Scribblenauts Unmasked review

Scribblenauts Unmasked is a great sandbox for playing with DC characters, but as a conventional game it's weakened like it was exposed to red Kryptonite.
Photo of Scribblenauts Unmasked

Scribblenauts Unmasked isn’t a game. It’s a nerd sandbox for fans of the DC universe. It has a flimsy, lighthearted story and some puzzles to solve, but it isn’t really meant to be played. This $39.99 (for PC, tested; $39.99 list for Nintendo 3DS, $59.99 list for Nintendo Wii U) title is more meant for seeing how obscure and deranged your imagination and its database of thousands of DC characters can be. Small kids will enjoy the colorful, approachable graphics and the creative mechanics, but if you’re over 12 you’re going to spend much more time seeing how strange your World’s Finest team-ups can get. And for that, it’s great.

Wordplay
You play Maxwell, a kid with a magic notebook who can create anything by writing in it. He and his sister, who has a magic globe that can take them anywhere, want to see whether Batman or Superman is better so they go to the DC universe and hijinks ensure. You have to run around DC locations like Gotham City, Metropolis, and Oa, solving problems to fix the hijinks. You work with the Justice League and other DC superheroes (but mostly summon them from your magic notebook rather than interact with them as characters) and fight, capture, or irritate DC supervillains.

As the fourth installment in 5th Cell and WB Games’ Scribblenauts series, Scribblenauts Unmasked uses the same basic mechanics as the previous titles: write anything in the notebook to create it in the game, and use those things to solve problems. The game has both the adjectives from Super Scribblenauts onward and a selection of 2,300 DC universe characters and items (which you can browse separately in the Bat-Computer), making tens of thousands of possible objects to create and hundreds of thousands of adjective-object combinations.

This is the main appeal of Scribblenauts Unmasked. Not only can you make anything like in previous games, but you can make nearly any DC universe character or item. Want Batman from The Dark Knight Returns to fight Red Son Superman over Metropolis? You can make it happen with a few words. Want to use Adam Strange’s jetpack and Wonder Woman’s golden lasso to take down a dinosaur? Easy. You can create and do nearly anything.

The DC Universe
The Bat-Computer of 2,300 characters and items from the DC universe makes Scribblenauts Unmasked incredibly rewarding for comic fans. There are 38 entries for Batman alone (including 35 different Batman versions like Batman Beyond, Dark Knight Returns, and Batman of Zur-En-Arrh) and two Batman costumes. You can unlock 57 different costumes for Maxwell to get the powers of different heroes and supervillains, but the costumes require spending reputation you earn playing through the game. Most impressive is how obscure and complete the Bat-Computer is, with two Red Bees, three Blue Beetles (including Daniel Garrett), and Osito, Bane’s childhood teddy bear. I’m not kidding about that last one.

Since this game is rated E, I couldn’t summon any Vertigo characters (and I really wanted Spider Jerusalem to angrily stomp through Metropolis), but there are tons of characters from New 52, post-Crisis, pre-Crisis, and Elseworlds universes. John Constantine can be created since he’s the de facto leader of Justice League Dark in New 52, and even Tommy Monaghan from Hitman is available (though sadly the members of Section 8 aren’t, so no Dogwelder or Defensetrator). Surprisingly, even Neil Gaiman’s Endless aren’t available, and if you try to summon Death it only makes a hooded skeleton with a scythe instead of the enigmatic elemental in the form of a young woman who captured readers’ imaginations in Sandman.

Gameplay
Each location has a few specific story missions and a handful of randomly tasks and puzzles. Story missions, identified by a blue star over them, are somewhat lengthy sequences where you’re given a specific superhero situation told through cutscenes and have to intervene to earn “Starite,” the items that can repair your sister’s magic globe. The random tasks are shown with reputation icons over them, indicating that you’ll get points you can spend to unlock new areas or costumes based on your location. They’re much simpler, and often involve creating an item for a superhero, defeating a supervillain, or recovering a lost item.

On Oa, I helped Hal Jordan fight Sinestro, but before the Green Lantern won Larfleeze, the Orange Lantern appeared to steal the Starite. I created Atrocitus, the Red Lantern leader, to fight him, but Larfleeze defeated him and turned him into an orange construct (the power of the Orange Lantern corps). I had to distract Larfleeze with food while generating some Indigo Lantern Corps members to fight the constructs so I could get the Starite. I could have solved the problem without involving any other lanterns, but I chose the thematically consistent route. I could have easily summoned the Legion of Superheroes, the Teen Titans, or a giant robot dinosaur to deal with Larfleeze.

These tasks give structure to Scribblenauts Unmasked and can occasionally be amusing, but they feel like a minor part of the game compared to the sandbox appeal of it. In fact, the missions get in the way of enjoying the sandbox, because you have to build up reputation and collect Starite to unlock other areas, like Wayne Manor or Themyscira.  It adds a sense of progression to the game, but it can be frustrating if you need to do chores in Central City before you can realize your dream fight of a dozen mini Wonder Womans defending Themyscira from a giant radioactive Big Barda.

Scribblenauts Unmasked is incredibly flimsy as a game, but if you’re a comic book fan the sheer opportunity for DC comics chaos is great. It’s a toy chest for comic book characters, and the levels are little more than backdrops to let your DC universe knowledge run wild. If you’re playing this game (or any Scribblenauts game) conventionally and trying to get through the story, you’re doing it wrong. This is a sandbox for wasting hours seeing how Doctor Occult would fare against a plaid Cthulhu. And for that, it’s a pretty great toy.

Specifications
Genre Board/Puzzle
Platform PC, Nintendo 3DS, Nintendo Wii U
ESRB Rating E for Everybody

Verdict
Scribblenauts Unmasked is a great sandbox for playing with DC characters, but as a conventional game it's weakened like it was exposed to red Kryptonite.
Published under license from Ziff Davis, Inc., New York, All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc