Before it was a full-featured Xbox Live Arcade game, Scarygirl was a graphic novel by Nathan Jurevicius, and then it was a downloadable game for the PlayStation Portable. None of that history is required knowledge if you decide you want to give this newest platformer a shot, though. The only things you need to bring to the table are some solid gaming chops and an appreciation for the bizarre.
Scarygirl is an orphan who lost her parents at an early age and was raised by a wise, fatherly octopus. He built a lovely home for her, a cabin high in a gnarled tree, and he found clothes for her on the ocean floor. Now the unusual heroine looks a lot like a doll that lost a battle with a 3-year-old. Her unruly black hair, pale skin, and stitched-together lips might easily have come from the mind of Tim Burton, and her dreams are fittingly enigmatic. These nighttime visions finally inspire her to embark upon a journey, which is when the game begins.
Scarygirl is a visual treat. The world is pleasingly organic, with distinct and lively environments. Giant blades of grass sway in the breeze, thick weeds choke a path lined with clay, icy stalagmites rise skyward, and fetid pools of swamp water line rock basins. It's a strange world populated by angry animals ranging from frogs and birds to spiders and snakes. Plus, there are lumberjacks who hurl axes or bellow and charge like they're football players. You may find yourself pressing onward just to see how bizarre things get.
Audio sets a fitting, if unremarkable, tone and the delightful narrator is a highlight. His deep voice brings to life a number of lines that capture the game's understated humor with the appropriate subtlety. There's a vaguely menacing tone to everything he says, even the bits that sound cheery, which makes it all more interesting than it probably has a right to be. Clever narration and unique visuals can carry a game only so far, though, and Scarygirl also relies on more conventional methods to justify your investment. At its core, the game is a challenging but largely generic platformer that suffers for the inclusion of some cheap brawling sequences.
Most levels adhere to genre traditions. Scarygirl runs and jumps through varied environments, collecting crystals and defeating enemies as she goes. Her movement is imprecise, however, which makes for some awkward moments. If Scarygirl starts running to the right, she might well take a few final (and potentially fatal) steps after you stop easing the analog stick in that direction. Her jumps are also slightly abrupt, which can result in some awkward landings. Frequently, you need to take advantage of Scarygirl's ability to glide. A tap of the A button produces her first jump, and holding the button causes her tentacle arm to whirl around like a helicopter rotor. Quick taps let you use this ability in short bursts, making for lengthy glides, while simply continuing to hold the button results in a shorter flight.
When she's not jumping or gliding, Scarygirl is usually attacking with her rubbery tentacle arm. She has light and heavy attacks, the latter of which you can use to knock an enemy into the air and then juggle him a few times before he lands. Scarygirl's scarymode meter fills as she proceeds, and she can unleash an extremely powerful attack that few enemies can withstand. A wandering merchant also sells special moves that enable Scarygirl to demolish her foes more effectively. Finally, she can grab stunned enemies and slam them around like an out-of-control yo-yo, or even hurl them as projectiles. Unfortunately, it's surprisingly difficult to set the trajectory of such tosses. A number of puzzles throughout the adventure would be much simpler if aiming were easier.
Scarygirl isn't a lengthy game, but there are reasons to replay stages. You're scored based on the number of crystals found, weeds pulled, and enemies destroyed in a level. You receive bonus points for gathering every crystal and pulling every weed, so you'll always know if your performance was less than perfect. You may also find yourself revisiting areas if you missed heart containers, which tend to be hidden well off the beaten path (or along one of two diverging paths through a given stage). Each container you find adds a quarter of a heart to your life meter, which becomes increasingly important as you near the end of the game.
While natural hazards that you encounter within stages can prove harmful or fatal, combat is the main source of difficulty. At first, only a few foes strike at once, and everything is manageable. Later in the game, Scarygirl faces whole mobs. At that point, juggling some foes in the air with heavy attacks becomes dangerous because it leaves Scarygirl vulnerable to projectile attacks from other enemies. Moving in quickly to try to overwhelm everyone with combos isn't advisable, because some enemies are masters at blocking, and Scarygirl takes damage if she brushes against them. Vanquishing foes without taking damage becomes almost impossible, even when you're blocking and dodging like a champion. Late in the game, one stage takes place on a floating airship. There are multiple waves of enemies that drop in on the airship from other floating vessels and attack with pikes and explosives, but there are virtually no checkpoints. It's cheap, not fun, and other similar scenarios follow.
Fortunately, not every enemy encounter is such a failure. Throughout the game, you also find numerous boss fights that provide a nice change of pace because victory relies more on pattern memorization and intuition than manic combat. For example, the boss in one stage is typically impervious to any attacks, but Scarygirl can lure it into a danger zone and let the elements deal a blow that stuns her adversary. Then she can whale on the beast for a moment until it recovers. It's a shame that such sequences aren't more common, but they're enjoyable when they do occur.
Another mark in the game's favor is its two-player local cooperative mode. If you have a friend who takes a shine to Scarygirl, he or she can drop in during the middle of a level and control a secondary character with different moves. With a second target onscreen, enemies are more manageable. Naturally, you have the best luck if you play with a friend who also has ample experience with the game. Your friend's fortune is tied to your own; you both go back to the last checkpoint if Scarygirl perishes.
Scarygirl has a lot of character, and that's bound to attract players who won't have much fun with it beyond the first few worlds. The more challenging platforming sequences that follow later are mostly fine, but the poorly executed combat system provides more frustration than thrills, and the spotty controls take some of the fun out of what otherwise might have been a grand adventure. Scarygirl is ultimately a game with more style than substance, and it's crammed with so many frustrations that you might be better off reading the book instead.