Originally appearing in a series of graphic novels written by Nathan Jurevicius, Scarygirl makes its way into the digital realm with a downloadable game of the same name. Scarygirl follows the adventures of a poor orphan girl adopted by a sentient octopus named Blister. Blister raised her, built her a sweet treehouse, and plumbed the depths of the ocean to decorate it and her in a motley collection of pirate-themed regalia. For those that are unfamiliar with the graphic novel, all that manifests itself as a little girl (think a young version of Adventure Time’s Marceline) with a tentacle arm, eye-patch, and pirate-themed party hat. If that’s not weird enough, her tentacle arm comes equipped with a hook that allows her to attack enemies, grapple, hover, and swing.
The game’s story sees Scarygirl suffering from bad dreams. Later, she finds a very zen rabbit named Bunnyguru living in a hole at the base of the tree she lives in. Bunnyguru tells her that the dreams will lead her off the peninsula she lives on and into a city where she’ll meet a bearded man. Her quest unknowingly begins when Blister sends her into the forest to investigate an unusually high number of dead leaves. There she discovers that one of the keepers of the forest, Treedweller has been taken by bandits and carried to Bad City to be sold into slavery, and it’s up to Scarygirl to rescue him. Along the way, she discovers the truth about her dreams and faces a moral dilemma that leaves room in the story for a sequel.
So what kind of game does all this equate to? Well, Scarygirl is your standard 2D side-scrolling platformer; and like most of the current crop of downloadable 2D side-scrollers, it features the kind of graphical fidelity that would have blown the minds of those of us who remember a time when 2D side-scrollers like Super Mario Bros., Mega Man, and Metroid were gaming nirvana. Scarygirl may not reach the graphical heights set by, say, Trine 2
, but it does offer an intriguing art-style reminiscent of Tim Burton’s animated films.
It further impresses with the way it twists the very idea of 2D. Levels don’t simply run left to right. Instead, they twist and turn in and out of the third dimension, with nearly every level offering multiple paths that exist in a sort of limbo between the two. Occasionally that led me to situations where it was hard to tell where to go next because the path I needed to travel on was not always obvious, but that’s a minor quibble. Many traps take advantage of Scarygirl’s quasi third dimension. Often Scarygirl is forced to dodge spiky balls and logs that roll and swing in and out perpendicular to Scarygirl’s path. Those kinds of traps were a nice and visually appealing change of pace from the traps the rest of the game is populated with. Also visually appealing were the levels themselves. Each one was filled with multiple strata of (sometimes moving) detail layered into the background. I’m a big fan of that technique. Developers Touch My Pixel really deserves credit for going the extra mile on graphical details the player can’t interact with.
When I wasn’t intrigued by the background, I was faced with killing enemies. In Scarygirl, combat boils down to simple light and heavy attacks, combos, and air juggles that are augmented by various tentacle attachments that alter how it functions in both combat and platforming. Eventually you’ll be able to swap the basic hook out for a feather that allows Scarygirl to hover longer and helicopter further distances, an anchor that increases attack damage at the expense of speed, and a fan that increases attack speed at the expense of damage. There are more than just those three, but I’ll let you discover them for yourself.
You can also purchase new combos and attacks (you can also buy collectable vinyls that you can look at in your bedroom). The currency used to purchase these goodies is gems of various shapes and sizes that litter the world like Sonic’s rings and Mario’s coins. Also scattered about are health upgrades and strange individuals that give you access to the store where you can purchase upgrades and vinyls or completely heal Scarygirl for a fee paid in gems. That particular feature is a real lifesaver in later levels after the difficulty spikes (you’ll know you hit the spike when strangely shaped blue cat people start coming after you with swords). Don’t worry about the difficulty ever becoming untenable however, because no matter the enemy, there’s always some way to easily defeat them. In many cases, the challenge comes not from the execution of combos, but from figuring out what it takes to make harder enemies manageable. And should Scarygirl find herself hopelessly outnumbered, she’ll be able to enter Rage Mode that allows her to eat bad guys and gain a bit of heath from each one chomped. That feature is balanced by the fact that Scarygirl must fill up her Rage meter by stringing combos together before she can use it, and once activated, the Rage meter drains far faster than it fills up. You’ll definitely find yourself saving it for just the right moment.
