Ever since the release of Street Fighter 4 the fighting genre has regained much of its former glory, with Capcom largely leading the way in virtual pugilism. Throwing their hat into the ring is developer Revenge Labs with their 2D stylistic fighting title Skullgirls. Dubbed by many in the fighting game community as a future mainstay in the tournament scene, expectations have been high. It has also been advertised as a great introductory title for newcomers of the genre, whilst still being complex enough to cater for the most serious of enthusiasts. Skullgirls for its part lives up to this claim, mostly.
As with most fighting games these days, a practice and training mode is present, but this is genuinely one of – if not the best – fighting game tutorials I have ever come across. It takes you through a series of lessons (which can be taken on in any order) that introduce and explain all of the various concepts used throughout the game. The great thing about it is that all the fighting jargon is present, but explained in a way which essentially teaches you not only how to play Skullgirls, but all other 2D fighting games. Terms such as mix-ups, cancels and hit confirmation are covered in a pressure-free environment, allowing anyone a chance to hone their skills. It’s all pretty comprehensive and will probably take a good hour or so for novices to get through. Whilst it doesn’t go a step further and explain when these concepts should be used, it’s certainly good enough to be time well spent if you plan on being more than just a button basher. By the end of if expect to be able to pull off impressive looking combos utilising air chains, cancels and specials moves with your training avatar.
From there, further training can be obtained in the practice arena or by undertaking one of the singleplayer modes. There is – as you might expect – a story mode which sees your chosen character battle their way through their individual tale as they seek to obtain an ancient artefact called the Skull Heart. This mysterious relic grants their wishes, but if the user is impure then the Skull Heart slowly takes over and corrupts their soul – albeit adding a multitude of superpowers in the process. Interspersed between fights are static cut scenes which are beautifully detailed with their anime trappings and dialogue overlaid in comic book fashion. There are certainly some weird and wacky characters in Skullgirls, and this extends to supporting characters just as much as the fighters themselves.
Speaking of which, if there is one thing which Skullgirls doesn’t do, its normal. Take Ms. Fortune for example, a girl who moves and acts like a cat, who also uses her head, quite literally, to defeat her foes by detaching it from her body and throwing or bowling it across the screen. The head can then remain on the floor, jumping about and atacking the legs of enemies. Or how about Parasoul, an umbrella toting leader of an attack force that can not only throw fire around, but calls on her army to jump in front of her to deflect attacks, or have a motorcycle unit storm across the screen to take our any unsuspecting foe. Whilst this quirkiness might be a bit too much for some, it means that all of the fighters are genuinely unique, not just in look but also in how they play. The balancing of all characters is spot on however, and no matter who you choose, it never feels like one has any real advantage over the other.
Also available is an arcade mode and versus, which allows both local and online matches. Whilst the story is purely one on one, these two modes allow for team play. At the start of the match you are given a choice between having one, two or three members in a team. Choosing two or three allows for strategic tagging, double team moves and more with all fighters balanced evenly in power. Choose just one fighter however and your attacks will be stronger and more health will be available. This leads to interesting combinations in matches and keeps an even playing field regardless of your preference. It’s a smart idea that works extremely well; other games could learn a lot from Skullgirls in this regard.
In terms of the actual fighting mechanics, think more SNK than Capcom. Combos are much more effective than super moves but combining the two is the true key to success. Whilst special moves can be spammed over and over, a more skilled opponent will easily counter this. Dashing and double jumping is available, and air combos are encouraged. Whilst this emphasis on combos could lead to situations where infinite combos are spammed, Skullgirls eliminates this by allowing any combo to be broken, thus making a more balanced game from the start and reducing the number of title updates which could have been required in the future. The only downside to all this glorious balancing is that there are only eight fighters to choose from, and with most fighters these days offering dozens of characters in comparison, it really is slim pickings indeed. What this means is that you will be having the same fights over and over again and so in this respect the more casual gamer may be done with Skullgirls in just a few hours.
The other barrier for new players, of any skill level, is the fact that there are no move lists for the characters in game. In order to learn their special and super moves (called Blockbuster attacks) a visit to the official Skullgirls website is in order to download a PDF file. It is a big hassle and I cant imagine it would have been too difficult to incorporate the move lists onto a pause menu. This would be the theory anyway, if there was indeed a pause option available. Even on single player modes the action cannot be paused and the first time I had an itchy nose I really paid for it. The Blockbuster attacks are powerful and fun to use, but even these lack the visual eye candy overload that other games such as SF4 and MVC3 offer. Despite the excellent quality art and animation for both foreground and background, and the extreme character designs, the whole game is less flashier than its rivals. Whilst it may be a bit shallow, I can see many gamers overlooking it purely because it’s not as busy as other titles.
For those that do give it a chance, they will be rewarded with a slick, great looking, great sounding (the soundtrack is especially brilliant) and well-balanced fighter that teaches beginners the ropes to the fighting genre and offers experienced fighting fans a new battlefield that can support the scene for some time.