Imagine, if you will, that you're back in college. It's the night of the leaver's dance (that's "The Prom", if you're one of our US readers), and you've just showed up to pick up your date. As her mother opens the door you spy your childhood sweetheart at the top of the stairs, resplendent in a shimmering silk gown. She looks absolutely stunning.
Then all of a sudden, something goes wrong. Your beloved trips over a draft excluder built into the top of the stairs and goes tumbling head over heels. She bounces on her face down 28 steps and then comes to an abrupt stop, a broken puppet on the hallway floor.
Amazingly, your date is prepared to carry on. She has two black eyes and has lost a few teeth, but what the hell - it's the leaver's ball. She's a plucky spirit, this girl - and that's why you love her. So you go to the dance anyway, and you have a surprisingly good time. But every so often you look at your lover's mangled features, and you wonder what might have been. If only she hadn't tripped over that draft excluder! What on Earth was that doing there, anyway? Who builds a draft excluder into the top of a staircase? What a stupid piece of design!
That, in a nutshell, is how I feel about Scribblenauts. When I first heard the concept for this game, it seemed too good to be true: an action puzzler where the player solves challenges by summoning any object they want, just by typing out its name. Then when I actually saw the game being demoed, my expectations rocketed - because against all the odds, it seemed like developer 5th Cell had actually pulled off the impossible. And now we know the truth - they have pulled it off, but they've also botched what should have been a comparatively simple job: the basic controls.
Scribblenauts finds you guiding a kid named Maxwell through hundreds of brief 2D scenarios. Stages are split into two categories - action and puzzle - but in both cases your ultimate aim is to collect a token called a Starite. In the former set of levels you'll usually have to fight your way past several hostile creatures, while the latter force you to get your thinking cap on: you might simply be re-stocking someone's farm, or you might be retrieving a truck from the bottom of a lake. Whatever the situation, you'll be conjuring up hundreds upon hundreds of helpful items, creatures and people. Just tap the notepad icon in the top left of the screen, type in the name of what you want, and with any luck it'll magically appear for you to use.
I really can't overstate how impressive this system is. The game doesn't have everything, obviously, but the range and number of things on offer is pretty unbelievable. From mythical creatures to military vehicles, from greasy burritos to deadly diseases, there's almost no limit to what you can bring to the party. While most objects have an immediate use, you can often give them further purpose by combining them with something else. Attach a rope to the bottom of a helicopter, and you've got a highly versatile airlift. Stick a saddle on the back of a grizzly bear, and you can ride it into battle. Certain people and creatures also have clever AI triggers - cats and dogs will automatically fight if they're near each other, for example, as will God and Satan.
Occasionally you'll find your plans are messed up by strange or unexpected behavior from NPC beings, but most of the time these surprises are fairly amusing. A far more serious flaw is to be found in the game's tragically ill-conceived control system. The stylus is used for absolutely everything, and while the drag-and-drop setup works fine for placing and arranging objects, navigating Maxwell himself is another matter entirely. The idea is that you simply tap where you want him to go, but as a result it's all too easy to send him flying across the screen while you're trying to interact with a small item.
Normally these unexpected sprints result in a swift death and failure of the level, but even when the little bugger survives he usually knocks something over. Scribblenauts boasts a detailed physics system, but unfortunately everything in the game appears to be made out of paper and string. Vital objects have a horrible habit of falling over or of dropping into water just at the wrong moment, and Maxwell has all the grace of a sea lion undergoing electroshock therapy. All too often you'll come up with a brilliant solution for a problem, and then spend half an hour failing to implement your plan. You'll soon learn which objects are easy to use and which aren't, but you never feel 100 per cent in control of what's going on. There's a huge amount of luck involved in any action that requires speed or precision, and when things do come together you'll often feel relieved, rather than triumphant.
Here's an example for you. One of the very early challenges asks Maxwell to retrieve three plants and to deposit them in a basket, under the watchful eye of a flower collector. One flower is protected by a bee, a second is on a narrow ledge at the top of a cliff, and finally there's a lily at the bottom of a small lake that contains an angry fish. On my first attempt at this quest, I started out by spawning a gun so I could shoot the bee (I know this was a bit excessive, but I was feeling playful). I instructed Maxwell to shoot the insect, and instead he unloaded a clip into the nearby flower. Mission failed.
