For: Playstation 3 (via Playstation Network) and Xbox 360 (via Xbox Live Arcade)
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (cartoon violence, use of tobacco)
Don’t let the name fool you: Even though its namesake and star has the arms of an octopus and the face of a skeleton vinyl doll, Scarygirl — and the game bearing her name — is more cute than scary.
In fact, for those attuned to “LittleBigPlanet’s” style, “Scarygirl’s” presentation will be familiarly cute. Like “LBP,” it’s a 2D platformer modeled with 3D graphics that look like a diorama come to life — more papercraft and watercolor than “LBP’s” burlap, cardboard and vinyl, but unmistakably riding the same visual wavelength. Throw in the narrator, who introduces each level as if a page from a slightly twisted bedtime storybook, and it’s very obvious from whence at least some of “Scarygirl’s” stylistic influence came.
With that said, don’t let the kindly exterior fool you either. “Scarygirl” gets off to a pretty gentle start, and the levels that comprise the first two of its seven chapters aren’t terribly imposing if your only goal is to clear them.
But then “Scarygirl” drops you into the Hairclump Spider Cave with the cave’s namesake enemy almost immediately on your tail, and just like that, the kid gloves are off.
In part, the challenge spikes for unintended reasons. Though she’s pretty spry, Scarygirl’s repertoire (running, jumping, gliding, swinging, melee combat, and a limited-use forcefield for blocking and counterattacking) sometimes feels almost too responsive, resulting in a slight jerkiness that makes it easy to slip when combining moves or trying to stick a precise jump.
An overly generous hit detection works against as well as for Scarygirl, and there are occasions where enemies spawn right on top of her and cause damage before you even have a chance to react.
Finally, while “Scarygirl’s” level design is generally pretty great — diverse locations, branching paths, gobs of color and style — it also features occasional instances where a jump of faith feels necessary. Sometimes, a jump that looks doable just isn’t because it’s part of a another path on a different perspective plane. “Scarygirl” rarely depends on trial and error, but the few times it does are pretty unflattering. (Fortunately, checkpoints are frequent enough that they aren’t very aggravating.)
Fortunately, the aforementioned points are exceptions to the rule, and “Scarygirl’s” challenge mostly comes from the right places.
The branching, vertical level designs — set in deserts, mountains, aboard airships, in a nightclub and elsewhere — make excellent use of Scarygirl’s arsenal, particularly if you’re bold enough to pull off the tricky acrobatic maneuvers needed to get a perfect level score (no deaths, all collectibles found). You need not perfect a level to pass it, but “Scarygirl” keeps track and provides an leaderboard to motivate the best of the best.
Similarly, while its combat is simple — strong attack, weak attack, forcefield — “Scarygirl” tests it with enemies (and especially bosses) whose attack patterns make it crucial to balance defense, offense and positioning to manage multiple enemies. At its best and most imposing, it’s a perfect ode to the classic sidescrollers of the NES era — modern in its production values and polish, but timeless in the desire it creates to play, replay and master its levels.
If you aren’t quite that dedicated, “Scarygirl’s” two-player drop-in co-op support will take the edge off a bit. It works as painlessly as one hopes it would, with the lack of online support being the only potential downside.
For: Playstation 3 (via Playstation Network) and Xbox 360 (via Xbox Live Arcade)
From: Vector Cell/Lexis Numerique
ESRB Rating: Mature (use of drugs, blood, intense violence, language)
In the thin strip of land separating challenge and undying aggravation, the checkpoint is king. As it goes, so often goes a game’s fate, especially when it’s a horror game crawling with elements seemingly designed to purposefully work against you.
The Amy in “Amy” is a young girl who, for reasons not really clarified, cannot speak and wants zero to do with a place known casually as The Center. When things go awry, she’s in the care of Lana (that’s you), who shares her sentiments.
The upshot of the not-really-explained story is that “Amy” overwhelmingly is an escort game. You indirectly control Amy by pressing a button to hold her hand and pull her around, but she’s also capable (when the A.I. cooperates) of following, waiting, hiding and accessing places you can’t reach to create access for you.
