Announced last week with little fanfare, Scarygirl is already on its way to home consoles, hitting XBLA this week and PSN next week. Normally, this sort of abbreviated cycle would mean bad things, but after playing through the first few levels of the game, Scarygirl looks to be the first surprise hit of 2012.
Based on the graphic novel of the same name, Scarygirl is the creation of Australian artist Nathan Jurevicius. An orphan with a tentacle for an arm and a pirate patch over one eye, Scarygirl lives in a tree house and is looked after by Blister, an intelligent octopus. After the vision of a mysterious man haunts her dreams, she decides to set out for the big city to track down the mystery man and hopefully discover her origins.
In game, the story is presented by voice-overs between each level. Individual snippets are short, but the intonation of the speaker is perfectly suited. Rather than sounding like a video game, it gives the impression of a father reading a bedtime story to a child. It's a bit different than most, yet works within the fantastic framework of Scarygirl's world.
That world is itself a visual treat, with each level looking like something that could have been designed by Neil Gaiman and animated by Tim Burton. Characters are all extremely stylized, contributing to a constant sensation of exploring a dream world. Even enemies that are supposed to be frightening end up more surreal than scary. In many ways, Scarygirl is simply enjoyable to watch, even if you're not playing. Pick up the controller, though, and you'll find it's just as much fun to play.
Designed as a side-scrolling adventure, Scarygirl evokes feelings of the classic Super Mario Bros. series as you move through the levels. Instead of jumping on the bad guys like Mario, however, Scarygirl uses her tentacle as a whip to attack. She has both a light and strong attack, which can be used to damage, stun and juggle opponents. When not fighting, Scarygirl's tentacle serves as a grapple and gives her the ability to juggle.
Having such a flexible primary weapon means Scarygirl is never short of options, though it does force the player to make some strategic choices. For example, you can stun an opponent and then grapple on to him to use the downed baddie as a makeshift hammer. This increases your attack power, but it means you are unable to hover or grapple anything else until you release the enemy you are using as a hammer.
In addition to the standard attacks, there are also a number of combos and upgrades that Scarygirl can purchase at the in-game shop. One of these early upgrades gives her the ability to squeeze the life out of a defeated enemy and use it to restore her own health. Another gives Scarygirl the ability to pogo-hop with a grappled enemy. There doesn't seem to be any sort of required order to the way in which upgrades unlock. You are limited only by the amount of gems you have on hand.
Finally, Scarygirl also sports a "scary mode" power-up in which she turns into a super monster that can chomp just about anything in the level. This is time limited but pretty sweet when it happens.
Individual levels in Scarygirl's world are short, but multiple paths should add some replay value to the game. Previously completed levels can be re-visited at your leisure. Players looking for a little co-op action can indulge themselves with couch co-op by taking control of Scarygirl's companion, the kung-fu rabbit, Bunniguru.
Ultimately, Scarygirl's biggest asset is the sense of character that it exudes as soon as you fire it up. This isn't some flashy, big-budget title designed to wow with slick menus and bombastic music, but it doesn't need to be. If anything, it's a game with heart. After playing for a few hours, we can't wait to head back and experience the rest. Assuming the later levels are just as strong as the opening set, Scarygirl should have no problem finding a receptive audience.
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