When Scarygirl isn’t directly engaged in combat, she’ll find herself facing off against environmental obstacles and traps that block her progress. Getting past them usually involves grappling specific points (they’re highlighted, so you won’t miss them), then using a combination of hovering, helicoptering, and grappling in mid-air, and most of the time it works very well. There are, however, some platforming challenges that seem to require a degree of accuracy that Scarygirl’s controls just can’t accommodate. It’s not widespread, but when it happens, well, let’s just say you might want to take out some collision coverage on you controller and/or pad your walls, floor, and television.
As you progress through the game, the difficulty of the platforming increases, but as long as you don’t hit one of those controller-throwing moments I was just talking about, the difficulty increases are fair and death never really feels cheap (incidentally, death never really feels cheap during combat, either) - except for the swimming level. Joe Pesci save me, the swimming level was awful, but swimming levels are always awful so it shouldn’t come as any big surprise. At least it’s not terribly long; however, at the end you must tackle that particular level’s boss. Now, Scarygirl is littered with boss fights. Each one is more of a battle of wits than brute strength, and that’s always welcome; however, this one boss battle at the end of the horrid swimming level really loses the plot. First and foremost, I could not for the life of me, tell what I was fighting. It looked like a giant worm or eel, but who knows. Whatever it was, it just left me baffled as to how anyone could play test it and think, “Yeah, this works and fits in with the rest of the game.” That also goes for its attacks, or at least what I think were its attacks. You see, I could never tell what was going on or what I was supposed to do to fight it. However, that didn’t stop me from killing it without taking any damage. I don’t know what I did, but it died (maybe of boredom) and I went on to the next level. In a game filled with interesting designs and battles, that particular boss was a train wreck of dull visuals and silly gameplay design. Honestly, though, that’s probably the biggest misstep in the entire game, and that’s impressive for a downloadable game developed by a small developer.
The only other real issue I had with the game was that some of the enemies’ various attacks just looked silly. Ok, I have to admit I just have a problem with attacks that don’t fit the game design or logically fit with the character using it. You can just tell that the developer sort of ran out of ***** to give and that always bugs me. It’s a pet peeve and I’m sorry, but bandits dressed as lumberjacks whose secondary attack is charging face-first into Scarygirl just grates on my nerves like fingernails on a chalkboard. Also grating on my nerves were the adolescent Yetis that looked more like rams than mythological hell-beasts. But, again, that’s a very idiosyncratic complaint. Not an idiosyncratic complaint, however, even though it wasn’t a serious issue, was the soundtrack and narrator. The soundtrack was, essentially, nonexistent. It was very minimalistic and repetitive so it was easy to inadvertently tune out. However, I couldn’t tune out the narrator, whose flat affected delivery left me longing for my old friend Marcello from Amy, and his knife-in-the-eye interpretation of a Jersey or Brooklyn accent. Sometimes legendarily bad is better than boring.
You know what, though? Aside from that handful of complaints, I truly enjoyed Scarygirl’s roughly six to eight-hour story. And when I didn’t want to play alone, Scarygirl gave me the option of merrily non-split screen co-op. In co-op, the second player takes on the role of Bunnyguru, who you may remember from way back at the beginning of this review as the zen rabbit that interpreted Scarygirl’s dream. Bunnyguru has the same basic move set as Scarygirl, but with different, and sometimes comical, animations. For example, instead of using a tentacle arm to helicopter over empty space, Bunnyguru simply floats in the lotus position while sitar music plays. Whenever I saw it, I couldn’t help but grin. It was so silly and absurd that it became adorable, and the same goes for much of the rest of the game. It’s just nice to play games like Scarygirl that look cool, control well, are fun to play, occasionally display an absurd sense of humor, and, most importantly, don’t bash me over the head with poorly scaled difficulty like so many other games I’ve played.