I won't have it said that Scarygirl is an ugly game. Trash its wonky physics, clumsy controls and dull-as-dirt platforming all you like, but if you deny that it's wonderfully whimsical slice of loveliness we're going to have to fight.
The game exists in a surreal universe, based on the graphic novels and vinyl toys of Aussie designer Nathan Jurevicius. It's a fairytale by way of The Mighty Boosh, or mythic folklore as told by Tim Burton. It's imaginative, hyperactive and colourful.
You play as the titular Scarygirl (as named by her hyper-intelligent octopus foster parent), a pale-faced orphan with floppy black locks and a tentacle where her arm should be. She sets out into a hodgepodge of weird worlds to discover the meaning behind her troubled dreams.
This takes her to such places as the Old Man Mountains, a chilly hilltop region carved to look like big-nosed gents in pilgrim hats, and the Owl Woods, where tree branches jut out at unnatural right-angles like that old pipes screensaver from Windows 95.
Every stage is alive and active. Enemies don't just litter the playspace, but they leap out of far scenery and pounce in from just inside the screen. Two-dimensional levels splinter off into multiple paths, and areas you didn't explore peek out of the backdrop to tease what you're missing.
Scarygirl's trappings are more charming and creative than anything that's been on Xbox Live Arcade recently. In one stage, a gigantic wooden slide peaks in the far horizon, dips into the level and opens in the foreground. Enormous spiky cannonballs roll down its slats and fire into the screen, and in such a way that you'd flinch yourself if this was in stereoscopic 3D. I was so dumbfounded by the set-piece that I got Scarygirl smooshed into a puddle of psuedo-goth grey. Twice.
So it's such a colossal shame, then, that the underlying game itself is so tired and unimaginative. TikGames wraps these wonderful illustrations around rote platforming sections and repetitive button-mashy combat, which both stubbornly contradict the inventiveness of Jurevicius' art.
The platforming, for example, is built from bits and pieces of a thousand other platformers I've already beaten, but never with the same care or attention. You'll bounce on trampolines, hop over rotating platforms, perilously dodge spikes and swing from hooks. It's got other bits borrowed from Donkey Kong and Mega Man, and nothing in particular of its own.
Our little sugar-coated goth doesn't tackle these obstacles well, either. She doesn't have the bounce of Mario or the elasticity of Rayman. She's slow and stodgy in her clumsy waddle, and floaty when jumping. You'll have to rely on her helicopter-like tentacle arm to glide safely between the hardest platforms.
The combat is at least a little imaginative. It's more about juggling enemies and scoring combos and grappling baddies than bonking things on their little noggins. You can safely seal Scarygirl in a bubble for defence, but tap it seconds before taking damage and you can rebound attacks to your advantage.
You can also toss enemies in the air, or grab hold of them with your tentacle. Once they're squeezed in your ocoto-arm you can squish them for a boost of health, turn them into a bouncy space-hopper or fire them out like a tornado. You can spend those gems you pilfer - which are scattered around every level - on stronger attacks.
It's a little different, then, but the combat still manages to get tiresome. After bashing away at repetitive monsters for hours on end, you'll relish the ability to unleash Scarygirl's rage mode - where she mutates into a wolf with a massive snapping jaw - just because it makes light work of baddies for a few seconds.
I found the only real reprieve from Scarygirl's boredom to be a handful of fun boss encounters. These fights include a mother Yeti who charges when you beat on her wooly babies, and a crafty LittleBigPlanet-esque robot that spits fire and farts out missiles. They're cleverly designed bits of pattern recognition, and the fights are tense and rewarding.
But the enjoyment of those boss fights is in direct opposition to the absolute frustration seen in TikGames' other attempts to mix up the formula. There's an entire cave level where hoards of spiders can kill you in one hit, and there's a broken, back-trapping bone-collecting bit I'd rather not remember.
And every time it tries to play up a cinematic camera angle to better show off the design of the level, the controls fumble and fall apart. In fact, that curious disconnect between presentation and gameplay rears its head all too often.
The platforming action is almost entirely set in two dimensions, for example, but the stunning backdrops trail into the backdrop and explode into the foreground. So much so that gigantic trees and pillars often obscure the action entirely, as if playing the game was a secondary concern to cooing over Jurevicius' art.
I guess that's just indicative of a game that was drawn first and designed later. Scarygirl is beautiful, but that can't hide the dull game hiding beneath.
There are fleeting moments of fun to be had in this six hour campaign, and the two player offline co-op could make for an agreeable game for parents to play with kids. But Scarygirl is simply a functional platformer-come-brawler that's almost entirely devoid of distinction. With so many better adventures on XBLA, there's little reason to shell out for this one.
Version Tested: Xbox 360