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Wednesday 29/03/2017: Clockwork Tales: Of Glass and Ink

August 8, 2014


You know what's good in video games? Creativity! You know what's better? Innovation! What's even better? Being a God!

Or a reality warper. Either way, having world-altering powers sounds awesome. Now you, too, can bend the world to your will! Thanks to a little DS cartridge, a creative AND innovative game, called Scribblenauts!

How to describe Scribblenauts in a simple word... Crazy? No, that's not it. Smart? Well, it's in there, but... Oh, I got it! It's brilliant! Incredible! Unbelievable!

This all looks fine, but...
Is that a baby over there?
Now, if you're not familiar with this franchise and you don't understand why I'm having such a fanboy moment about it, well, here's why. In Scribblenauts, you play as Maxwell, a child wearing a rooster hat (no, really). He has no powers himself... But he owns a magical notebook. Whenever he writes a word in that notebook, the object appears. You want a cane? There. A laser gun? Poof, it's there! You want to summon a human? Well, he's gonna look the same unless you specifically ask for one kind of human, like a “mother” or a “child” or a professional. You want a lion? Well, he's going to eat you unless you summon a lion tamer, but after that you can ride it and make it feast on your enemies! Heck, just summon a T-Rex! It will probably kill you, but hey, free T-Rex!

You can summon God. No, really. Of the white-haired, white-bearded kind.

Ho ho. He looks like he could
be voiced by Morgan Freeman.

And beyond that, the interaction between the objects you summon can be normal (like a mother going towards a son to be motherly), tragic (like deleting a child's toy while he's playing with it), or comedic (like a pig looking at bacon and feeling sad, or summoning a clown car, which is tiny, and somehow taking out two, three, four, five clowns out of it).

Read through this review and you'll see why this game is awesome! Well, for the most part. Being a critic, I must acknowledge that nothing's perfect, and therefore I always have to find at least one thing I dislike in what I like and one thing I like in what I dislike. Let's go!

When the game starts, you notice five options on the main screen. On the top left, a magnifying glass; tap it and then tap objects on the screen to get their name. On the top right is the notebook. You can type the name of the object using the QWERTY keyboard-like selection of letters. You can also insert spaces and dashes. You also have the option to re-use one of the last five words you used. You know, just in case having one God to protect you wasn't enough. Finally, you can actually write down the letters, one at a time, to achieve the same effect. That one can be tricky, though, as the game will not always recognize the right letter.

Finally, at the bottom, there are three additional options. On the bottom left, there's the possibility to change the environment Maxwell is currently in. How do you unlock more environments? By naming more objects! Yes, you can unlock fourteen different environments, with the last ones being a lot more difficult to get if you're lacking in the vocabulary department. At the bottom right, there's the Options Menu. In there, you access:
-The achievement pages. There's about 75 achievements that can be earned in this game, and many of them are tricky. You do not access clues to the ones you don't have, so it can be difficult to get them without online guides. Oh, also, you cannot get these achievements on the Start menu, you must absolutely play the levels to get them.
-The Avatars section. Tired of seeing Maxwell? His rooster hat makes you sick? Fear no more! You can make your character look like a grey alien, a witch, a zombie, a DJ gal, a pirate, a bride (uh... yuck? Maxwell's clearly a boy), a ninja, a robot, an Indian tribe sorcerer...
-You can change the way the controls work; you may want to control Maxwell with the stylus or the control pad. Or use a hybrid of the two methods.
-Then you can listen to the game's large soundtrack... of 38 songs. I was about to make a joke, but 38 isn't that bad actually. Sadly, most of of the songs sound a bit too similar. Oh well. Whatever.

This is it now, the real game starts. At the bottom, in the center, there's a big star with START written on it. Let's START, then!

When you get to the next menu, you should start with Challenge. This brings you to the world selection screen. Only the first world is unlocked, World 0, the University. Yay, a place I like! Anyway, the 11 levels in that world serve as a tutorial for the game. Play it to learn the basics: Moving around, using or equipping items, using the magnifying glass, using vehicles... You also learn how to glue items together. That's simple, really; summon two objects, summon glue, stick the glue to one object, stick the other object to the glue, and voilà! I wish it was so simple in real life, without having to worry about gravity...

