In 2007, the company 5th Cell, back in the days before they became known for Scribblenauts, developed a 2D platformer known as Drawn to Life. Published by THQ, the main draw of this game was the fact that players could draw various characters and level objects that would appear in the game. While the game received mixed to average reviews, it managed to get two sequels (one version for the Wii that happens directly after the first game, and another one for the DS which is technically the third game in the series) with a darker storyline which included a surprisingly heavy twist that Mike, the sole human that lives among the furry Raposa people, is in a coma from a car crash, and the world of the Raposa is just his coma dream. From there, the series went dormant, more or less, when THQ went bankrupt and sold off the rights to the series to 505 Games for $300K. Now, slightly over a decade later, the Drawn to Life series returns with an official sequel in Drawn to Life: Two Realms.
Given how 5th Cell ended off the last game, I was curious to see how 505 Games would reconcile this new game's story. If the world of the Raposa was just a coma dream, how come it still exists? Unfortunately, the segment of the game given for the preview didn't seem interested in explaining those sorts of questions to newcomers like myself. The intro went over the stories of the older games in broad strokes, referring to how the Creator (the player) made a Hero to save them from the Darkness while making no references to Mike waking from his coma. As someone who learned his first bit of the series' story literally that morning from a tweet asking folks to post the most depressing video game endings, I was uncertain that I'd be getting any closure on what's going on anytime soon.
As for the story in Two Realms, there were also plenty of questions that went unanswered. Mari, the mayor of Rapoville and daughter of the previous mayor, calls upon the Creator to summon the Hero and have them bring Mike to Rapoville. To help them, Mari gives them the Book of Imagination, which lets them jump between the two realms as well as people's minds. Unfortunately, the Hero doesn't get much of a chance to get Mike to come along with them. Not only does Mike not remember them, but there's a new villain known as Aldark (he was labeled as "???" in his speech bubble, but the level description right after the first encounter with him may have spoiled his name) who's using his evil powers to influence people, making them rude and overemotional. The preview part of the game ended shortly after that first encounter, when Mara asks the Hero to help out Chef Cookie so he'll start making his specialty baked goods again.
The big draw in the Drawn to Life series is the ability to create various assets that appear in the game. The preview portion had me creating the appearance of the Hero, with six distinct areas to edit (the head, the torso, and all four limbs.) This entry in the series uses pixel art, similar to programs like Piskel, to edit the Hero, along with stamps to apply various decals and the new ability to save up to four "outfits" that represent different saved characters. Using the mouse to draw a character worked fine; I spent about ten minutes working on a head and a leg for a character before I grew impatient and concluded my meager art skills would result in the Hero looking like an abomination. I decided to go with one of the pre-built characters, a robot with a cat head. The humans are surprisingly chill about the Hero running around, but I felt my attempt at creating something would be pushing their tolerance to the limit.
In the world itself, players can run around the town to talk with people and pick up coins that can be used to buy more character creation accessories. But the real gameplay comes from when you use the Book of Imagination to enter people's minds. If players are expecting to actually explore their minds like you're playing Psychonauts, they might want to temper expectations. Helping people out simply involves clearing a series of simple platforming stages that come in three varieties. Players will have to either reach the exit before time runs out, defeat all the enemies, referred to as Toys, and reach the exit before time runs out, or reach the exit by placing Toys in the correct locations.
The platforming gameplay is pretty boilerplate when it comes to 2D platforming. You jump, you stomp on Toys, you wall jump on specifically-marked walls. The controls and platforming feel okay, but it doesn't really stand out by feeling particularly acrobatic or offering unique features. I'd imagine that the simple platforming is appealing for the younger demographic the first two games were aimed at. But it does leave me thinking about how the game handles the story and what it means for newcomers and returning fans.
Because Drawn to Life had a decade-long gap between The Next Chapter and Two Realms, you would imagine there'd be a strong effort to recap the story to help new players understand what's going on while reminding old fans of what happened. However, you're going to have to check Wikipedia and TvTropes because the recap in the opening cutscene does little to explain the world, especially given the whole "the Raposa world is a coma dream" revelation from The Next Chapter. Younger newcomers may be confused by all of the questions raised because of the inadequate explanations, while returning fans may find the platforming too simple now that it's been a decade since the last game.
I may make it sound like there's little good about Drawn to Life: Two Realms, but I fully admit that this colorful world may not be for me. I'm not the type of person who spends an hour designing one character, and offering me the ability to edit my teeth and nails simply baffles me. I also fully understand that not understanding the story may be on me for not playing the original games. Still, I feel like as an outsider to the Drawn to Life series, my difficulty getting into the game will likely be a sticking point for anyone that wants to give the game a try. Hopefully it'll turn out that you don't need any prior knowledge of the series to enjoy the game.
TechRaptor previewed Drawn to Life: Two Realms on PC using a copy provided by the publisher. The game launches on December 7th, 2020.