Previously mentioned back in April when it was first released, we postponed a full review of Scarygirl until some of its initial bugs and control issues were sorted. Now, for the review..."
Some games serve as simple occasional diversions from your everyday routine. Some keep you coming back for more, whether it's due to replayability, quirky humor or pleasing graphics. Once in a great while the very best of games manage to completely draw you into their world, a world so complete and exquisitely developed that you want to spend hours there, exploring and dissecting and ruminating.
Scarygirl, a collaboration between Nathan Jurevicius and Touch My Pixel, is one of these rare and elusive games. Flawed yet compelling, this Technicolor platform/adventure game is bursting with whimsy and wonder.
Scarygirl (perhaps a pirate, maybe a zombie, eternally adorable) has a bone for one arm and a hooked tentacle for the other. She wears a party hat with the Jolly Roger on it. She lives in a treehouse. She enjoys collecting jewels and fish. After a particularly troubling dream, she decides to seek guidance from her two mentors. One is a bunny and one is an octopus, of course.
She quickly consults with her advisors, and like any traditional heroine, she is charged with a quest. To discover the meaning behind her dream, she must travel through forests, swamps, cities and sewers, searching for clues and information along the way. And so we begin.
Scarygirl's world is as complex as it is frustrating and as beautiful as it is dangerous. The majority of the game can be boiled down to a traditional platformer in terms of mechanics. You know the drill. Use [arrows] to move, jump with [up], spin attack with [space]. Explore the level, kill the enemies, collect fish to increase your health and gems to increase your score. Activate a checkpoint to save your progress. You're doing great!
Except that, many times throughout the game, none of the above actually applies. The control scheme frequently changes along with the goal of the level. Fortunately there's plenty of in-game help that clearly explains your present objective and defines the active controls. Unfortunately, just when you're used to running, jumping and spinning, you're suddenly riding your rocket bike and bunny-hopping over rock formations. Fortunately, there are plenty of checkpoints along your journey. Unfortunately, the checkpoints are abruptly and quickly phased out, and you'll need to repeat entire levels again and again.
Completion fanatics will relish this chance, striving to collect every fish, treasure, or elusive old-school console game strewn throughout the levels. Offering hours and hours of gameplay, Scarygirl manages to balance its flaws with sheer ambition and a rock solid sense of place.
Analysis: At first glance, Scarygirl comes at you blazing on all cylinders like a triumph in Flash game production values. From the very start of the introductory cinematic sequence, the player is offered a glimpse at what appears to be one of the most fantastic Flash games to ever appear on the Web. And yet once you dig a little deeper, the game seems to suffer from a severe case of "everything but the kitchen sink-itis." Swimming? Check. Boss battle? Check. Bike ride? Check. Trading? Collecting? A Mastermind-esque puzzle? Check, check and check.
The problem here is that its mostly traditional platforming basics aren't fully developed. Scarygirl plays like a compressed console game, never fully exploring the possibilities of each component, a conceit that is ultimately unsatisfying. Perhaps the most infuriating element is a lack of consistency. In the underwater level, you need to keep an eye on your oxygen level, periodically finding an air pocket to replenish it. Later, when you explore the sewers, swimming through flooded tunnels, no oxygen is necessary.
In the same vein, some levels drip green goo from the ceiling. You'll need to avoid the droplets, but the puddle underneath is safe to stand on. In a later level, however, what seems to be a puddle of the same goo does, in fact, harm you.
This same inconsistency applies to almost everything around you, slowly and cleverly becoming an integral and appealing part of the game. You don't know which fantastical creatures are the enemies until you try to walk past them. Does this bird want to take away my health fish? No, but this other bird does! Can I jump on that lady's hat? Of course I can! How about this pipe-smoking gentleman? Absolutely not!
The game's biggest flaw turns into its most compelling feature, a parlor trick that is rare indeed. The unpredictability factor serves to infuse Scarygirl and the world around her with a sense of exploration and adventure, a sense that the player is truly part of this journey, resulting in the desire to investigate every pathway available. And we haven't even discussed the art yet.
Oh, the art. The whimsical, stylized, gorgeous art. If Shag and Mary Blair had a slightly gothic and surreal love child, that child would be Scarygirl. The design never falters — each character is as lovingly drawn as the next. The game is dreamlike and capricious, beginning with the fantastically beautiful work of genius that is the opening movie.
In the end, the good outweighs the bad. Players can put up with loose controls, slipping and sliding their way through levels, when the brilliance of the rest of the game is so appealing. Every element combines to lift Scarygirl above the competition, serving to create one of the most exasperating yet fulfilling Flash games available today.