Squeezing a Yeti to death in Scarygirl [Review]

23 Jan 2012  by   Paul Younger
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As someone who’s never met a Cure album he didn’t like (even the more recent, ahh, ‘troublesome’ ones), the aesthetics of Scarygirl were always going to appeal to me. Created by Australian artist Nathan Jurevicius in 2001, this curious young girl has branched out into online comics, limited edition toys, graphic novels, flash games and, now, an Xbox Live Arcade release. If her stuff isn’t available in Hot Topic yet, I can only imagine that’s down to licensing issues.

Abandoned as a baby, Scarygirl has been raised by an octopus named Blister and seems to cope remarkably well with having a missing eye, a bone in place of one arm and a tentacle with a hook for the other. Yes, this could be one of the most progressive characters ever featured in a videogame; a disabled orphan girl. If Paul Dacre knew anything about this release, he’d probably be having a politically-correct induced aneurism around about now.

Daily Mail-baiting aside, it is pretty refreshing to control a female videogame character who isn’t defined purely by her sexuality or romantic attachment to a man (not that these things are inherently bad, just that it gets rather stale as a formula). Granted, it took a game with heavy doses of surrealism to get us there, but I’ll take what slim pickings of character variety are available to me.

Scarygirl is a side-scrolling platformer in the classic vein of getting from A to B across gaping chasms, crushing spiked mechanisms and through a horde of weird and wonderful foes. Aiding our piratically-attired heroine in this quest is the ability to use her hooked tentacle to fight off enemies and hover, helicopter-like, in the air. Light and heavy attacks are at Scarygirl’s disposal too, the use of which builds up her ‘scary-meter’. When unleashed, this sends her into a demonic rage, draining the screen of colour and bestowing massive power.

While you’re hopping and hovering around, it’s advisable to collect the gems that have been carelessly left around the levels. These can be traded at shops (run by strange, many-legged creatures) in exchange for new attack combos, or tentacle upgrades like a feather for greater hovering distances or a ‘ragehook’ for faster filling of the scary-meter. One of the earlier combos available to Scarygirl epitomises the horror-cute feel of the game, allowing you to literally squeeze an enemy to death and turn its life-juices into a delightful fish that can be consumed for extra health. Lovely.

Divergent paths in the otherwise linear levels (the game is in a sort of pseudo-3D, so the perspective can sometimes alter to open up new walkways) introduce a moderate amount of replayability to the game; as does the challenge of collecting every gem on a stage and completing levels without dying.

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The presentation of Scarygirl is just about flawless, as you’d hope and expect from a project based on a graphic novel. I’m particularly enamored of  the Old Man Mountains (towering geological structures that are totemic heads of crotchety geezers), as well as the Casablanca ambience of the weird Onion Bar and its devious owner. Colour and perspective are put to fine use in some stand-out levels like Underwater Luminescence and the Auction House, giving the game a real sense of vibrancy. The occasional mid-level perspective changes could’ve been awkward, but instead are handled smoothly.

Musically, it’s more understated, but the general ominous mood created by the background tracks is a fine companion for locations like creepy forests and dangerous swamps. I was also impressed by the aid of (presumably intentional) musical cues for some of the game’s obstacles, like the swinging tree logs that sway in time with the beat.

However, Scarygirl is a platformer that’s always looking over its shoulder, back at other adventures in 2D-but-actually-sorta-3D like Donkey Kong Country, Crash Bandicoot or Pandemonium. The difference is, those games were trailblazers. In evoking the memory of celebrated mid-90s platformers, Scarygirl can seem fairly derivative in comparison.

Later levels of the game place far too much emphasis on fending off enemies, meaning it can be all too easy to get mobbed and fall afoul of the somewhat imprecise nature of combat. The ‘guard’ enemies are particularly ruthless, possessing a long attack range, a nigh-on unbreakable block and a tendency to work in packs. Certain hook and combo upgrades work better against these guys, but if you find yourself facing them before you happen to have purchased those, you’re out of luck. In a couple of the boss battles (it’s a retro-influenced platformer, so of course it has boss battles), it’s all too easy to get caught and injured in places that appear, from the graphical clues on offer, to be safe.

Local co-op is offered, allowing a nearby friend jump in as Scarygirl’s excellent kung-fu pal Bunnyguru. This nimble guy knows a mean martial arts move, and can also drift serenely through the air accompanied by sitar chords, which makes things a whole lot easier on the combat front. In fact, it makes the fights so easy that it can feel a bit like cheating. When my wife joined in on a segment that had been continuously punishing me in single player, we finished it up in seconds with most of our health intact.

Unfortunately, the co-op is more one-and-a-half player than a true two player experience, because the camera stays on Scarygirl at all times and certain jumps and gaps aren’t even possible for Bunnyguru (he doesn’t have any kind of grappling hook move). This means the second player is mostly there to mash some buttons in fight sections and wait around while Scarygirl does much of the athletic work.

Though it has its minor issues, and isn’t in too much danger of causing nationwide astonishment at its approach to platforming antics, Scarygirl has an abundance of visual delights to share. It comes with an already established backstory which seems to slot rather well into a videogame context, and cameo appearances by notable Scarygirl characters (like adorable wind-up kitty Toycat) will no doubt be appreciated by devotees of the series. If you’re hankering for some PS1 platforming of old but can’t find the console in the clutter of the attic, this title should fulfill that need for the day or two it takes to complete.

Scarygirl is available now on Xbox Live Arcade for 1200 MS Points. PSN and PC releases will follow at later dates.
 

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