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Scribblenauts Unlimited review: Limitless tomfoolery


5th Cell's Scribblenauts Unlimited brought out the worst in me.

Available for 3DS, PC, and Wii U -- I played the Wii U version for this review -- the game begins with series star Maxwell pranking a hungry beggar, as he feeds the fellow a rotten apple conjured by his magic notebook. It's a useful pad that can summon any manner of objects players type into the Wii U's GamePad, or alter the properties of whatever it targets. Maxwell could have just as easily transformed him into a "satiated beggar" or pulled a "delicious steak" out of thin air, but we're dealing with a "cruel protagonist" here.

So that beggar returns Maxwell's favor by casting a curse on his sister (we're introduced to Lily and the many members of Maxwell's family in this game) that slowly turns her into stone. Our jerk of a hero is sent off to collect Starites that will save Lily from permanent petrification, but Maxwell can only gather them by helping others with his notebook.

Though it's meant to be a redemption quest, one that forces Maxwell to examine the way he's mistreated others and abused his notebook's powers, I was having none of that. It's a game filled with characters dropping their wishes at Maxwell's feet, and I wanted to be the venomous djinn, the nefarious wishmaster that only granted them with a terrible twist. I became the devil on Maxwell's shoulder, goading him into silencing my counterpart with his notebook by writing out "absent conscience."

Gallery: Scribblenauts Unlimited (9/13/12) | 10 Photos

I roamed the game's world, wreaking havoc in every life I touched – instead of providing levels filled with different challenges to solve as in previous entries, Scribblenauts Unlimited features an overworld filled with different environments. These range from a haunted house to an underwater kingdom and a fire house under siege by zombies, each populated with characters seeking your help.

In the subway station location, a jobless man told me he would be able to find decent work if only he had an education. I summoned a "clueless teacher," who appeared wearing a dunce cap. The man received his degree, the challenge popped up on my screen as completed, and the graduate now wore his professor's dunce cap. Who knows if he ever convinced anyone to hire him. I pass by the station every now and then, and still see him hanging around there.

There are also multi-challenge missions, like the one where I helped a worried guy prepare for his date by giving him a "polka dot suit" for his outfit, a "slimy skateboard" to pick her up with, a "deadly bouquet" to offer the lady, and a "violent violinist" to provide music while they ate dinner. Uncontent to leave my treachery at that, when the couple later asked me to invite the necessary people to their wedding, I brought in the "disapproving mother-in-law." My second choice would have been an "unlicensed priest."

Scribblenauts Unlimited review Limitless tomfoolery

That was around the point when my wife, who was playing along in the Sidekick Mode (others with Wii Remotes can take control of whatever the GamePad holder conjures) commented that I'd become quite wicked with the notebook. Scribblenauts Unlimited is one of those wonderful Wii U titles that lets you play on the GamePad without the TV – albeit with only a single player – so I soon switched to that mode to hide my heartlessness from her view. You miss out on the game's HD graphics, which are a first for the traditionally handheld series, but if you're anything like me, you'll ignore the TV and play the entire thing by looking at the GamePad's smaller display the entire time anyway.

And this way my wife never saw the other date I intruded on, in which the couple sat around waiting for some entertainment. I brought out a "funny mistress," which turned the "bored girlfriend" into an "amused brokenhearted crying girlfriend" that ran toward the door. "Fake jewelry" brought her back to the cheating beau's arms.

Just about the only lives you can't ruin in this game are those of Mario and friends – 5th Cell teamed up with Nintendo to offer items and characters from the Super Mario Bros. and Legend of Zelda franchises as Wii U-exclusive content. You can drop Luigi and Ganon into the game, but you can't actually modify them with adjectives or the Object Editor.

That Object Editor, by the way, is a great new addition to the series, giving you powerful tools to edit or create nearly any object. You can change how objects/characters move, sound, behave, look (e.g. colors, patterns, mustaches), and more. It's a nice way to get around the game's restrictions that prevent you from summoning most proper nouns, vulgar items, or objects that would be inappropriate for its E10+ rating.

For example, you can't conjure a glass of "whiskey," but you can edit a "beverage" so that when someone drinks it, they become "violent" and "incoherent." Drop in a "thirsty dad," and he'll soon send his "confused son" sulking around. And thanks to the game's Punctuation Plaza shop, I can share my creation with others and download similarly deviant user-made items for my shenanigans.

As fun as it was to test the limits of cruelty the game would allow me to inflict on its characters, serving as a wishmaster for hundreds of poor souls eventually became tedious. While 5th Cell managed to add hilarious details to some of its puzzles ("There's a poor sap drowning underwater with a safe tied to his leg, and if you open the safe you'll find... an 'aquatic badger'?"), many of the challenges are too simple and don't test players' creativity enough.

I can see people who need more prodding to be imaginative, or people less wicked than I, speeding through Scribblenauts Unlimited without realizing that you get out of the game whatever you put into it. When you're tasked with building a new store to liven up a boring town, you'll find little joy constructing a "supermarket" or "deli." You will, however, get a kick when you introduce a "cursed magic shop" à la Are You Afraid of the Dark, knowing that establishment will be terrorizing the kids in that town long after you've left.

Much of the fun from Scribblenauts happens between players' ears – and, in my experience at least, it's amplified if you've a bit of a fiendish side to you – and I wish the game played to that more. Even so, there are few better places for creative players and unchecked villainy to prosper than in Scribblenauts Unlimited.

This review is based on a retail copy of Scribblenauts Unlimited for the Wii U, provided by Warner Bros. Scribblenauts Unlimited is also available on the 3DS and PC.

Eric Caoili is a co-editor at the inimitable 3DS-focused site Tiny Cartridge, as well as a news editor at game industry trade publication Gamasutra. You can follow him on Twitter at @tinycartridge.

Joystiq's review scores are based on a scale of whether the game in question is worth your time -- a five-star being a definitive "yes," and a one-star being a definitive "no." Read here for more information on our ratings guidelines.

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