Comics are forever being made into films, TV series and games, so full are they of good ideas. From the legendary Sin City and Walking Dead to the indie hit series Scott Pilgrim, comics have been the go-to medium for inspiration for ages. While most developers are content with stripping the big names down and hopping on various cultural bandwagons, it seems TikGames have gone the opposite way entirely and brought a cult-hit graphic novel to XBLA.
Scarygirl, in its native form, is a character and brand encompassing a range of toys and said graphic novel, which is apparently critically acclaimed and much-loved. How creator Nathan Jurevicius managed to get a game made of his work, little known outside the comic book world, is a mystery. How he got Squeenix to publish it is an even bigger one!
No matter though, because it’s out now and I opted to take the plunge and see what all the fuss is about.
Only in comic books…
Scarygirl is from a graphic novel and we’re not talking The Dark Knight Returns here. Think cult, indie-type, single-issue comics crossed with a twisted dark humour and you’re half-way there. These kinds of comics usually take the latter part of ‘plotline’ with a pinch of salt… and often the first part too.
The backstory is told in a rushed cut-scene before you even get to the main menu, and tells of an abandoned girl who’s adopted by an intelligent octopus called Blister. He dresses her in clothing from the bottom of the ocean and builds her a treehouse, naming her Scarygirl. They live happily together but Scarygirl is plagued by nightmares of a bearded man and thusly ventures to see a wise rabbit to decipher her dream. The rabbit tells of a great city where the bearded man lives and so Scarygril sets off to find him.
While it’s not an original plot by any stretch, it does feel like a fairytale or fable with its unusual events and characters. It’s the sort of thing that gets praise heaped on it from the kind of people who like Hello Kitty and quirky randomness but in reality it’s scattered and needlessly strange. We’re never told why she has a hook for one hand and a tentacle for the other. We’re never told why she was abandoned, why Blister is smart enough to make a treehouse and how Scarygril could survive his underwater escapades.
Okay, maybe that last one was unfair but you get the picture. While I’m sure it all fits perfectly in the novel, as a prelude to a game it feels empty and pointless. Plot has very little bearing on most of the game anyway, with only the in-between-level loading sections containing any further plot developments. Most of these consist of stuff like ‘After braving the spooky forest, Scarygirl makes her way to the snowy mountain’, stringing the locations together but not really giving us much reason to play the game to find out what happens next.
I might as well be blindfolded…
Scarygirl plays like two very different sides of a shiny, shiny coin. On the one hand it’s a refreshingly original action platformer with some neat new ideas and a solid combat base. On the other, it’s a maliciously frustrating chore, replete with unfair enemies, ridiculous jumps and our old friend; bullshit.
It starts well enough. Scarygirl’s tentacle arm is your chief weapon and Light and Heavy attacks are the order of the day. You can also use it to helicopter a bit when you jump, which makes reaching those tricky platforms a breeze. Enemies come in all shapes and sizes but all fall to the might of the tentacle. You can also grab stunned enemies and use them to smash others or hit faraway objects.
It’s simple stuff but satisfying enough to hold your interest and the levels are designed to make use of all your skills. Shop ladies potter about each level and, by collecting gems, you can buy new combat moves and upgrades for Scarygirl, including a feather for further helicoptering and a fish the makes you swim faster. While the first few levels are simple platforming fare they soon morph into finger-twisting endurance tests rammed full of traps, tricks and rock-solid enemies.
Here’s where the issues begin to arise. I’m up for a fair challenge as always and enjoy being tested to the limit of my ability, but Scarygirl is so cheap, so unforgivably mean that it ceases to become enjoyable and instead transforms into a bitter slog of epic proportions. The bullshit is thick and widespread, covering every layer of gameplay. First, the once smooth combat becomes a burden. Enemies walk through combos and hurt you while you stay rooted to the spot. You get mobbed; you have no effective way of handling more than one foe at a time, yet they all attack at once.The finesse and accuracy required to take down some of the baddies becomes impossible to achieve because you’re fighting so many.
The limitations of Scarygirl’s simple tentacle become all too clear when you start to face enemies who can throw rocks and dodge-roll away from you, or birds that swoop around while spitting fire. Upgrading is useless; most of the moves are locked until you reach a certain point in the game. You’re simply ill-equipped to deal with the barrage of enemy types the game throws at you.
Next the platforming takes a turn for the worse. Landing on platforms becomes impossible without injury, the present enemies too fast or packed too tight to make landing safe. Simple climbing sections become gauntlets, as invincible spiders scuttle around twice as fast as you can move and deadly goop drips repeatedly from the ceiling, from too many locations with no fixed pattern.
Traps come from the foreground where they’re impossible to see and even more impossible to avoid unless you know they’re coming, while enemies hide behind foreground elements and spam you while you try to navigate another tricky jump. Every movement is marred by a blitz of bullshit as if the game is mocking you.
