For a genre that has given rise to the creation of so many great games, it can often be difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff when it comes to the puzzle platformer. This is doubly true when games under its umbrella are heavily evocative of one another in certain visual or mechanical elements, causing the question to become less “Is this game good?” and more “Have I played this game before?”
You would be forgiven for asking yourself that question after taking a look at Scarf from developer Uprising Studios. Originally announced in August of 2018 with a release window of 2019, the game is finally seeing a release on December 23rd, 2021 courtesy of THQ Nordic subsidiary HandyGames. It appears to feature some familiar elements, but is it able to carve itself out from the crowd and stand on its own? Let’s bundle up against that biting winter chill and see.
The Slain Skein
The narrative backdrop of Scarf is highly reminiscent of a fairy tale. When our playable character arrives on an ethereal island surrounded by endless water, he encounters a scarf in the shape of a dragon that drapes itself around his neck. Immediately, he experiences the creature’s memories, which weave a story of her mother being destroyed by beings of “light flesh” (of which our adorable protagonist also seems to be comprised), that used the remaining threads to create portals to new worlds. Right on cue, we see a number of these light beings doing just that on the island.
Speaking in broad strokes, the game has you carrying the character to these light beings in order to retrieve the mother’s stolen threads, each of which work toward the reconstruction of a portal to the original world of the scarf. As you progress, you’ll find hidden collectibles that elaborate on the finer details of what happened in the form of a brief cutscene with narration and art. It opts for visual storytelling over expository storytelling at most avenues, but it isn’t afraid to use narration for these segments to paint a better picture for the player.
This is all to say that the emphasis of narrative here is very much on the macro level, but it does take steps to prevent you feeling disconnected from your character. My personal favorite of these takes place when the scarf detaches from you for a moment to investigate the environment of her own accord or help you find an object needed for progression. Whenever this happens, you find yourself temporarily robbed of your movement abilities, but it never lasts long enough for it to be an annoyance, and it serves as a consistent reminder that the scarf itself is a living creature.
It’s important to note that this story, while adequate, is not Scarf’s strongest suit in the sense that as it never elevates itself beyond being a backdrop for the rest of the game. There’s nothing here you haven’t experienced before in some form or another, but it works because the narrative never overshadows the gameplay.
Don We Now Our Neck Apparel
The most immediately tangible plus when beginning Scarf is the game’s pacing. The opening handful of the game is packed full with a steady stream of new movement abilities for you to traverse the environment with, and the game’s puzzles are no exception to this speedy progress either, as nearly every one is relatively simple to intuit and requires very little time to implement its solution.
Simple memorization and picking up objects only a few meters away to progress is a common theme running through most of the brainteasers, but there’s enough variation in the execution of these elements to prevent the loop from getting stale. This means Scarf reaches (and more importantly retains) a sense of momentum that other puzzle platformers can sometimes struggle to achieve.
Occasionally, however, you’ll come across a snag in a puzzle’s design that feels like it was intentionally included to waste your time. You’ll think you’re finished and progress onward, only to have the game ask you to return and bring back a certain key item with you. Mercifully these instances are few and far between, but they absolutely bog down an otherwise smooth experience.
The balance of pacing is also keenly felt in movement. Surprisingly, walking through the world can feel a bit sluggish at first: your character’s sprint is more of a waddle, and jumping is a bit more floaty than you’d expect from a game where running and jumping is the primary method of getting around. More surprising still is that this isn’t a mark against the game. On the contrary, it feels like a bold development decision that’s been fine-tuned to the experience—a reminder of just how much the scarf is boosting your capabilities.
It’s a very relaxed experience through and through. There are no lives or other means of increasing tension in gameplay, nor are you ever under strict time constraints when platforming. Plummeting to one’s doom in Scarf is a minor inconvenience at the absolute worst, since you’ll simply pop right back to where you were just prior to the misstep. All of this is very much a boon in a game that sees you traversing and taking in the sights and sounds of expansive locales.
When it comes to discussing where this title stands in the overall scope of the genre, it’s difficult not to draw comparisons to Thatgamecompany’s popular 2012 effort Journey. Even the game’s titular garment is heavily reminiscent of the ones worn in Journey, and I would be very surprised if it wasn’t a large part of the inspirational impetus for Scarf, for want of a better phrase. That being said, there are still unique gameplay concepts at play here that I haven’t seen before that lead me to see Scarf as an iterative game; it has one foot in the genre’s past as well as one in its future.
There’s no denying the talent on display in Uprising Studios’ artists. I was consistently impressed by the artistic aesthetic on display in Scarf, where everything has a soft, cushiony sort of style brought to vibrant life by strong use of color and shadow. The world feels lovingly crafted with very few reused assets across the individual worlds, though you can still find some misplaced geometry and certain environmental objects you can clip your camera through if you go searching for them. The complete lack of a user interface outside of moments where one is absolutely necessary does wonders for the game’s immersive factor, though more labeling for the optional collectables would have been welcome.
The utilization of scale in Scarf is impressive. Abandoned stone temples and thick forests loom over you to a degree that can make you feel downright infinitesimal at times, but never to the point where you feel overwhelmed. It will often feel as though you’re making your way through civilizations long lost to time, and it’s in these moments, as well as in the scarf’s behavior when it detaches from you, that I’m heavily reminded of the works of Fumito Ueda—particularly 2016’s The Last Guardian.
The musical score is serviceable. It can be lovely and unobtrusive in the moment, with wind instruments and echoing piano helping to bring the environments even further to life. Unfortunately, there are a few stretches of time with absolutely no music for no discernable reason, where the absence went so far as to pull me out of the experience a bit.
Scarf is an endearing experience. It wears its inspirations on its sleeve and doesn’t shatter the genre’s conventions with innovative ideas, but still finds enough sure footing to set itself apart from its contemporaries. Moreover, an unsurprising story and a few instances of intentional time-wasters in puzzles aren’t enough to lessen the benefits of its brisk pace and variety of gorgeous environments. It may not hit the highest highs of the genre, but if you’re in the mood for an atmospheric puzzle platformer, you could do much worse.
Review copy provided by HandyGames for PC. Screenshots taken by reviewer. Featured image courtesy of HandyGames.