Arguably, when not wandering into mission-ending peril, Amy gives more than she receives. When nearby, she automatically heals Lana, and over time, she’s able to (clumsily) wield telekinetic powers and create temporary safe zones that distort enemies’ senses. In “Amy’s” best trick, you also can hear (and feel, via the controller’s vibration) her heartbeat when monsters, infected people and other enemies are near. The closer you are to peril, the more forceful it beats.
The tension that heartbeat creates is palpable, because “Amy” subscribes to much — good or bad — of what made horror games so scary during their mid-1990s advent. Lana isn’t as clumsy to control as those early “Resident Evil” game characters, but her awkward turning skills and the controller gymnastics needed to make her break into a sprint (especially when holding Amy’s hand) means she’s working in the same neighborhood.
Sadly, her melee combat acumen fares even worse — a point you’ll suspect in “Amy’s” easy first chapter and confirm when things get exponentially hairier in chapter two. The weapons she uses break way too easily, and her swing wouldn’t pass muster in a slow-pitch softball game. Though “Amy” offers a dodge mechanic and encourages you to use it, its sloppy camera and hit detection almost certainly will betray (and, if one bad break leads to another, kill) you.
This, by the way, is where “Amy” goes from endearingly antiquated to hellaciously frustrating.
There are checkpoints scattered across during “Amy’s” six chapters, but they are cruelly sparse. Once again, you’ll likely realize this in chapter two, where you’ll do some exploring, find some story clues, find Amy (who fled following chapter one’s closing twist), see a cutscene and almost immediately get killed in one whack by the star of that cutscene.
If that happens, you have to repeat all that mundane exploring and hope to device an escape plan so the quick demise doesn’t repeat. But even if you escape, learn about Amy’s special abilities, solve a couple key card puzzles and then die at the hands of another enemy you meet 20 minutes later, you have to start the entire chapter over. Because where most games would have dotted this half-hour stretch with two, maybe three checkpoints, “Amy” offers zero.
What a shame, too, because with even a reasonable checkpoint system, all of “Amy’s” miscues — stiff controls, clumsy combat, A.I. lapses, some elaborately annoying trial-and-error processes, a stealth section that would feel ancient 14 years ago — could be written off as forgivable callbacks to a punishing niche genre that still has its fans. When “Amy” is tense, it is exceptionally so, and a reasonable scattering of checkpoints would have enhanced rather than ruined that. When immersive tension gives way to the dread of having to replay 30 minutes that weren’t necessarily fun the first time around, there’s no reason to keep playing.
Saints Row the Third: GenkiBowl VII
For: Playstation 3, Xbox 360 and Windows PC (requires Saints Row the Third)
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, drug reference, intense violence, partial nudity, sexual content, strong language)
Price: $7 (also included as part of the $20 season pass)
After the complete spectacle that was “Saints Row the Third’s” main storyline, hopes were high that the first downloadable expansion would go even crazier. On one hand, “GenkiBowl VII” — a series of violently fantastical events emceed by the diabolical game show host/living cartoon character Professor Genki — delivers on that hope. Sexy Kitten Yarngasm, for instance, tasks you with causing as much property destruction as possible with a massive, steerable, shockwave-blasting yarn ball, while Sad Panda Skyblazing combines the timeless sports of free-falling through the air in a panda suit and waging war on people in bunny and hot dog suits. Along with some funny play-by-play, it certainly qualifies as a spectacle. But Yarngasm essentially is a modified version of the main game’s Tank Mayhem missions, and the events where you escort Genki around and venture through a deadly game show-style maze have similar counterparts. Only Skyblazing feels completely new, and with only two missions per event to complete, the entire expansion is over before you know it. You can keep the spoils — the yarn ball, Genki’s car, some characters and outfits — and use them throughout the rest of the game, and the fun of wreaking havoc with a gigantic cat toy cannot be overstated. But even with that said, a few more missions per event would have done wonders for better justifying “GB7′s” price tag.