The next tutorial level warns you. For the most part, the things you write cannot be the name of a place or a proper name (which is weird because I've summoned a LOT of characters with names). Also, you can't write suggestive material, and the game will play a trick on you if you try offensive word that mean other things. Summon an ass, here's a donkey. No points for guessing which word to use to summon a rooster. Or a detective. Also, you cannot use copyrighted words. You can even rotate the object with L or R. Then, you learn to delete what you created by picking up items and sending them back into the Notepad, which turns into a trash can. Oh hey, it got that power too? That's impressive. It explains that if you beat a puzzle using less than the “Par” number of words (woo, golf references!), you get more in-game money (the not-very-creatively named Ollars). Then, you get to try a puzzle level, in which you must create food for a chef. Next is an action level, in which you must reach the Starite-

This does look like a star, right?
...Bad pun...
Oh, I'm really an idiot! I didn't explain to you what a Starite was! It's... um... it's... well... um... See, it's a star-shaped object. It's difficult to explain. Some exist in the world around Maxwell, but some appear the Hell out of nowhere when he beats a puzzle level. As to what they are... well... Urgh... I'm stumped.

Let me tell you the truth. For such an amazing concept, the guys at 5th Cell didn't think about giving much of a plot. It's just: Here's Maxwell! He has a notebook that is magical! No one knows why! He can summon items, tools, basic places, people, animals, and even monsters with it! No one knows why! He can turn into a bride! No one knows why! He has to collect Starites! Holy Christ, no one knows why! You can make him the greatest benefactor or the biggest douche of all! Only YOU will know why!

Maxwell... with someone who is probably his sister.
They wear the same hat, so... BTW, that picture is from
the third game in the series, Scribblenauts Unlimited.
The later games do bring up sort of an explanation about the Starites thing, though. Apparently, Maxwell is a boy from a large family (all of the members wear rooster hats too), and one day his sister was turned to stone by a gorgon due to his own mistake. So he had to collect Starites, notably by helping people, to bring her back to normal. Because the Starites are made of people's happiness or something. But does that excuse that 5th Cell started to explain that in the third game?

Well, then again, it was never made very clear how Mario ended up in the Mushroom Kingdom, why Sonic runs so damn fast, what the Hell Kirby is, or why Rayman has no limbs. ...Oh wait, the problem with Rayman is the opposite. There's about three explanations about his condition, but none is made official. That's... a problem.

Hmmmm... termites, lumberjack, chainsaw, flamethrower,
ladder, am I forgetting any? Oh yes, I am.
Moving ahead. This game is separated into eleven worlds, the University world and then ten others. After which each world is separated into two categories, “Puzzle” levels and “Actions” levels. Each of those categories contain eleven levels. In every world. Calculating... That means a total of 220 Starites to find. Oh, but wait! That's only to get the silver star on each level. In order to get a golden star on a level, you have to beat it three times in a row... and you're not allowed to use an object more than once. ...Or rather, you can use an item as much as you want when you complete the puzzle once, but you're not allowed to re-use it in the next two attempts at retrieving the Starite. It takes a big vocabulary and great logic to complete every puzzle and every action level thrice. Calculating... To really beat the game, you have to collect a total of 660 Starites. In most cases you won't be able to complete a puzzle four times, so after you got the silver star by beating the puzzle once, just re-do what you did the first time and then find two variations.

Speaking from personal experimentation, ropes and chains are extremely useful. There's also many ways to fly (summon wings, rocket boots, a pegasus, a roc), all things that you WILL need if, say, the Starite is hanging over an endless pit. You also need to learn to use the features related to each item. Again, let's say there's a Starite hanging with a rope over an endless pit. Use wings, and fly into the Starite; or, if you have a pegasus, instead head towards the Starite and THEN tap it and select Pick Up to prevent it from falling down.

Set aside the 660 Starites, what makes this game great is the fact that you can summon anything. Think of all the interactions that can happen between objects. I mentioned that a little earlier in the review... well, here's a wholelist of things that can happen in the game(s). I should also quote the post that made Scribblenauts famous even before it was in stores.

