Whether you've noticed it or not, there has been a bit of a surge recently in the quantity of kid-friendly platformers hitting store shelves. Games like Crash Twinsanity, Ty the Tasmanian Tiger 2, and Tak 2 have all come out within a fairly short span of time, and though none of these games have been anything spectacular, none of them have been especially bad either. Enter developer A2M's Scaler, another cute and colorful platformer of generally middling quality to join the fracas. What's this one's hook? A shape-shifting lead lizard that hops and claws his way past a bevy of nasty reptiles on a quest to save the world--all at a $20 price tag. While the latter certainly makes Scaler a slightly more appealing product, ultimately, this just isn't an especially engaging game, so it's unlikely that anyone past the youngest of audiences will have too much fun with it.
From the very beginning, Scaler simply feels just a bit off-kilter. This is mostly due to the game's introductory sequence, which actually seems like it starts about one or two cutscenes too late. The game opens with our hero--a plucky, wisecracking preteen named Bobby who has an affinity for lizards--strapped into a chair in his neighbor's basement. It seems that Bobby had been investigating his neighbor when he discovered an evil plot to bring a mutated lizard army into our universe to take over the world. As Bobby is being interrogated by the bad guys, something goes wrong, and he is teleported into the lizard dimension, becoming a lizard in the process. How? Why? Who cares! The game certainly doesn't seem to, so it seems silly for you to even try to wrap your mind around it. Just know that it's up to you to save the world from evil lizards, and it's going to take a lot of double-jumping and shape-shifting to do it.
Scaler is first and foremost a very basic platformer. Each of the game's 15 different levels is laid out in a very platformer-friendly way, with lots of jumps and moving platforms to navigate. However, the game also sets these out in somewhat of a unique way. Basically, most levels have a pair of paths to take. Through most every level, your primary goal is to collect missing eggs that are scattered throughout the gameworld, and many levels have a pair of them hidden somewhere. By taking one path, you'll be on your way to grabbing one egg, and by hitting the other path well, you can figure it out. Apart from jumping and running around, you'll also find yourself sliding up and down rails and climbing some walls. The rail-sliding stuff is actually kind of cool, in that a lot of the rail designs are very roller coaster-like, with lots of slow inclines and steep drops as well as plenty of obstacles to jump or duck around. The wall-climbing activities are less impressive, but it's neat just the same, as you can climb all over the place, even sideways and upside down at times. There's also a stealth ability you can use during certain missions, though that ability really seems like more of an afterthought than anything else.
Scaler's combat is mostly decent, if a bit repetitive. Scaler has two primary attacks, including a basic claw swipe and a tongue lash that can take enemies out from a distance. You can also execute a special electric attack of sorts by filling up a meter underneath your life bar. Furthermore, each of Scaler's various forms has its own method of attack, like the little gremlin's bombs and the flying demon bird's energy projectiles. The enemies you are up against are mostly pretty good and they do provide a fair amount of challenge. Sometimes the game seems to go a bit overboard with this, sticking a few too many enemies in one spot for comfort, but usually you'll find yourself able to persevere despite the mismatch.
However, Scaler's main ability is where much of the gameplay focus resides. Essentially, Scaler has the ability to shape-shift into one of five different enemies he encounters during the course of the game. Each of these enemies is actually radically different in terms of abilities. There's a gremlin-looking guy who can generate and toss bombs, a demon-looking bird thing that (obviously) allows you to fly, and some spiky chickenesque thing that transforms into a ball and lets you roll around. Shape-shifting is relegated to specific levels, and those levels all contain some very specific puzzles and obstacles that only those creatures' abilities will allow you to traverse. While the different abilities are all pretty cool and all very functional, unfortunately, the execution of the ability-specific level objectives is hit or miss. For instance, some of the ball-rolling areas are laid out in kind of a weird way, and it's pretty much impossible to navigate your way through the whole course the first or even the second time and succeed. Similarly, the flying objectives just really aren't all that interesting, and the actual mechanics of flying actually feel kind of slow and dull.
What really proves to be Scaler's primary undoing is its erratic difficulty levels. There are large portions of this game that are incredibly easy, and other sections that are so utterly frustrating that you will be literally driven to scream obscenities. The hard parts are mostly only difficulty because of their trial-and-error nature. Much like the obnoxious ball-rolling sections, these areas simply cannot be navigated without playing them at least four to five times and memorizing exactly where each obstacle and enemy is. And even then, sometimes the timing required to get past them will take more than your fair share of practice. The difficulty itself isn't so horrible, but the fact that the game simply can't seem to even it out in any cohesive way makes the flow seem very haphazard. One moment you'll find yourself finally passing an annoying rail-based jump puzzle that took you a good half hour to get right, and then the next moment you'll beat the level's big, bad boss in one brief try. There's just no rhyme or reason to it.
The other notable flaw with Scaler is that the characters it features just aren't very interesting. Scaler, or Bobby, or whatever you want to call him, is only mildly interesting to look at, and he also isn't very funny or pleasant to listen to. Granted, the lack of any sort of proper character introduction at the beginning of the game certainly doesn't help matters, but even as the game progresses, you just never really ever get to like this kid/lizard. Some of the supporting characters are slightly better, but again, there's no discernable background to them beyond the knowledge that they're bad and want to take over the world. The voice acting also doesn't do much to help matters, as none of the actors really do much to make their characters particularly endearing. The villains are of the archetypal, hokey cartoon villain ilk, and, again, Scaler himself just isn't that special.
However, while the character designs aren't very good, the remaining areas of the game's visuals are. The level designs are pretty much what you would expect from a modern platformer, with lots of bright colors and cartoonish design elements. However, there's also sort of an ethereal, spacey quality to the game's world that, while not totally original, still works well. The various visual effects--like the sparks of energy that fly while Scaler slides down a rail, or the flying monsters that make up the background ambience--all show more detail than you might expect. Also, the game holds a steady frame rate, and the free-moving camera manages to stay out of your way and not turn into a nuisance. The GameCube version of Scaler has a very clean look to it, and it's similar in quality to the Xbox version of the game. There isn't much to the sound design, but what's there works well. The soundtrack is mostly forgettable, but it provides decent mood setting, and the in-game sound effects simply get the job done where necessary.
Scaler is a game that is equally tough to hate or like--it just sits somewhere in the middle. There's nothing especially wrong with it to make it something worth drawing ire over, but at the same time, it never finds a way to actually draw you into its experience, and it just seems to lack the intangible qualities needed to make a truly successful platformer. Younger players might be able to find something to like about Scaler, but with a multitude of better platformers currently on the market for roughly the same price, this game probably shouldn't be your first choice.