Easily the most iconic aspect of Scarygirl is its art style: cutesy and cartoonish gothic, somewhat reminiscent of Tim Burton’s films and books... and with some classic pirate thrown in for good measure. The titular character is a cute-but-creepy doll of a girl with a hook for a hand — exactly the sort of image you see on emo-leaning hooded sweatshirts regularly. Which is to say that she (and her world) seem designed to appeal to a certain demographic. I’m not quite the target audience, I don’t think, but I respect video games that aim at artwork rather than mere graphics, so it certainly has my attention.
Oh, and Scarygirl is an orphan. She lives in a tree and her some-time caregiver is an octopus named Blister. Martial arts training is provided by Bunniguru, who is, well... pretty much what he sounds like. Inscrutable. Long-eared. Loves carrots. He’s weird. But then, as you may have gathered, so is the whole setup.
It’s all from the brain of Australian-born artist (in many different media) Nathan Jurevicius. Scarygirl started life as a series of artworks and has escalated into toys, a graphic novel, and a browser-based video-game (in association with Passion Pictures — of Gorillaz animation fame) which has now been brought to Xbox Live Arcade.
At its best, Scarygirl is a delightful-looking game. At times it flirts with ridiculousness, with different styles mixing freely, and cardboard cutout style graphics alongside 3D-rendered counterparts, but it somehow seems right: it comes off as playful and endearing - rather than simply messy. Foreground graphics and general business on-screen can make for some playability hassles. Also, as the game progresses, it lapses more often into familiar imagery for games (not bad, just a bit samey), but the game doesn’t lose its overall sense of flair. Overall, the visuals are really nice.
The sound effects are generally weird and charming enough to complement the art style, with music well-matched too; again, angled between goth and quirky. Compared to the visuals, though, it’s pretty low key; nothing really stands out here. Unfortunately, the audio is marred by the game’s narrator, who introduces each level in storybook fashion and sounds (oddly enough for such an off-beat title) like the blandest of children’s television voices.
In terms of the actual gameplay, Scarygirl is a classic side-scrolling platformer, part of a recent revival of this genre (which I must admit is far closer to my heart than its more modern 3D counterpart). It plays nicely with the visual representation of the flat environment, however, with backdrops and camera angles changing the appearance of the dimensions, while you’re always progressing left-to-right, you appear at times to angle off into a different direction or spiral round a central point. At a couple of points, you can also choose between different paths, lending an actual (though very limited) third dimension to the game. It’s a neat way to expand on the experience of the genre without requiring a change in the controls.
Equipped with her hook hand and a whip, Scarygirl can not only move around and jump, she can also fight, block, climb, hover in short bursts (spinning her whip like the rotor blades of a helicopter), and grab certain objects with her whip (including, as a very effective form of attack, picking up enemies and hurling them at their peers). For the most part things handle well, but there are a few tricks and a few issues that grate somewhat.
Combat, although reasonably complex (for a platform game), with two basic attack buttons, blocking, and special moves (including ‘Scary Mode’, which turns Scarygirl into a mighty and monstrous bad-guy-bashing force for a short period of time), ends up oscillating between manic button-mashing and rather somewhat dull long range battles (especially where you are encouraged to block and rebound incoming missiles at the enemy who launched them.
Climbing is a bit tricky when it is first introduced, several levels in (particularly when you are required to jump between climbing surfaces), but you get the hang of it. Probably the biggest complaint I have is imprecision in regular side-to-side movement, and aiming items held with the whip: for the most part, you don’t actually need to be very exact, but they are several good opportunities to fall off the edge of a platform trying to launch something at an airborne target...
Some usability points must also be subtracted for the inability to skip some cut-scenes and the rather obtrusive combat tutorial (which is particularly vexing to not be able to opt out of if you’ve already played through it).
Additional to Scarygirl’s natural abilities, there are a number of stores dotted throughout the levels where you can spend the tokens you pick up during the game on new attachments for Scarygirls hand, and other abilities that might come in handy as the game progresses and becomes more challenging.
If you’ve got a friend on hand, they can join in on an ad-hoc basis and take on the role of Bunniguru. I’m glad that this option exists, but it isn’t a fully-fledged multi-player mode by any means. Bunniguru is essentially like Tails in Sonic 2. He can get lost off-screen if Player 1 moves ahead too fast, he can’t do everything (mostly he lacks Scarygirl’s whip abilities, although there is some ability for her to grab and throw him), but he does provide some extra combat support (and it isn’t a big deal if he doesn’t make it through the level alive).
There’s a decent game here overall. It isn’t particularly difficult, and experienced gamers will be able to blow through it in a day or two, I imagine. But it looks cool, and it harks back to a simpler time, when 2D platformers ruled the roost. Some gameplay issues and a boring narrator may take the shine off a little, but for some easy entertainment, it’s definitely worth the asking price.