Version tested: Wii
The original Drawn to Life was based around an interesting idea, half-heartedly realised in the guts of a mediocre platform game. Two years on and this sequel brings the series to the Wii for the first time, but sadly falls into the same trap despite addition of several new elements.
Sequel is perhaps a misleading term, since in many respects this is more like a slightly enhanced remake. The plot, such as it is, echoes the last game very closely while the gameplay fits snugly into the same old mould. The rotund inhabitants of the hub world Raposa Village - a sort of cut-price Animal Crossing - are once again menaced by a mysterious villain, whose scheme involves taking the precious things of the village and hiding them at convenient intervals at the end of numerous themed stages.
There's nothing wrong with a little adherence to formula, of course, but the problem with Drawn to Life has always been that its uninspired construction isn't elevated by the vague stabs at innovation elsewhere. That innovation, as with the last game, is that you can draw some of the objects and characters that will populate the game. As tempting as that sounds, the structure of the game is such that there's rarely much point in doing so.
One of the most immediate issues is the Wii itself. With its stylus, the DS is obviously well-suited to a game that involves drawing items directly into the game. The previous game's sketchpad was a little clunky, but at least you were holding a tangible pen-shaped object and drawing on a physical surface. Needless to say, holding the Wii remote aloft like a dart and doodling in thin air fails to produce the same instinctive penmanship. The drawing tools are surprisingly sophisticated, but producing something worthwhile is still fiddly and it's too tempting to save time and opt instead for the pre-designed templates, which instantly shame whatever crude doodle you were attempting.
With your elbow braced against the arm of a chair, and a steadying hand on the wrist, it is eventually possible to produce coherent images that aren't mortifyingly embarrassing, but the game never really justifies the effort required. For one thing, most of the time you're being asked to draw completely pointless background details. These accumulate over the game, so that the game's visual style slowly becomes your own, but even so, it's hard to muster the enthusiasm to painstakingly craft a tiny butterfly or toucan's beak that will only ever appear a few pixels high on-screen as you trot past. Too many of the game's key visual elements are locked off, out of reach, leaving you to merely scribble in the margins.
When the game does ask you to create something integral to the gameplay, it's fairly crude in the ways it incorporates it. An early example is a bridge in the Raposa Village. You're given a large template area to fill, but if your drawing doesn't reach the top of the allotted area, your character will simply hover across the gap - carried aloft on the invisible outline of the object it expected you to draw.
When it comes time to design your own platforms, this proves especially problematic - precision jumps are hard to judge when objects are surrounded by invisible edges. It seems like things are looking up when you're later asked to design a car, but the area available for your design is restrictive, and the end result unconvincing. The sloppy, wonky physics race that follows does, at least, provide an answer to the question "What would Trials HD look like if it were designed by a monkey on MS Paint?"
Not that the game is ever difficult enough for these conceptual stumbles to be more than a fleeting irritation. Jumps are rather soft and floaty, and the engine errs on the safe side by giving you too much leeway to make large leaps. For large chunks of each level you're simply bouncing and climbing over needless obstacles because jumping is what the genre demands; gaming reduced to Pavlovian response, rather than creative engagement.
Enemies are equally lethargic. Provided the sometimes clunky collision detection doesn't interfere, you'll see off most threats simply by jumping somewhere in their vicinity. It's not that these basic elements are ever particularly bad, just that they feel like a generic obligation - all the expected platform clichés arrive on cue, while the level design never aspires to anything more than an excuse to keep you double-jumping to the next exit. By the end of the first gameworld, you'll likely be playing in a distracted stupor, with more lives and coins than you need.
All of which could be equally applied to the previous game. New to this version is the concept of Action Drawing. This takes place in dotted-line shapes where you can scribble directly on the screen to create platforms and other objects outside of the drawing tool. Some even include elementary physics, causing the drawn item to be tugged down by gravity rather than sticking in place.
There's potential here but, again, the design never really runs with the possibilities. Too often these boxes are just there, forcing you to draw a line to link two platforms but requiring little thought. The later examples, which could almost be called puzzles, fail to inspire because, by boxing off the area where you can draw, the solutions are hard to avoid. There's only so much mileage you can get from rudimentary see-saw physics problems, and Drawn to Life runs out of inspiration too soon.
In terms of longevity, the game offers a handful of sluggish multiplayer sports games (is it just me or does "rapo-ball" sound wrong?) and a slew of unlockables scattered around the levels in areas vaguely hidden just off the linear path. These items include stamps of facial features, body parts and colour palettes as well as complete character templates. Coupled with the pre-designed versions of every object you'll be asked to draw, it puts the game at cross purposes with itself - the bonus items that reward exploration serve only to help you avoid the very act of creation that the game is supposedly built around.
All of which sounds disastrous but, as with the first game, The Next Chapter's biggest crime is simply failing to fulfill its potential. There are no glaring technical problems, or insurmountable design cock-ups, just a rather dull platformer with a central creative gimmick that's too clumsy to be liberating, poorly incorporated into the action and often bizarrely sidelined by the game's structure. With games like LittleBigPlanet, Crayon Physics and Scribblenauts all exploring similar user-generated territory to varying degrees of success, Drawn to Life's continued inability to turn its absent-minded doodles into compelling gameplay makes it a sadly superfluous offering.
5 / 10