Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Review: Super Scribblenauts

Developer: 5th Cell
Publisher: WB Games

2009’s Scribblenauts was infuriating for a lot of people, including this reviewer. Up until that point, developer 5th Cell had made games that showed that they understood how and why people play games. Scribblenauts was an amazing concept that got buried underneath piles of major mistakes.

This review isn't going to be about throwing dirt on the old version of Scribblenauts. Lots of reviewers already did that. Still, it's important to list the flaws of the original to see what needed improvement. Here are three of the major ones:
  1. It was unfocused. They would throw you into a puzzle and expect you to sink or swim. That's not always a problem, but when the victory conditions weren't spelled out or unreasonable impositions were placed without any explanation of an alternative, it led to a lot of frustration.
  2. Most puzzles could be solved by placing a jetpack on your character and racing him over to where he needed to be. Why sit and try and come up with a complex solution when it's easy enough to just make a mode of transport and finish the puzzle? Some may say that I was missing the point and I needed to be more creative, but I'm a pretty practical person. If you present with me with an easy solution and a Rube Goldberg-esque tangle of solutions that may or may not work, I'll take the easy solution any day. I suspect most people are the same.
  3. Maxwell controlled horribly. 5th Cell has stated that they meant for you to direct him and not control him directly, but many puzzles demanded a certain level of movement that was only possible with direct control. In many cases, one false move could lead to death, and it was far too easy to make that false move.
OK, so we've detailed the three major flaws of Scribblenauts. You may have more in mind, but the point remains the same: Scribblenauts was a fantastic and wholly original idea marred by substandard execution and weird decisions. So does Super Scribblenauts improve on the original, or does it merely rehash the mistakes of its predecessor?

"A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver."

As in the original, Super Scribblenauts has you solve puzzles with...well, anything. If you enter in a word, chances are they have it in their enormous dictionary. Everything from computer to broadsword, azalea to zebra, it'll probably be there.

The big change is the addition of adjectives, which makes the game so much deeper and much less frustrating. For example, there are so many times in the original game that I wanted to make something heavy and wouldn't be able to. In Super Scribblenauts, it's very easy to make, say, a long heavy stone bridge.

This comes into play in a great deal of puzzles. One puzzle has you as a blacksmith attempting to outfit a soldier with weapons to defeat a variety of foes. The first weapon can be anything, but then they ask you to defeat flaming foes, so you have to create a weapon that has the power of ice, like a "Frozen Bow," and so on.

In one puzzle, you're presented with a giant robot and have to make a girlfriend for him. You have to make, say, a "Giant Metal Woman," then give her clothes that will attract the robot and a romantic gift that a robot would like.

In a personal favorite puzzle, you have to get into a fancy party, get a keycard, turn off a security camera and get information from a safe without harming any of the guards. You have to create a disguise, immobilize a guard without killing him and then escape on a motorboat.

If these puzzles sound more focused than the original game's puzzles, that's because they are. They'll usually explain exactly what your objective is, and then help you to figure out what you need to do next. Some people may like this, and some people won't. I found that the improved focus made me much more creative, since I didn't have to think so much about "How do I do this?" and focused instead on "what should I use?"

Another very welcome addition is a help system. If you need a hint, you can purchase up to two hints using the game's currency, "Ollars." In certain multi-stage puzzles, they'll provide you with several hints for the various stages of the puzzle. I can't tell you how many times that's taken a puzzle from, "What the heck am I supposed to do here?" to "Oh, that makes sense." It cuts way back on your frustration level and is greatly appreciated.

In the first game, puzzles were divided between "Action" and "Puzzle" types. The problem was that some of the so-called Action puzzles were more puzzle-y, and some of the puzzle ones demanded quick reflexes. On top of that, some action puzzles were so fast that you could barely get one word out before you were beset by enemies.

They've removed that distinction here. Now, most every puzzle gives you a little time to breathe beforehand, examine the situation and figure out what you need. There's a timer running in the corner, but missing the allotted time doesn't make you automatically end the puzzle.

The controls are also greatly improved. They give you the option of using the original game's controls in case you liked them for whatever reason, but you'll probably do what everyone else has done and map the movement controls to the D-pad. It's amazing what this one little change did to the flow of the game. Now, instead of having the stylus handle character controls AND camera controls, the stylus is free to handle the camera and any objects you have on the map while you control your character's movements.

There are a few times where you'll wish that your character could jump higher or farther, or that he could run faster. However, I argue that those limiting factors improve your creativity. If your character could run at super speeds or leap large gaps, why would he need to create anything? It's fine the way it is.

Sticks And Stones May Break My Bones But Words Will Never Hurt Me

Super Scribblenauts still has a few flaws. For one, some puzzles are a little opaque. For example, in one puzzle you're presented with four characters: A king, a butler, a leprechaun and another character. You have to wear clothes or handle items that will make all of them happy. I decided to make a gold plate to hold on to, since the gold would make both the king and leprechaun happy and the plate would make the butler happy. Well, the butler didn't like the plate. Instead, I made a gold serving tray, assuming that now all three would be happy. Unfortunately, the king no longer liked the tray. Why? Who knows! Why didn't the butler like the plate? Who knows!

You'll run into this from time to time: Puzzles that you would think you have answered end up being incorrect. You'll try tweaking your answer or coming up with different answers and none of them are satisfying.

Also, sometimes they'll expect you to read their mind a little too much. One puzzle had me coming up with items for an outdoor party. I put down a tent so that they would have shelter, but they didn't think that was a party thing. I had some food, some music and a clown for entertainment. The game still wanted more. I tried putting down another entertainer, and they didn't want that. I put down something to drink, and they liked that. I tried putting down sports equipment for activities, and they didn't like that, and so on.

At no time did they tell me what I was missing. Even when I checked the hints, Super Scribblenauts only told me I needed food and entertainment. I got pretty desperate. I put down a grill, but it set fire to a table. I made cake, and a character ate it and got cavities. Worst party EVER.

They'll also sometimes ask you to put down one more item that you can come up with. For example, they may ask for eight items to put in a garden. You'll come up with 5 right off the bat and then they'll start repeating. For instance, a rosebush just puts down a rose. If I put in a tulip, it's the same as a rose, and so on. After a while, you're really scraping the bottom of the barrel.

A Worthy Sequel

Still, Super Scribblenauts is all about the little things, like giving Abe Lincoln and George Washington flamethrowers and watching them fight a horde of courageous zombies or making riding a velociraptor against a cowardly Zeus. While a lot of people got that out of their system with the original game, it's still always fun to just mess around for a while.

For all the hype that floated around the original Scribblenauts, it ended up delivering a lot less than promised. Super Scribblenauts delivers the goods in a way that the original couldn't. If you liked the original Scribblenauts but found it too frustrating, Super Scribblenauts is for you. If you never played the original, skip it and get this one instead. You’ll have a great time.

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