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Scribblenauts Unmasked review: Super speller


Seeing over two thousand comic book heroes and villains drawn in Scribblenauts' distinctive style is bonkers. When the sandbox series debuted in 2009, I remember fans caricaturing hundreds of pop culture figures in the same charming, squat style, imagining their favorite characters dropped into Scribblenauts' colorful world. Aside from a handful of licensed characters in previous Scribblenauts games, there haven't been many cameo opportunities for the famous figures fans have dreamed of, at least not in any official sense.

That's why it's nuts to see Scribblenauts Unmasked: A DC Comics Adventure injected with icons like Batman and Superman, along with thousands of other characters from the DC Comics universe, and all of them drawn just like the game's rooster-capped star, Maxwell. They're flying and swooping around as if it's no big deal, as if it isn't an amazing feat that you can now summon them effortlessly with Maxwell's magic notebook by just typing their name, and then interact with them in ways you'd never see in the comic books.

Gallery: Scribblenauts Unmasked (PAX Prime 2013) | 6 Photos

As in previous Scribblenauts games, Maxwell's notebook can conjure almost any noun you type in, or assign adjectives that modify the characteristics of different objects and people around you. This comes in handy for solving the puzzles that populate Scribblenauts' world – for example, you might run into someone frozen in a big ice cube. You can thaw them out by creating a heater, or by adding "warm" as an adjective for the victim. The big draw in Unmasked is that those odd puzzles now take place in areas like Metropolis and Atlantis, and the culprit behind the ice cube crime is likely Mr. Freeze.

Unmasked starts you off in Gotham, where Batman, always eager to push young boys into fighting dangerous super villains, teams up with Maxwell to combat the Joker. You soon gain access to the Bat Cave, which serves as your home base and a sandbox area where you can experiment with the magic notebook, arranging intricate scenes and ridiculous battles – pit Doomsday against the Doom Patrol, hold that wedding between Batwoman/Kate Kane and Maggie Sawyer that DC vetoed, go wild.

If you play the PC or Wii U version, you can also access the Hero Creator while in the Bat Cave. As its name suggests, this feature lets you make your own super hero or villain, perfect for adding non-DC figures or even DC characters that didn't make the cut, like Static Shock and Neil Gaiman's Sandman/Dream. You can not only customize their look but also set their powers, weaknesses, and how they behave.

As with the similar Object Editor feature introduced in Scribblenauts Unlimited, Hero Creator lets you share and download user-made characters online, though there's no guarantee that uploads of, say, Marvel characters like the X-Men won't get delisted. One developer suggests, however, that you might be able to get away with it if you're creative with your listing, naming your hero something like "Tri­Bladed Hairy Angry Yellow Shirted Weasel", for example.

Not that there aren't more than enough DC characters packed in Unmasked to keep you busy for months learning about and playing with them. The big guns, the Justice League types and their arch-enemies, are all in there, as are more obscure fellows like Detective Chimp (yes, a monkey detective that's smart enough to trade ideas with Batman and the Riddler) and Danny the Street (again, yes, an actual street).

For those less versed in comic book lore, Unmasked lets you access the Batcomputer at any time, offering an in-game encyclopedia for all the DC characters and items you can summon. It's not detailed enough to replace Comic Vine or Wikipedia, but it gives you brief descriptions with links to entries for related characters, and it allows you to immediately summon anything you're curious about – perfect for dropping in a team of super pets when you suddenly find yourself needing to fend off Ra's al Ghul's league of assassins.

Scribblenauts Unmasked review
Just as with any Scribblenauts game, you can spend hours playing with the possibilities of Maxwell's notebook, but there is a story campaign meant to serve as the main focus, however short it may be. You visit 12 different settings based on recognizable DC universe locations, each filled with random puzzles. Many of those puzzles are fairly easy to solve, such as the one that has Green Arrow daring you to hit a target, which you can easily do by creating a bow and taking aim.

The stages also have boss challenges that act as fun multi-puzzle events, like a piggy-back race with The Flash. This challenge is filled with obstacles, slowing you down with tar on the street or smoke blocking your vision, but some creative use of Maxwell's notebook should be all you need to clear the way.

While the random puzzles are great in that you're greeted with new problems to solve whenever you enter an area, they often feel like filler to stretch out the game's length (around 8-12 hours). Completing puzzles earns you reputation points that you can trade in to unlock the next area or a famous hero's origin story, so you'll sometimes have to reload an area multiple times before you pick up enough points to move on.

Unmasked's random puzzles can also lead to some odd moments. You might see villains from one hero's rogues gallery pop up in another character's stomping grounds. Robin may be loitering around Atlantis with no visible means of breathing underwater. You could find a bunch of male characters just chilling in Wonder Woman's girls-only island, Themyscira.

Scribblenauts Unmasked review
And many of the puzzles have minds of their own – the characters involved in a dispute you're expected to mediate might have already killed each other by the time you make your way to them. It can also be annoying when puzzles seem unnecessarily particular in how you solve them. At one point you're tasked with summoning something that frightens a big spider, and a giant shoe or bug spray won't do the trick, but a magazine that to smack it with will put the fear of God into it.

There are amusing moments, though, when Unmasked's attention to detail pays off, like Batman's refusal to touch any gun you try to equip him with, or when you realize that electrocuting Livewire by giving him the adjective "wet" actually works. Developer 5th Cell wrote a number of jokes that comic book fans will appreciate, too. There's a goofy scene in which Maxwell offers to pay back a favor to Batgirl/Barbara Gordon by going back in time with an unspoken goal. He then returns and asks if her spine feels any better.

Another way Unmasked tries to make its puzzles more interesting while throwing in a nod to DC staples is the inclusion of troublesome imp Mr. Mxyzptlk, who pops up every now and then to reward you with extra reputation points if you complete puzzles without breaking arbitrary rules. Those limits can be as simple as using only adjectives, or they can be wackadoo restrictions like only conjuring things that begin with the letter N. The game also motivates you to be more creative with what you summon by reducing how many points you get if you re-use words or input an overpowered word like "invincible".

Scribblenauts Unmasked review
As a game full of puzzles that just happen to star DC characters, Unmasked isn't as fun as last year's Unlimited, which I'd suggest over this release for those who want the best Scribblenauts experience. The 2012 game's puzzles felt less chaotic, never self-destructing before you could reach them like Unmasked's challenges often do. It's frustrating to see you've missed out on a potentially interesting encounter, especially since Unmasked's randomization prevents you from reloading them. Scribblenauts Unlimited's puzzles also didn't seem as nitpicky with their solutions, encouraging you to come up with creative ideas for even the most minor problems.

While it's not the series' best collection of puzzles, Scribblenauts Unmasked is the easiest (and cutest!) way to simulate insane scenarios like a mega armored Batman battling the Justice League, Darkseid, the Secret Six and unofficial Avengers knock-offs all at the same time. For many comic book fans, that's more than enough reason to pick it up.

This review is based on a retail copy of the Wii U version of SCribblenauts Unmasked: A DC Comics Adventure, provided by Warner Bros.

Eric Caoili is a co-editor at the inimitable 3DS-focused site Tiny Cartridge. 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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