This is not difficulty. I’m not whining on about how hard the game is and how I can’t beat it. The game presents you with gruelling gauntlets of danger and then strips you of all your tools; deduction, reactions, timing and skill. How can I avoid a trap if it hits me before I see it? How do I dodge a swinging log when it’s too wide for me to run past before it hits me? How do I kill a bird when it’s in mid-air and spitting fie which knocks me down every time I jump to hit it?
There are a million issues and a million little stories like that, all professing that the game refuses to allow you a fair go. It’s like it is self-aware and wants to watch you sigh as you die once again due to some unseen trap or some unfair enemy. You might as well be blindfolded with how the game gives you such little fair chance.
Yet, I’m compelled to continue. The game’s ingenuity and originality should be praised, as should TikGames’ ambition for bringing such an unusual character to a video-game. The design is solid, with few if any bugs or glitches present. There are no graphical tears or faux pas as far as I can see. The story is well paced and the locations are varied, adding variety to the game and keeping things fresh.
Although this makes me feel even worse because that means they actually indented the game to be this cheap, and it’s this cheapness that prevents any kind of sense of achievement when completing a level. I feel like I’ve managed to beat a cheating opponent rather than a good one.
Considering it came from a graphic novel, the art style of Scarygirl is no surprise. Everything is drawn in quasi-cell-shading, all bold colours and black lines. That doesn’t stop it from being beautiful though.
Jurevicius’ work comes to life on the screen, every frame looking like the panel of a cartoon in fluid, gorgeous motion. The inventiveness and imagination on show here is impressive and you’d be hard pushed to find anything quite like this. Scarygirl herself is an original, if a little too odd, character who possesses little expression outside of the comic-book cut-scenes but still manages to endear somewhat. The enemies are as varied as they come, some adopting video-game staples but most an invention of the artist’s mind.
The levels are all designed well with an attention to detail the likes of which have been seen in the best of the SNES library. Something is always happening on-screen, whether you’re making it happen or not and each area feels alive. The variation is also great, taking us from a swampy jungle to a rocky mountain and a snowy tundra with ease.
My only gripe is that it all feels a bit pretentious. I’m sure that within the context of the graphic novel, Scarygirl is charming and loveable, the other characters are heartwarming and memorable and all the other stuff the Amazon review says, but as crowbarred-in characters in a game there’s really very little exceptional about them. Things which would be considered ‘quirky’ or ‘inventive’ in the novel feel strange and out-of-place in the game. Without the warm binding of the text and stories, the world of Scarygirl feels bitty and incomplete, like a machine that’s only loosely fitted together.
The sound in Scarygirl is uninspiring, which is a shame given the pedigree of the visuals. While the sound effects do their job well enough, many of the enemies sound much less interesting than they look. The only dialogue present is an irritating narrator who sounds like he’s reading a patronising bedtime story to a bunch of (lets face it) adults. While the visuals can be cute and look innocuous enough, this is obviously not a game aimed at children specifically, so the choice of voice over is baffling and makes the occasional story sections seem boring and childish.
The music is a missed opportunity as well. Booting up the game you’re greeted to a cool, techno-based intro song on the main menu. It made me immediately think of Invader Zim which can only be a good thing. Unfortunately the music never seems to top that throughout the game, with the composer content with writing samey scores that conform to every stereotype in the history of gaming. The jungle level has drums, the snow level has pan-flutes and lots of wind. The dark caves are all spooky and the mountain is chilly but epic. It’s not hugely bad and it won’t make you reach for the ear-plugs but it simply fails to impress.
Strange but not very scary…
If Scarygirl started as it meant to go on, I might be in a position to declare it an Arcade hit straight out of the blind-spot. Unfortunately it doesn’t and an original and enjoyable platform romp quickly turns into a gruelling gauntlet of cheap tricks and masochistic misery. Its charm and visual cream only go so far to soothe a seething spleen primed to rupture after you’ve been cut down by an unavoidable trap for the millionth time.
Unlike the obligatory Hardcore mode now resplendent in every game that involves firearms, Scarygrl is not a challenge. It’s not a tough cookie that you feel you can crack with enough practise. It’s all the annoying elements of the side-scroller genre; memory sections, unfair traps, unavoidable injury, weak attacks, gimped abilities, cheap bosses, all stitched together and painted by a very talented artist, creating a lumbering Frankenstien monster of gaming hell.
Then again, maybe you like that sort of thing. I like a fair challenge, but some of you are self-harmers, constantly looking for the next game to make you declare an active and dedicated intent to murder the developers in unsightly and painful ways. Scarygirl has a lot to offer to the lunatics, with gorgeous visuals and bags of originality. For those reasons I can’t recommend that everyone stay away; through the frustration and bullshit there’s a decent game struggling to get out. It’s just a shame that TikGames buried it so fucking deep.