Drawn to Life
These days, every new and original idea that isn't immediately accepted as a core and deep gameplay mechanic seems to be labeled as a gimmick. It's hard to argue with this at times, as there have been so many different types of videogames and subgenres that often anyone who tries something truly out-of-the-ordinary is doing so by the means of some flashy but ultimately shallow feature. It is easy to look at Drawn to Life in this way, as its hook is not something that rings as a terribly fundamental element to add to platformers. This, however, would be unfair to what developer 5th Cell decided to do when they created this product.
At first glance, Drawn to Life is a fairly standard platforming game. You'll traverse through many jumping obstacles and defeat enemies by jumping on them or vanquishing them with a weapon. It would be a perfectly legitimate criticism if one said it was fairly unremarkable in this regard. It's not bad, mind you, it even manages to be quite fun for most of the time, it's just that it's extremely by-the-numbers in all aspects of its platforming design. If this were any other game, this review would continue on by suggesting that the experience is a nice diversion, but forgettable. But not in Drawn to Life, since there is a special little slice of love here that sets it far, far apart from the breed. For you see, you literally paint pieces of your world into existence.
Never has the phrase "it gives as much as you put in" been so true as it is here. While there's no doubt this can be a pretty short experience if you let it be, how much effort you put into bringing your creations to life will be directly proportionate to how much pleasure you get from this game. You'll be asked to draw different types of platforms, jumping springs, vehicles, even your weapons. Best of all, you will be tasked with creating the hero of the game, which is noteworthy in how it bridges the connection between you and the world inside. While most platformers have you controlling a derivative mascot whom you could never feasibly care about, here you might suddenly find yourself smiling unusually wide when you do save that villager or bring light back to the town. This creation becomes an extension of your expression, and if this sounds like hyperbole to you it's because it is easy to be disarmed by this simple joy.
After some introduction to the game's story, you're initially presented with a palette and an outline and set free to design the hero. I chose to design my world with the theme of the SNES RPG Earthbound, so mine became an exact reflection of Ness. I've read that others have designed theirs after Big Daddy from Bioshock, or after some more... illicit... aspects of the male anatomy, and whatever you choose to do the game provides a pretty nice interface to do it with. There are multiple level of zooms to make drawing those fine details easier, a fairly wide range of colors and other features to help you best bring things to life. This isn't exactly Adobe Photoshop, but with the DS stylus you can make some very elaborate things provided your talent level is at the right place. After you save your creation, the game will "animate" it and you'll instantly be running around, jumping, talking and more with your hero.
As you advance the game tasks you with going through various levels to save different villagers, which by extension opens up new areas of the town and allows you to design things such as plants, restaurant signs and even the sun. The variety here is nice, and always keeps you wondering what you'll be designing next. You'll have to draw many different types of platforms (goo type, spring type, clouds and ice, etc), and tons of vehicles (hang gliders, sleds, submarines, etc), and they'll all have a variety of guidelines to keep things fresh. Sometimes the things they ask for are so specific that it takes a bit of the flexibility out of designing them (and indeed, often you're reduced to merely "coloring" things in). While this is certainly more friendly to the younger crowd that may play the game, it does not always lend itself to something that is fun to draw. Another thing that is good for the younger crowd but likewise a bit disappointing from my perspective is the difficulty. Sure the kids will have no problem beating each level... but that means it's a pretty simple romp all considered. For the most part, though, the things you'll be designing will compel you to continue.
Less compelling is the wide array of things you'll have to collect, which devolves the experience a bit into a sort of item hunt. However, if you do work up the effort to explore every corner of the levels, you will be rewarded with songs, coins and more importantly different abilities which enhance the gameplay in significant ways and become very useful to your efforts in beating the later levels.
The creation system isn't without flaws. Most notably, there is no real penalty for putting no effort at all into your art. I suppose it would be hard to judge these things in the game, so there's no easy solution to this problem, but if I draw a really crappy platform it's not going to be harder to jump on. It's just going to be ugly. There is an argument to be made that this is punishment enough, but it does slightly take away from the illusion.
The rest of the game is wrapped up in some impressive polish for a first time DS effort. The music in particular is very memorable, and the visuals have a distinctive charm that compliments the creation theme positively. And while the story at its base is standard fare for the genre, it definitely does involve some relatively deep themes such as God's abandonment of society, creationism and the very Biblical challenge of "I can do things better than the creator can." Maybe these "mature thematic elements" are not so much for the kiddies after all. Sure, it's wrapped up cutely enough... but it's there! In all seriousness, it's all very lighthearted and inoffensive in its presentation.
The DS is packed with plenty of great videogame experiences, and it would be unfortunate if Drawn to Life was forever buried under them and ignored due to its seemingly gimmicky drawing aspect. But where others would reject the title for what they feel is an attempt to hide its average gameplay behind a flashy artistic angle, I would say the game is elevated well above mediocrity by inserting this creation angle into a very played out genre. Drawn to Life has a color and personality far beyond the majority of platformers, and is a perfect fit for the DS functionality to boot, already giving it a good headstart on its competitors quality. Hopefully the incoming holiday rush doesn't resign this one to become an overlooked gem.
What's Hot: Originality. Like, for real originality.
What's Not: Too much collecting.