Girls with skulls, kind of…
Fighting games are back! Many would rightfully argue that they never really went away, but after a few years outside of mainstream recognition, the current upsurge in popularity and presence is hard to ignore. Whilst top studios are throwing big budgets at tried and tested franchises, Skullgirls is a new challenger with quite the opposite approach – a fresh-faced labour of love from a small but knowledgeable team of die-hard fighting fans. So how does it square up against the big boys?
Developer: Reverge Labs
The first impressions convey an originality that’s often lost in games of this ilk. Instantly there’s a distinct and unique theme to the game, that lends it a feel akin to a 1950’s American mobster movie – drab and moody dark browns and blacks make up a lot of the interface’s colour palette, and an upbeat announcer compliments a thoroughly jazzy soundtrack (supplied by none other than Michiru Yamane of Castlevania fame) that ushers in the action. When it comes to character selection things break off a little though, with an ensemble comprised entirely of females – and rather darkly off-beat ones to boot. In game, each finds their respective quirks manifest in a way that impact their fighting ability – such as Filia, a schoolgirl with demonically possessed hair that allows her to dash cancel and move more freely in the air, whereas Ms Fortune, a cat-girl who can freely detatch her head, is instead given the option of attacking from both sides of an opponent simultaneously via her own decapitated head. Generally when observing character designs there’s a heavy anime & cartoon influence that is hard to ignore, and whilst it’s not entirely negative it is something that will likely polarise opinions very quickly, especially given the number of characters whose outfits and proportions are undeniably pandering. This aside, there’s no denying the game is very impressive graphically, with the level of detail and quantity of animation used for each character deserving some serious applause.
The battles themselves offer a good degree of flexibility, with each player offered a choice between focusing on one super-powered character, or instead splitting their strength across a team or two or three, allowing for mid-match tags in direct trade-off for weaker characters. Once you’ve got a basic idea of how moves sit with one another, combos are refreshingly simple to improvise, with the inputs required for these being a long way away from the demanding one and two frame links present in some other fighters. Systems are in place to pro-actively prevent any undiscovered game-breaking combos from surfacing, and generally speaking the balance across the roster is well struck too – a common flaw of many fighters, which conversely plays wonderfully to the strengths of Reverge Labs. With Mike Z – a proven, tournament-level fighting game expert – at the helm of the project, and the list of ‘Special Thanks’ in the credits reading like a who’s who directory of fighting game community A-listers, it’s quite clear that the hardcore audience has been both listened and catered to very carefully.
There are some things the game does fantastically; for one, the tutorial mode is one of the most comprehensive examples of such a mode ever seen in a fighter. Whilst there’s still a tiny bit of the tried-and-tested combo tutorials through way of “Simon Says”, there’s a pleasantly plain-English description of some elementary tactics to supplement this too. If you’ve ever wanted to understand the likes and importance of hit stun, pokes, mix-ups and so on, Skullgirls does a better job than most at making these concepts accessable for all, even if there are only brief opportunities to put this knowledge into practice. But at the same time there are still gaps that prevent the game being entirely beginner friendly – such as the bizarre absence of an in-game move list, and the rather belittling punishment issued by even the easiest-graded computer opponents. The sheer volume of content is another that will see some back away too, with the roster sitting at a rather measly eight fighters (one of whom performs her moves by morphing into other fighters), and a rather brief story mode being the only distraction from the staple arcade and online modes – the latter of which being relatively light on options, even if competently supported by GGPO netcode.
Taking its download status into consideration, and recognising most other fighters on the market as the by-product of years of iterative upgrades, it’s no surprise that the first – and hopefully not last – outing for the Skullgirls does not sweep the rug out from underneath the establishment. At the core of it though, it is an undeniably solid fighter – one that is tuned to such a fine degree that very few will even be able to appreciate it fully. Whilst it entirely deserves to be lapped up by the hardcore community, more casual buyers can still find their way smoothly into an enjoyable time with Skullgirls, even if there might not be enough to keep them focused on it for too long.