An omniscient fictional gnome. A volcanic moccasin. A fleshy rainbow gargoyle. When 2010’s Super Scribblenauts added adjectives to the original’s already bursting lexicon of words that could be made real, it brought a new level of depth to the game’s already unparalleled ability to generate non sequiturs. The hook for Unlimited is that you can now add your very own words and associations.
Unlimited’s setup is simple – having played a trick on an old man, Maxwell finds his sister cursed to slowly petrify. The only way he can save her is by doing good with his magic notebook, which creates any object you write in it. You have to feel for Lily, who essentially lives the role of a princess needing saving, slowly being encased in rock and left to watch as Maxwell goes off and has adventures. Especially when those adventures are frequently funny and at times oddly affecting.
Rather than the defined level scenarios of previous Scribblenauts, now many small puzzles are dotted around expansive themed areas, including a forest, a desert, and a haunted house. Presented on PC and Wii U in beautiful HD, the levels are finely detailed and sprawl across multiple levels – up skyscrapers, underground and into the clouds. But while previous games’ puzzles offered the chance to explore multiple solutions, now you can only offer a single answer before you’re done. They therefore come thick and fast, their contexts and premises sketching out mini stories that end with a payoff. There’s a Shoggoth under a city pier that wants to know what it looks like (it’s appalled when it finds out); there’s a necromancer wanting to resurrect the creature that is now a set of giant crystal bones (and it’s consigned to be harried by the magician’s attentions forever if you do); there’s a kleptomaniac penguin who wants to steal a diamond from a museum (we’re not sure why helping it is an act of good).
The result is a series of one-liners, most of which only require a single word before you go onto the next, which removes the in-depth creative thinking that the first game required. It makes Unlimited snappier, but you also feel as if you’re skating over its surface. The potential for emergent comedy is greater, however. The open nature of the levels can lead to cascading series of events, with, say, the woman who wants to restart her crash test dummy’s heart ending up shooting a nearby arsonist with the electrostatic gun we mistakenly gave her in place of a defibrillator. Sometimes objects, such as a magic mirror, create other objects or shoot projectiles that infect their targets with random adjectives, all of which cause chaotic chain reactions as flaming headless horsemen rampage and epidemics leave every NPC made of felt, or dead, and you needing to reset the level to continue.
And yet there’s a strangely dislocated nature to your role in Unlimited. Asked to help an archaeologist figure out which of a set of treasures is fake, your task is to give him the tools to do so rather than work it out yourself. And you rarely need to involve yourself in the game’s reasonably robust physics system; simply thinking up the correct object is usually enough. It serves to emphasise Maxwell’s slightly problematic place in the game, too. Because you can spawn and place objects anywhere, he’s often left off-screen as you scroll around looking for the next task, but there are points when he does need to be nearby, such as when you want to edit an adjective on an NPC or object. Then he becomes an encumbering appendage that you’ll grant the ‘flying’ adjective just to ease the irritation of navigating him around. Only rarely do the puzzles play with the idea of having you work out how to get him to locations. The presence of sharks that will kill him as he opens an undersea chest is trifling because you can merely make them ‘peaceful’, and few levels have secret routes you have to find to access closed off areas.
It’s not a difficult game, then. Challenge instead comes when it sets you oblique goals – how would you help a schoolgirl meet ‘someone in the middle of their career’? Or ‘help the monster integrate into society’? The fact that the game’s so accommodating with your responses is at the heart of why Scribblenauts is so gratifying – finding it has the same understanding of the world as you still has a thrill. Not that the system’s faultless. It won’t recognise a stuntman as a Hollywood resident; the carnivorous plant won’t eat the dead dog we offer it. On the other hand, the sheer flexibility of it all can undermine any carefully set up conundrum. Asked to create three ancient things you’d find in an undersea lost city, you can simply name any object ‘ancient’ to win. To mitigate this, the game sometimes arbitrarily stops you from being able to edit adjectives.
Most of these problems only really apply to those expecting Scribblenauts Unlimited to behave with the rigour of a traditional puzzle game. In the hands of the less object-orientated – namely children – such difficulties fade as the game becomes a V8 engine for creativity and roleplay. Its levels start stories that players can then continue, with the Object Editor offering the chance to add whatever they like to its dictionary. With Unlimited supported by Internet sharing tools, the chance to see and toy with other players’ creations adds even greater breadth. It’s enough to highlight that Unlimited lacks a scripting system for you to create your own scenarios, a puzzle editor, or the chance to video your exploits. With them, it’d be a exemplary 2D director’s studio. As it stands, you can only cast your actors and dress your sets, so Unlimited doesn’t quite live up to its name, but for those willing to span the game’s structural deficiencies with their imagination, it’s intensely rewarding.
PC version tested.