Scribblenauts was always among the most intriguing of puzzle games, presenting you with very obvious goals whilst leaving the player’s imagination in charge of finding a way through. Using words to conjure the most ridiculous solutions was an integral part of the appeal. It’s regrettable, therefore, that PlayStation owners’ first introduction to the series was Scribblenauts Showdown, a flawed multiplayer entry which strayed too far from the core principles that made the earlier games so interesting to play.
Thankfully, Scribblenauts is back to redeem itself with this ‘mega pack’ featuring the earlier Scribblenauts Unlimited and the superhero-themed Unmasked, both of which arrive with additional content in the form of extra characters, objects and levels. These titles stay true to the original’s focus on experimentation and invention, inviting you to prod and poke the game to explore what works and what doesn’t.
It’s explicitly recommended in-game that you play these games in chronological order, since Unmasked assumes a certain amount of knowledge of the controls and does drop some spoilers relating to the earlier game. On the subject of controls, these games were originally designed with a touchscreen interface in mind, and you can tell. The pop-up wheel, which you’ll visit constantly to create objects and add adjectives, feels overly sensitive and fiddly at first, but it’s a decent enough compromise which feels more intuitive with repeated use. And use it you will, since it’s the core mechanic which allows your character, Maxwell, to interact with Unlimited’s jaunty cartoon world and its varied cast of cutesy characters.
Things play out in a free-roaming fashion, with an array of NPCs waiting to converse and throw down the gauntlet of the next puzzle. This could be literally anything, from freeing a fire engine from traffic by creating wings and allowing it to fly, to pleasing patrons of an art gallery by adding bizarre objects to paintings. The tasks swing from mundane to surreal, and, to an extent, how challenging they are is largely up to you. In general, there is an ‘obvious’ way to solve most puzzles, but it’s more rewarding to experiment with more left field possibilities. The puzzles themselves seldom prove too difficult, and a tap of the option button allows you to access up to three hints, which vary from vaguely helpful to, in some cases, downright specific. You’re not up against the clock, so are free to ponder the problem and apply some lateral thinking.
Making people happy: that’s the objective in a nutshell, really. You’re solving problems for people, collecting starites shards as you go. The gameplay is relatively sedate in pace as you meander around the levels, and you’re given plenty of latitude in terms of the order you complete tasks within each level. There appear to be dozens of ways of approaching some of the puzzles, and you find yourself pushing for the most obscure or bizarre solution you can conceive. On so many occasions, you’ll find yourself trying something, simply to see what happens, experimenting to nudge the limits of the game. Case in point: I served spinach in a cannibal diner during the dinner service mission, expecting to fail the challenge. Instead, he immediately converted to veganism and thanked me before heading off.
What about Unmasked? That feels like more of the same, really, featuring similar controls and the same word-based puzzling. However, the novelty of the cast of D.C characters helps to distinguish the game from its earlier siblings and does add another dimension to the gameplay. If you’re a comic book fan, you may be able to harness your geeky knowledge to your advantage when exploring solutions, too.
In terms of longevity, the rewards you experience are directly linked to the level of effort you are prepared to invest in experimentation. Both games are very much about the journey rather than the destination. If you continually choose the easy way to solve a puzzle, the charm and fun will lose its lustre pretty fast, dissolving into a repetitive shadow of its true potential. Not a creative type? Chances are you’ll struggle to understand the appeal in the fanciful wordplay.
Across both games, the cartoon aesthetic is as vibrant and crisp as you would hope, with an endearing hand-drawn look lending the characters and their surroundings a distinctive visual style. The music, meanwhile, complements the adventures perfectly. These games may trace their roots back to the Wii U launch, but they are ageing gracefully and don’t look at all out of place on PS4.
For previous players of Scribblenauts, there’s probably little reason to pick this up. The extra content is superfluous in a game already packed with puzzles, and in no way compensates for the loss of the touchscreen-based interface. If, however, you missed out on these titles first time around, and are intrigued by the scope for invention and creativity, then you really should seek out the Scribblenauts Mega Pack. It generously gives all the tools you need to answer the one question our inner child is always asking: what if?
*Code kindly provided by the publisher for review*