DS Fanboy Review: Drawn to Life

5th Cell's Drawn to Life is one of the best games for kids on the Nintendo DS. Don't misinterpret that as a dismissal: there's plenty to like here, especially for anyone for whom the idea of an Actraiser/Animal Crossing mashup with totally customizable characters sounds appealing (which should be everyone). Children, especially, may find an infinitely entertaining toy in the game's drawing tool, which engages the imagination in a way that most linear video games cannot.

The game casts you as both an unseen deity called the Creator, with the power to draw elements of the world (given possession of the appropriate page of the "Book of Life"), and a sort of golem sent down by the Creator to protect the town (which you name). Of course, your first task as Creator is to define the appearance of your hero; multiple designs can be saved and switched at any time, and you can edit your hero's appearance at any point in the game.

The town is covered in shadowy black clouds; most of the (adorable, big-eared) Raposa inhabitants have gone missing, and it's up to the Creator and its avatar to clear the darkness and rescue the Raposa. The Mayor and the few remaining Raposa coordinate your efforts to regain Book of Life pages, sending the golem into action stages after a certain page, in order to regain the item desired (everything from the sun to the sign on the town restaurant).

Each "world", of which there are five, consists of four action stages, each of which is divided into three to four sections. Three captured Raposa, four segments of a book page, and three secret items (songs, abilities, drawing-tool stamps, and other items that are unlocked for purchase) are distributed across the sections. When you've finished each level, you return to the village, and it welcomes its new features and new residents.

At least once per level, you'll be asked to draw or color a feature of the level: platforms, hang gliders, friendly whales, and other unique modes of transportation. Like everything else, these can be redrawn at any time. Some of the items can be drawn as you please, but others are presented as black-and-white outlines, and can only be modified within that outline. The whale's always going to look like a whale-- you can put KISS makeup on it, but you can't make it look like a non-whale.
What little challenge can be found in the action levels comes not from difficult enemies or precision platforming, but rather from getting lost. The levels are huge and free of distinguishing landmarks, and the items and Raposas are hidden throughout. The levels are exploration-based rather than action-based, leading to very simple, very tedious platforming. The enemies can all be dispatched with head-jumps or shots from a customizable gun (whose projectiles change thematically with the world). You are required to clean up some black goo in many levels, which is done by scraping at it with the stylus. If the game weren't so easy, it would be incredibly annoying to give up control of your character to use the stylus (as seen in Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow). The action levels, while terribly easy, are still enjoyable, and the avatar controls well enough that it is more than possible to enjoy the trip. Just don't expect Mario-style platforming challenges. The only moment of true difficulty is the inappropriately difficult final boss. Don't judge the whole game on that last moment!
The "town" segments of the game usually have you running back and forth between the Mayor and a new resident, simply to advance the story. Occasionally the Raposa will have a special event (like a snowball fight), but the usual MO in these segments is just covering the map at the Mayor's command. Other than the shop, no part of the town ever benefits you. The Raposa you rescue are there for entertainment only, the expanding town filling with more non-interactive buildings and features. This sounds like it would be a problem, but the Raposa are a quirkily well-written cast, and it's interesting enough just to meet the new characters. Eventually, your town contains a vampire, pirates, Secret Service-like security nuts, and an insane vagrant named Crazy Barks. Seriously. The town's residents have more personality, and more interest, than most RPG casts. It doesn't matter at all that they don't serve a gameplay function.
The whole game-- the simple platforming and the superficial town-building-- is there as a vehicle for the drawing engine. And rather than an indictment of the other portions of the game, this is a statement of the strength of the drawing, because the drawing engine makes the game. Drawing your own game elements is perhaps the most basic idea for a video game system with a pen input, and it is one of the most powerful. By altering the game in the most superficial way, you can change the experience significantly in any number of ways. Young players (and many adults) will want to draw themselves and elements of their own lives. Most of us will, at some point, decide that the game should contain favorite characters from other games and other media (our hero was Silent Hill 2's demonic executioner, Pyramid Head, chosen for maximum incongruity with the cute cartoon world). You can decide to build every single item in the game in keeping with a theme-- Mario universe objects, or food, for example. You can attempt to subvert the game by drawing nonsensical items: the game welcomes these attempts. A cloud made of delicious steaks works just as well as, you know, a regular cloud. Furthermore, you can increase the difficulty of the game by making items invisible or partially visible through omission of coloring: one hero design was Pac-Man, floating in the air, leaving the hero template's arms and legs completely invisible. It became very hard to avoid getting hit in such a condition.

Careful drawing is never mandatory; if you don't feel like spending twenty minutes on a boulder, you can flood-fill something to get through the level, and then redraw it later while in the town, when you have a good idea. Removing the pressure to commit a permanent shape to the item increases the toy-like feeling of the game: you can "play" with the appearance of any object at any time, and editing or deleting it is as simple as shaking an Etch-a-Sketch. Barring time spent drawing, a single trip through the game will take 8-10 hours.

Drawn to Life may be a simplistic platformer, but its central gimmick is more than strong enough to make it a high point of the DS library for anyone with an imagination. Younger gamers who haven't spent hundreds of hours in Super Mario Bros.: The Lost Levels will enjoy the collection-based gameplay, as will Donkey Kong Country adherents. Everyone can enjoy the art, both player-created and pre-existing-- the colorful, bright, crisp art in this game deserves special attention that it will never get due to being overshadowed by the drawing element. Overall, Drawn to Life is a laudable first effort for developer 5th Cell, and a game whose central gimmick allows it to transcend some pedestrian action stages.

Final Score: 8/10

This article was originally published on Joystiq.