I was in the early levels; I didn't quite have an idea of how ridiculously in-depth the database was. I was summoning things like ladders, glasses of water, rayguns, what have you. But I reached a level with zombie robots, and the zombie robots kept killing me. Rayguns didn't work, a torch didn't work, a pickaxe didn't work. In my frustration, I wrote in "Time Machine". And one popped up. What the f***? A smile dawned on my face. I hopped in, and the option was given to me to either travel to the past or the future. I chose past. When I hopped out, there were f***ing dinosaurs walking around. I clicked one, and realized I could RIDE THEM. So I hopped on a f***ing DINOSAUR, traveled back to the present, and stomped the s**t out of robot zombies. Did you just read that sentence? Did you really? I F***ING TRAVELED THROUGH TIME AND JUMPED ON A DINOSAUR AND USED IT TO KILL MOTHERF***ING ROBOT ZOMBIES. This game is unbelievable. Impossible. There's nothing you can't do.”

Well, technically, there are things you can't do, if they require adjectives. Some adjectives are available, but only to particular objects. Aside from that, the game is just awesome.

Now, sadly, the game isn't all good. Yes, you can try thousands of things (some sources say you don't have enough of a lifetime to see everything that can happen in the game by putting objects together). As a result, the team at 5th Cell couldn't try all of them to debug the whole thing. There's quite a few bugs in the game, and you have to be careful when you play. They're not easy to find, and for some of them you need to use some rare words. However, there's a good example: At the E3 presentation, the game was still in its early stages. That was before there was a limit to the number of objects you could summon on the screen. And if you created a rabbit and another rabbit, well... The game crashed because the rabbits multiplied endlessly. I,m really not kidding, the rabbits multiplied and multiplied and multplied until there were thousands of rabbits! Sure, some of the glitches have been corrected. But there's still a few, so play carefully.

Would you trust a
ladder like this? Not me!
Likewise, most items will fall to the ground instead of standing up (which makes sense with the gravity). But, let's say you want a ladder standing up because you need to climb somewhere. Hello trouble if it tips over! Heck, what if you need to put a ladder over another? Hope you can make it stay there while you're climbing! Then there's all the other annoyances: accidentally shooting people you had to keep alive in a mission, objects not working properly due to some programming errors, dangerous animals and characters that just don't ever stop attacking you... Also, sometimes said dangerous enemies will be too quick to attack and you won't have time to summon an item to defend yourself.

Up close, winged Maxwell is kinda scary.
Also, the game doesn't look THAT great. There's just a feeling that it hasn't been polished. The sprites are often odd. Some items are difficult to recognize, which is why you'll often need to use the magnifying glass to know what exactly they are. In some cases, this is vital to understanding just WHAT THE HELL you are supposed to do in a level.

Also, in the puzzle levels, some hints are devilish. So very difficult. Some parts are near-impossible without using a walkthrough. Don't even get me started on getting three times each Starite! My God! ...No, summoning God will not always help, by the way.

Hey1 This game is rated E! I shouldn't
have to go to the university to play it!
On the smaller complaints, there's also that you cannot skip World 0, which is a tutorial that takes about three minutes to be completed (which means whenever you start a new save file, you have to go through it again...). Last but not least, some elements of the final game were removed, like bonus levels that could have been bought in the shop; the button leading to that menu can still be found and pressed, though it will crash the game.

You knew such a game had to have flaws. The concept just sounded too god, it was just too awesome to be true. But at the same time, are those flaws such a big hindrance? Well, sometimes they are. But it doesn't prevent you from enjoying everything in the game. Some people never actually play the levels, they just stay at the Start screen and have fun with the notebook. And really, it would be a waste not to do that too, as it's like an unofficial Mode! Or is it the puzzle and action levels that are the modes? Uh... 

Whatever. The concept is great, and this game can give you hours of enjoyment, whether you want to play the freaking game or just experiment. Or if you want to play “I'm better than you” and look for existing words that are not in the game's dictionary. Dictionary which, by the way, contains over 20,000 words.

Either way, I suggest you try it out. Overlook the flaws, and you can have a lot of fun with it. Heck, you can have fun just looking for all the things you can summon and all the interactions they can have.

This game is Cthulhu-approved!

And see you later for the sequel, Super Scribblenauts, in which you can use adjectives! Though, not next week. Later. As in, a couple months from now. I just have the feeling that there are other creativity games to review...