For a little over a decade now, Australian illustrator and artist Nathan Jurevicius has been enchanting and delighting readers with his online comic creation, Scarygirl. She has also popped up in traveling shows, and been marketed as vinyl toys and designer products. Now, the little scamp gets her own downloadable, side-scrolling platform game. Will fans be pleased with her newest incarnation? Will it win over new fans in the gaming population?
Scarygirl follows the exploits of a young orphan girl with stitched lips, a patched-over eye, and a hooked tentacle for an arm. Leaving behind the octopus who took her in, Scarygirl’s quest takes her on a journey through wondrous lands as she overcomes obstacles and battles hordes of enemies in an effort to uncover the truth behind the bearded man who has begun haunting her dreams.
It’s no doubt that Scarygirl takes many of its cues from LittleBigPlanet, however the art style and design of the game is more like Tim Burton by way of Dr. Seuss. Scarygirl herself seems very much like a next generation Sally from The Nightmare Before Christmas, even down to the tattered clothes she wears. The levels and environments are rich with creativity. It’s almost worth going through the game just to take in the sights and sounds. The graphics, sound effects, and music score all work in tandem to bring a vibrant liveliness to this offbeat, bizarre, and engaging little world.
Unfortunately, the level design and layout is par-for-the-course for side-scrolling platformers, and rarely deviates from the standard it sets from the beginning. It may be a delight to look at the game, but traversing the landscape can become tedious and boring at times. Not helping matters is Scarygirl herself. Her design may be idiosyncratic, but she lacks the personality of better-known platform heroes like Mario or Sackboy. She doesn’t celebrate or register joy when successfully completing a level, and only lets out a small cry when taking damage from an enemy. Her expression doesn’t even change in the sparse in-game cutscenes. On the other hand, the design and AI of the enemies she encounters can be commended. Rather than just creating one or two enemy types and then slapping new skins on them, each has a new look and new behavior patterns. The variety is surprising, and surprisingly numerous, for a game such as this.
The platforming controls can be clunky and sluggish. Scarygirl has one speed (there is no run button), so traveling or backtracking can be tiresome at times. Get ready to hit the dodge roll button over and over again to gain momentum and make it through without falling asleep. When you jump, it is slow and floaty. Mostly this is okay, but there are instances when speed is a factor. It can be difficult to dodge projectiles when travel by air is the lesser option. Also, there is no double-jump. This is a standard platforming mechanic, and its absence can be felt when attempting to land on far away platforms or higher ground. There is a hover ability that attempts to compensate, with Scarygirl using her tentacled arm like helicopter blades in a similar fashion to Conker. But that ability has its limitations, even with the feather upgrade you can purchase to make flight last longer.
Combat is where the game really takes a nosedive. Scarygirl has two attacks: regular and heavy. If you weaken an enemy before defeating it, you can grab it and use it as a projectile against other enemies. Additionally, you can block incoming attacks by creating a slowly-degrading force-field, which proves especially useful when you deflect incoming projectiles and send them back at your attackers. The force-field only lasts for a finite time, and can be an unreliable deterrent for taking damage, as there are several enemies that can break through it. The game instructs you in its tutorial levels to utilize these attacks to string together combos and gain a higher score after defeating enemies. The problem is that the game will often throw several different enemy types at the player at the same time and it can be difficult to string together combos when you are constantly blocking and jumping to avoid taking damage. Button mashing is the only dependable tactic during most combat scenarios in the game.
This play style can be reasonably dealt with and endured during the first half of the game, but there is a dramatic difficulty spike during the later levels. Boss battles and a blue, business attire-adorned enemy can be especially hard to overcome. The checkpoint system is well-implemented in some levels, and bafflingly scarce in others. One flying stage in particular could have really used another checkpoint to help keep the player from wanting to rage quit. Considering this game seems aimed at younger players, and considering its poor combat mechanics, it’s surprising the amount of patience and blind luck that is required to make it through the 21 levels. It may be creative, but it is very rarely fun.
Scarygirl is beautiful, with quirkiness in spades. But the fact remains that this is a game, and a gamer wants to have fun playing it. Frustrating gameplay, boring level design, and somewhat insignificant replayability hinders Scarygirl from reaching her full potential. There are better platformers available out there, and the price tag on the game can’t be justified.