With its two screens, touchscreen (in a time before smartphones made them commonplace), and stylus, the Nintendo DS presented a novel way of interacting with games that plenty of developers put to great use. Drawn to Life was one such game, a platformer built around players drawing their own characters, items, and objects using the touchscreen on the bottom to feed the action happening on the screen above. It’s charm and creativity paved the way for a sequel and a SpongeBob Squarepants spinoff, but it’s been a long time since Drawn to Life: The Next Chapter hit shelves in 2009.
Drawn to Life: Two Realms is a long-awaited return for the series, in the hands of a new developer (Digital Continue), but with a few key staff from the originals still involved. It’s a different take on Drawn to Life, with that difference mostly dictated by the fact that we’ve moved on from dual-screen consoles and stylus-based touchscreens, and while it doesn’t quite hit the same colourful heights of the original games, it’s still an enjoyable enough adventure.
Two Realms picks up where The Next Chapter left off. Mike, the human protagonist who’d spent most of the previous game trapped in a fantasy world inhabited by fox-like Raposa creatures while his physical form was in a coma, is now awake and freely able to explore his own home. But both the human world and Raposa are under threat from malicious forces, taking Mike and the Raposa Mari on a journey across both worlds to save the day, with the help of the god-like Creator (the player) and a magical tome that lets the player’s hand-crafted avatar dive into people’s minds to help fend off the darkness that plagues them.
It’s a familiar, uncomplicated affair, for better and worse. The whole “diving into people’s minds” gambit is one that’s been done plenty and carries a lot of potential that Two Realms never really explores. Psychological exploration is inherent in the concept, but here it mostly exists as a convenient setup for the main game loop: someone’s uncharacteristically angry or upset about something, so you jump into their head to solve a few puzzle platformer levels, and then they feel better. The characters are too one-note and their quandaries too mundane for there to be any real drama in these moments.
At the same time, it gives Two Realms a low-key, almost slice-of-life feel to it; yes, you’re saving the world, but you’re doing it with the equivalent of a cup of tea and a “everything’s going to be alright, hang in there bud”. Even as the stakes climb and the thing that’s causing those dark feelings to manifest in the first place becomes apparent, the game never quite loses that chilled out energy. It’s nice, if a little anticlimactic.
Most of Drawn to Life: Two Realms takes place in those psychological worlds, solving puzzle-platformer levels as a way of healing whatever’s ailing the person in question. (How or why this is how their mental states are manifested is never really questioned—just go with it.) You know the drill: there are enemies to defeat and/or avoid, gaps to jump across, and various elements placed within each level to help you do both, like pinball flippers that launch you higher and further than you could ever jump.
Most levels are clearly laid out for you, with increasingly complex (but never especially difficult) puzzles to solve and a regular assortment of new toys to play with it. But every few levels, you’ll find one that’s only half-built: the platforms and gaps are all there, but the enemies and gadgets are yours to place as you see fit. These levels aren’t just about figuring out how to get to the end, but figuring out what to place where in order to finish building that path.
It’s a neat idea on paper, but one that’s never fully realised. For the most part, there’s a single clear, straightforward answer that undermines any creativity that such a system should encourage. At other times (though thankfully not too often), Two Realms goes in the opposite direction—you have a handful of different tools that you can place literally anywhere in the level, allowing for hundreds of potential configurations of which almost none will work. If you can’t already envision the correct solution from the get-go, that’s a lot of noise to fight through, and with a lot of solutions that look like they’re almost the right thing turning out to be complete red herrings, there’s little scope for logical puzzle-solving.
Drawing also takes something of a back-seat in Drawn to Life: Two Realms, despite the name—though as I said before, this is mostly out of necessity given the different hardware. There are still plenty of opportunities for you to create your own elements, and you can still draw these if you really want to do the fingers-on-a-touchscreen thing, but there’s a greater emphasis now on stickers and other ready-made details that you can mix and match. It’s less drawing, more playing with paper dolls. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, just different.
But there’s also less focus on drawing, or even crafting, as a part of the game in the way that it was in earlier Drawn to Life games. Aside from the avatar you create at the beginning of the game (who you can customise whenever you want), the majority of other creations are purely cosmetic—you’re drawing signs and decorations for the village segments of the game, rather than tools and gadgets for the platforming levels.
With its vibrant art style, playful atmosphere, plenty of cleverly-designed levels to solve, and some interesting, if uneven, new ideas at play, Drawn to Life: Two Realms is an enjoyable game, but it never quite manages to capture the magic of its predecessors.
Drawn to Life: Two Realms is developed by Digital Continue and published by 505 Games. It’s available now for Nintendo Switch (reviewed), PC, and mobile.
A review copy was provided to Shindig by the publisher.