Release Date: November 18 (North America), Early 2013 (Europe)
Platforms available on: Wii U, PC, 3DS
Developer: 5th Cell
Publisher: Warner Bros Interactive
The term sandbox has been applied to open-world games in the past, but perhaps that term has been used incorrectly all of this time. After all, an actual sandbox is really more of a blank slate for people to mould rather than open cities to drive through. Scribblenauts Unlimited, on the other hand, comes much closer to fitting the literal definition of a sandbox.
Players can write in practically any word they can imagine to solve puzzles, including adjectives to expand the game's already robust vocabulary. Solving puzzles rewards players with starites, which gradually unlock new levels on the world map.
The core formula remains mostly unchanged from past Scribblenauts games. What has changed is the scale, as levels are much larger with a greater variety of goals. One level could encompass a whole city, with characters walking around and side tasks to complete in addition to the main level goals.
The side tasks are smaller puzzles, usually only requiring a single well-placed word. For example a boy might tell you he is frightened of a bully, which could be solved by giving him a means of defending himself or by simply adding an adjective, like "friendly" to the bully or "brave" to the boy. These smaller puzzles only offer a starite shard, eight of which make a full starite, as a reward but also make up the bulk of Scribblenauts Unlimited's goals.
Then there are more the elaborate puzzles, which reward a full starite. For example, one puzzle might ask you to prepare for a zombie invasion by writing in a series of parts to build a defence robot.
Or a hunter might need help trapping a dinosaur, which involves multiple steps as you construct the trap, set the bait and try to sedate a rampaging allosaurus. It's really just a bunch of smaller puzzles grouped together, but having a series of puzzles that actually build on one another makes them more satisfying to complete.
The trouble is that none of the puzzles are particularly challenging. Puzzles typically boil down to basic word association, with so many possible solutions that nearly anything remotely related to the obvious answer will work. This can lead to hilarious results, like watching a farmer ride around on a giant ear of corn when asked to create something from their home.
It is also the source of many disappointments, as the game does not always acknowledge your creative solutions. In the aforementioned zombie puzzle, players are asked for parts to assemble a robot, but the same generic robot is built regardless of whether you decide to build it out of a tank, unicycle or even a giant tortoise.
The inconsistent payoff takes away from the motivation to go out of your way to come up with something witty, making many puzzles feel like you're simply going through the motions writing in the obvious word on command.
A basic story ties the whole game together, which is a first for the series. It turns out Maxwell is collecting starites to reverse a curse that is turning his sister to stone. Along the way, players will encounter dozens of Maxwell's other siblings, which can be unlocked as playable characters for some variety.
The story is pretty sparse, and the siblings don't offer any new abilities, but it gives the game a better sense of cohesion than past entries in the series, along with something new to collect for the completionists out there.
While there is no traditional multiplayer in Scribblenauts Unlimited, it does allow a second player to wield a Wii remote for the Sidekick mode. The sidekick player can take control of any character that the first player spawns, allowing them to move around and interact with the scene. There's no real puzzle-solving value to Sidekick mode, but there's always the pure fun appeal of getting to step into the shoes of a gentlemanly robotic tyrannosaurus.
The real multiplayer appeal though comes from the fact that everything is being projected on the television screen. The first player will hardly ever look at the television since the bulk of gameplay uses the touchscreen to select objects and input words.
However, Scribblenauts Unlimited truly shines when played with a group of friends who can shout out their own suggestions for what object to create next. While the series has always been about coming up with creative solutions, for the first time it is actually convenient to show off the game's bizarre word associations, and maybe learn some new ones using a friend's vocabulary.
Speaking of showing off, Scribblenauts Unlimited also features a full object editor. Players can start with any base object in the game and customise it to your heart's content, replacing limbs, changing colours and even editing behaviour. The behaviour scripting can become fairly advanced, allowing players to define how their creation will interact with other characters with surprising specificity.
Your creations can then be used in the main game, and shared with other players through the Punctuation Plaza. Random player stores appear in Punctuation Plaza each visit, letting you download any of their custom objects for your own use.
While the list of original creations will surely grow over time, so far copyright materials are the most common objects available online, such as Marvel and DC superheroes, Adventure Time characters and attempts to create all 649 Pokemon.
The randomly-appearing shops ensure constant variety, while a search option lets you find specific items based on a keyword or user's name. On PC, Steam Workshop is used to exchange custom objects, while the 3DS version doesn't have online item sharing.
Overall, Scribblenauts Unlimited is at its best when you let your creativity run wild and just marvel at the bizarre combinations you can conjure.
The game gives little motivation to step out of your comfort zone to solve puzzles in clever or innovative ways, but becomes far more satisfying when used as an outlet for your imagination rather than strictly adhering to any level's given goals. It's as fun of an experience as you make it, with those yearning to flex their creative muscles getting the most from the virtual sandbox.