Scarygirl (XBLA/PSN/PC)
Developer: Tik Games
Publisher: Square-Enix
Release date: January 18, 2012
Price: $15

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Score: 5
/10

There are plenty of ways for a game to tell a story. Limbo says everything it needs to with visuals. The Metal Gear Solid: Digital Graphic Novel titles on the PSP marry interactivity with a comic book. Given the fact it was a graphic novel before it was a game, Scarygirl had the potential to accomplish something equally impressive—at least, that was my expectation.

Scarygirl is a side-scrolling platformer with combo and leveling elements tacked on to a varied but ultimately shallow combat system (there are a decent number of moves, but little reason to use them). Perfectly at home on Xbox Live Arcade, its Tim Burton-inspired art makes it stand out, though it'll still be hard-pressed to compete with Limbo, Scott Pilgrim and other 2D platformers available for download.

Although it's not the first game based on the graphic novel based on the line of toys of the same name (a PSP Minis title came out last summer), it's the first that I've played. It's also the first encounter I've had with the Scarygirl universe, so bear with me here.

Hit the next page for the review.

 

TUMBLING DOWN THE DRAINAGE PIPE

The eponymous Scarygirl is an orphan with a tentacle for an arm and the garb of a pirate, raised by an octopus and mentored by an elderly bunny. The game begins with her compulsion to locate a mysterious man who haunts her dreams, but it quickly diverges from that interesting plot and descends into nonsense. Instead of cut scenes or comic book segments, it relies on narrated loading screens that fail to get across much of importance.

I can only assume the dozens of characters and references that went way over my head are straight from the book. That's not an excuse for presenting them here with zero context, though. Throwing a bunch of random, fantastical elements together doesn't make your creation a fairytale. It needs context and fleshing out, or it has no gravity. Unlike Alice's tumble down the rabbit hole, Scarygirl's got no basis in normality; it starts out weird and it gets weirder, with little said and little more explained.

That said, this virtual recreation of Jurevicius's world is undeniably charming. The artwork seriously pops, from the backgrounds to the foregrounds and everything in between. There's real depth (I wouldn't have said this two years ago, but it's a shame it's not in 3D), and the characters and enemies were conceived with great imagination and attention to detail. The sound design is fantastic as well. Even so, it does a crap job of giving Scarygirl newcomers any idea what the hell is going on.

SO THAT WE MIGHT ENGAGE IN JOLLY CO-OPERATION

Besides the attractive artwork, the co-op gameplay is the game's main saving grace. You can do the entire thing with a friend, easing the difficulty and making it all-around more enjoyable. And unlike in Super Mario Bros. Wii, another multiplayer platformer, there are few sections where the screen feels crowded. This is due in part to the way the second player, controlling the sage and formidable Bunniguru, is relegated to a truly secondary position, constantly tugged along by the first player's will.

The designers really hit their stride around the halfway mark. The platforming gets better and better, with shortcuts and alternate routes, secret caches of gems and interesting uses of Scarygirl's ability to glide for short distances using her tentacle like a heli blade.

But toward the end, just when you start to master the controls and warm up to the rapidly escalating difficulty curve, it smacks you in the face with one of the most frustrating segments I've played in any game in recent memory. And that was in co-op; I feel confident saying this particular part would be practically impossible without someone backing you up.

Prior to that point, it comes pretty close to being the right kind of challenging, like Dark Souls, where you realize how cleverly designed it really is once you've conquered it. Instead, though, it ultimately stoops to being one long gauntlet of frustrating enemies, and rife with frame rate issues to boot. It's like a poorly designed Little Big Planet level.

AN IMPERFECT TEA PARTY, BUT A PARTY NONETHELESS

There are a decent number of unlockable weapon upgrades, combos and moves, and the basic combat is enjoyable enough to carry most of the game. Despite the camera's occasional confusion (it shifts cinematically, though the left-right controls don't shift with it), the platforming is the most consistently satisfying part, and during the first half of the game it picks up the slack when the combat starts to get tedious.

I'm as glad as anyone that 2D games are cool again, but game designers need to learn how to have their octopus and eat it too. There are a ton of really imaginative concepts here, like an underground level spent dodging invincible spiders, or the ability to grapple near-dead enemies and bash others or absorb them for health. With another few months of development those concepts may have been fleshed out better.

The game's finale demands a choice, and while my decision was no doubt meant to be driven by the narrative, I found myself opening up the achievements guide to find out which answer would give me the most gamerpoints. That's just one indicator of how troubled this experience is.

If you're attracted by the art style, there's enough enjoyable gameplay to see it through to the end. It's not that long, after all, though you should be ready for a challenge—and not the fun kind—during the game's rushed-seeming final acts. And while fans of the book and toys will likely find plenty here to like, for anyone else its narrative and characters are rather too inscrutable. It feels like a lot of wasted potential. At $15, you might as well stick with the source material.