are all still actually terrible. And with the freedom of objects that the game gives you, it's impossible for the writers to have got everything interacting in the way you'd expect - the flight of a helicopter, for example, is severely impeded by being attached to a duckling and will upend and crash if you're not extremely careful. Once again Maxwell's Mr Blobby-like levels of coordination come into play here - by touching one pixel away from a small object you intend to pick up on the touchscreen, you'll send him smashing through precariously balanced piles of planks, bins and springs, or cause him to "use" a cat by putting it in the oven. Clicking accidentally on any part of a vehicle while driving it will cause him to happily get out, even if it's a helicopter in flight. And I once attempted to use a horse on a cart, which you'd think would be a fairly logical combination, but it instead caused the horse to kick it to pieces and then die from the resulting explosion. They're all worse than the man from Shadowgate.
The control problems extend to the object input as well - no matter how you write the letters on the screen they'll mostly be recognized as "L", and you'll be switching to the keyboard-style input fairly quickly. And trying to attach a rope from anything to anything else is an excruciating process, because if it overlaps anything at all then it won't be dropped into the playfield or attached to anything, so you have to waltz it about the screen hoping the tail end will just end up not colliding with another object, and rearranging other things to try to accommodate it while not knocking them all over. With how difficult it is to do anything mildly complex, it's hard to believe that anybody actually playtested this.
The whole thing feels rather like an experimental Flash game (something rather compounded by the smug Internet in-jokes found throughout) - it's not so much a game as an awkward toy in which you're vaguely hinted as to what you should be doing every so often. And paradoxically, the freedom to summon up anything you want makes the game strangely repetitive - if you can stand the controls, the enjoyment that you get out of it comes from using your own creativity to avoid the temptation to solve everything by using a jetpack and a rope to ferry objects about. And when I have to use my own creativity to get enjoyment out of something, I'd rather stick to Multimedia Fusion.
Rating: 1.0 - Terrible
Product Release: Scribblenauts (US, 09/15/09)
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