On my second try, I spawned a swatter for Maxwell to use. He dispatched the bee, but not before suffering so much damage that he was later murdered by the fish. On attempt three I summoned a frog which ate the bee, then I flew by helicopter to the top of the cliff. As I disembarked, the vehicle crushed the flower. Mission failed. The next time around, it fell off the cliff into the lake, where it destroyed both the fish and the lily. Eventually I just flew up there using wings, but I still had to retrieve the last plant from the lake. I threw a bottle of poison in, but that didn't work. I threw in a toaster, but this also destroyed the lily. I eventually resorted to throwing cats into the water - the first one was killed by the piranha, but the second was ultimately victorious. Then when I finally jumped into the water to grab my prize, Maxwell insisted on picking up the feline first.
It's worth pointing out that every time I grabbed a flower, I had to dump it in the collector's basket. This would be fine if it weren't for the fact that she dashed up to me excitedly every time she saw that I was holding a flower. In the process, she knocked the basket over - which meant I couldn't put anything in it. Every time this happened, I had to stop what I was doing and set the basket the right way up in the vain hope that it wouldn't be knocked over by the collector, the frog, the drenched cat or by Maxwell himself on one of his mad spasms. Eventually I got rid of everything that was no longer needed (you can drag spawned items to a bin in the corner of the screen), and carefully placed the two flowers into the basket. The lily, meanwhile, was nowhere to be seen. I eventually realised that the collector was actually standing on top of it, and no matter what I did, I couldn't get her to budge. At this point I finally snapped, spawned a pistol, and shot her in the face. Mission failed.
This story demonstrates everything that is good and bad about Scribblenauts. With hindsight my struggles make for a neat little tale, but at the time I was cursing till I was red in the face. At the time, it wasn't funny - in fact it was a major pain in the arse. Had I not been playing the game for review, I would have probably shut down my DS and gone to do something else. Make no mistake, Scribblenauts requires a gargantuan degree of patience, and for many the frustration will be too much to bear.
Once you've conquered a level, you're granted the option to replay it in advanced mode - wherein the player must come up with no less than three solutions to the given problem, each using a completely different set of objects. In theory, this setup should encourage smart thinking and a bout of creativity on the player's part; in practice, you're far more likely to stick to use subtle variants of objects that worked the first time - swapping your helicopter for a pegasus, a rope for a cable, and so forth. All too often I found myself scrapping clever combinations in favour of something more mundane, simply because I couldn't bear to suffer the irritation that accompanies any attempt at complex action. Indeed, the game's fiddly nature is all the more painful because it actually blocks you from seeing you imagination bear fruit. You'll think of an idea and success will dangle before your very eyes, then at the last minute it'll be whipped away as something stupid happens.
It's a heartbreaking situation, because from an outsider's perspective there's no reason why it should be this way. The combination of physics and hundreds of user-generated objects was always going to be tricky, but surely the controls could have been done a different way. Why can't we move Maxwell around with the d-pad, and why does the camera snap back to him every few seconds, obscuring our view of fun stuff going on elsewhere? These aren't minor imperfections, they're major flaws that distract us from all that the good stuff that the game has to offer - the massive library of objects, the customisation options, and the clever system that lets you unlock game worlds by buying them from an in-game store. There's even an option to create your own levels and to share them with other local users - something you rarely ever see on the humble DS. And yet when you walk away from a Scribblenauts session, all you can think about is how much better it could have been.
Despite all the issues, there will still be many people who love this game. For all its problems, it's still an incredibly fresh experience - a genuinely unique slice of creativity that shows, once again, what a brilliant little machine the DS really is. I can't deny that I'm disappointed by Scribblenauts' shortcomings, but I will certainly continue to play after this review is done - and I hope with all my heart that 5th Cell decide to make a sequel. If they do, and if they fill in all the cracks, perhaps one day we'll get a game that lives up to its true potential.