Based on the more than slightly off-the-wall brand of the same name, Scarygirl combines traditional platform gameplay with a combo based combat system as you embark on a quest to save the Tree of Knowledge. Does Scarygirl manage to capture the imagination of the quirky brand in video game form? Read on to find out.
Publisher: Square Enix
Price: 1200 Microsoft Points
(Available via the PlayStation Network soon)
The first thing which will undoubtedly hit you as you begin your adventure is the sheer weirdness of just about everything. Your character, Scarygirl, is a strange, scarred and grey-skinned oddity, fit with a tenticular arm.
She’s no weirder than the other characters, her enemies, and the environment though – the game’s consistently quirky art style is undoubtedly one of its biggest features. It’s all 3D too, though gameplay is constrained to a 2D path through the 3D environment. The visuals add a lot to the game in the 4-5 hour playthrough, and it’s clear that every area of the games art has received special attention.
The audio is similarly well crafted, whether it is the music or the sound effects on your journey. Scarygirl if nothing less is a feast for the senses: impressive to look at and a joy to hear. Just one small section of the game suffers from any frame-rate issues, but it’s unlikely to effect anyone’s experience too greatly.
On start up, you are played a cartoon explaining the world and story of Scarygirl. You learn of Scarygirl’s mysterious origins and are introduced to the major players. It’s a pleasing start to the game, and fills in a lot of blanks to those uninitiated to the Scarygirl universe, such as myself.
Your story begins when your guardian (a gigantic moustachioed octopus named Blister) sets you off on a mysterious quest to find out what has happened to the Tree of Knowledge. This takes you through a variety of environments – from forests and swamps, into the ocean, through caverns and up mountains, as well as through a city – in the games 21 levels, split into 7 chapters. A first time playthrough will probably last no more than a good 5 to 6 hours, dependent on user skill.
Each level brings with it a line or two of narration to keep things moving and there is a little dialogue here and there, but little more. On your way you’ll meet characters from the Scarygirl universe, but other than some fascination at their imaginative designs, they feature as little more than cameos to a light story which serves only to move the gameplay along.
In a downloadable game that could easily be forgiven if the gameplay delivered, but neither the platforming, nor the combo-based combat system work that well. The platforming involves the typical jumping, hovering, climbing and swinging onto platforms that you’d expect, but it lacks much challenge – requiring only brief feats of timing or precision. The controls aren’t quite as tight as they should be, which can lead to some frustration even with the generally simple obstacles.
You’re helped out by the games lenience when it comes to environmental damage: most mistakes take off just a smidgeon of Scarygirl’s health. Some things do result in instant death, but when Scarygirl brushes off being hit by a massive spike-barbed log swinging into her, it’s a bit of an immersion killer. It also leads to this side of the gameplay being easy to a fault, which will likely be a problem for practised platformer veterans.
A couple of environments in particular stand out amongst the rest. The Hairclump Spider Caves see Scarygirl having to deal with all manner of creepy creatures. Instead of the bash-bash-bash combat that you’re used to, and for once the emphasis moves to platforming as you use light to dissuade flurries of carnivorous insects and deft dodging to avoid poisonous spider slime. The underwater levels are a similar breath of fresh air, as you have to work quickly to avoid drowning while dodging sea horses, eels and walls of jellyfish.
Throughout the levels there are various items to collect. Every level has hundreds of gems to get to, and these gems work as Scarygirl’s currency, with which she can buy different tentacle attachments, or new moves. The former include a feather which allows you to fly further, a magnet which draws collectibles to you, and an anchor which increases your damage but sacrifices hit speed. The magnet and feather are necessary for some collectibles, but you could quite easily play through the game with the default attachment. There are also heart containers to increase your health bar and their placement can make them tricky to get to. In keeping with the general weirdness theme, Scarygirl can rejuvenate her health by collecting fish which are scattered around the levels.
The combat is less than typical for a platformer, as it uses features similar to what you might expect of a hack ‘n’ slash title. You’ve got light and heavy attack buttons, a block button, and a grapple, and between these there are a pretty sizeable number of moves you can pull off. You start off with a number of basic combos through the attack buttons, and the block function allows you to deflect, or reflect damage. If you block just as an attack is about to hit you, you will counter by reflecting the projectile back at your attacker.
The grapple allows you to grab a weakened enemy, which instantly kills them, and you can then use their body to inflict more damage. You can add to your basic combos and grapple moves by spending your gems at the vendors who appear every few levels throughout the game. There is an issue here, and that is that while you do have this wide variety of possibilities you almost never need any of it. It is far too feasible to button mash your way through the majority of the game, and so not only are the grapples and special combos not necessary they don’t feel particularly rewarding.
Fortunately, the game’s array of boss fights do inject some variety to the combat, though again it doesn’t really innovate. The selection of bosses each has its different weaknesses to exploit and routines to avoid (excepting that one boss fight is repeated later in the game), and each is impressively designed. Hit detection on some of the bosses’ attacks is a little iffy, which can add to frustration, but on the whole the boss fights are the highlights of Scarygirl’s gameplay.
For the trickier sections, Scarygirl can use her rage (charged through combat) to enter Scary mode, where she goes from cute-but-weird to truly, freakishly, scary. Your attacks go into overcharge, allowing you to annihilate more or less any enemy which you come across. You don’t get it for long per charge, which is fortunate because it borders too closely on a ‘Win’ button in a game which really doesn’t need one.
One of the major problems here is that Scarygirl offers no variable difficulty level, and I suspect that will lead many players to be underwhelmed by the challenges presented. There is quite considerable depth to the combat in Scarygirl, but the game so rarely demands it that you don’t never need to learn to use it, nor are rewarded for doing so. For people desperate for a challenge there are online leaderboards to compete on and a ferociously difficult achievement which will reward completionists for survival skills, and gem collection, but these feel like artificial ways of adding challenge and longevity to a game which lacks them. It might work for achievement addicts, but the game doesn’t demand replaying through its entertainment value alone.
A second player can jump in at any time and play as Scarygirl’s companion Bunniguru, who, like the name suggests is a guru, who is also a rabbit. Bunniguru has an entirely different set of moves and abilities, though he’s generally a lot more limited than Scarygirl in terms of how he plays. An extra layer of cooperation is available if Scarygirl grapples Bunniguru, at which point Scarygirl can use him for special attacks.
There are a few little frustrations here and there – the camera is centered upon Scarygirl’s position alone so it’s easy for Bunniguru to leave the screen. At this point Bunniguru magically teleports back to Scarygirl’s position. On a few occasions, Bunniguru teleported to Scarygirl’s position at inopportune moments, like when Scarygirl was flying between platforms leading to Bunniguru plunging to his death. This makes platforming co-operatively a little trickier, and not for the right reasons. It’s also a pity that the game doesn’t adjust difficulty to make up for the fact there are now two characters working together. Playing together is certainly more fun, but it also makes the game feel even less challenging.
Scarygirl may have a fantastic style which sets it apart from other platformers, but it’s sorely let down by too many mediocre game mechanics and a lack of innovation. More than anything, Scarygirl fails to challenge the gamer, it’s far too lenient and never requires you to use the depth which the combat system does offer. It’s always nice to have games which offer co-operative, but this feature too is a little underdone. Unlike Braid and Limbo, both downloadable platformers available on Xbox LIVE Arcade, Scarygirl adds nothing new above the unique art style; it’s weird, but not wonderful. As such, it’s somewhat hard to recommend to those who aren’t fans of the Scarygirl brand.