As with the beginning of all great love affairs, I first laid eyes on Skullgirls in a dimly lit bar in downtown LA. She was tucked away in a corner attracting the attention of other guys but I knew we would soon be alone together. I made my way over there and quickly learned how to press her button; she was a fighting game, just like any other, yet there was something different about her, something special. I ran into her again the next day and got to know her on a much deeper level. Soon after, I professed my affection for Skullgirls on the web for everyone to see. Then we drifted apart and I patiently waited for the day when I could finally call Skullgirls mine. At last that day has come. Skullgirls and I are now passed the honeymoon phase so I can finally see past her beauty and assess where we really stand in the complicated relationship between gamer and game.
The game features an in-depth and really demanding tutorial. Divided into lessons you must pass individually, the tutorial mode in Skullgirls is basically a crash course on the ins and outs of 2D fighting systems, with lessons applicable beyond the game itself. You learn about canceling, air dashes, defense, and more. Each lesson requires you to act on some sort of prompt, whether that means blocking several sequences of attacks in a row or chaining together some spectacular combo. Many of these objectives require very precise timing, but the game foolishly assumes you know how to execute more complex moves without telling you how.
Some would describe the femme fatales that fill out Skullgirls’ roster as hyper sexualized; I prefer to think of them as classy. Certainly many of the girls have an aesthetic appeal, but only in the most macabre sense imaginable. So while you may get a glance at Parasol’s underwear, or realize that Fillia’s skirt is perhaps a bit too short, would anyone really describe the nun/amorphous monster Double as sexy? More important than their looks is the fact that all eight girls have very different personalities and fighting styles, so quality definitely wins out over quantity in this case. The aforementioned Double is a composite of the other characters' move sets, which actually makes her the most unique of them all.
Skullgirls pulls at the heartstrings of my inner movie-lover by adopting a classic Hollywood veneer. The soundtrack features classy and, dare I say exciting, jazz music. The game’s charismatic announcer assumes the role of a big shot director akin to Cecil B. DeMille, as he shouts directions and assesses your fighting ability in terms of an on-screen performance. Overall the voiceovers are strong, which makes it a shame that they aren’t used during the cutscenes of the Story Mode.
Skullgirls is beautiful. The game features a unique Dark Deco style that really makes the visuals pop on-screen. The hand drawn animation is wonderfully fluid and even hyperactive. The bold strokes and deep colors really draw you into the world inhabited by peculiarly charming characters. The 3D engine the game is built on allows for advanced lighting and shaders that make Skullgirls feels at home on HD consoles. If I had to describe a flaw with the game’s visual presentation it would be the black & white loading screens featuring sketches of the characters. Not only are they visually bland, but they are also frequent and prone to slowdowns.
The Story Mode features a unique narrative for each character. The game takes place in the Canopy Kingdom where a powerful artifact known as the Skull Heart is desperately sought after. The Skull Heart has the power to grant one wish but should the girl making that wish have impure intentions then the Skull Heart’s power will turn against her and make her a Skullgirl. Ultimately, the Story Mode is just a string of fights tied together by some explanatory cutscenes as is the case with most fighting game stories, but the game manages to construct its own unique little universe and flesh out its characters in a way you normally would not expect.
This is a 2D fighter made especially for fighting game aficionados. It has the pedigree of a serious tournament fighting game. The developers managed to incorporate nearly every characteristic of a 2D fighting game in here. You have the choice of playing with teams of one to three combatants in most modes, with health adjusted to appropriately account for any imbalance in the number of fighters for each player. It's just one of the things that make Skullgirls stand out on its own even while it takes cues from so many established fighting franchises.
The gameplay is fast and flashy. There are so many different ways to pull off combos and otherwise outwit your opponent in terms of strategy that it is in fact awe inspiring. This is not a game that allows for a novice to succeed by mashing buttons but rather requires knowledge of fighting game theory. Serious fans should recognize the characters by their type immediately. Cerebella is the grappler with massive arms jutting out of her head, Ms. Fortune is the swift one with light attacks and deadly long combos, and Fillia is a strong all-round character that's best for beginners to use to learn the ropes. Each character has several special moves known as Blockbusters which deal a large amount of damage. You can chain together wonderful combos and tag out with another character to keep the massacre going with any move in their arsenal. The most astute fighting game players will recognize the many attacks basically ripped straight out of other notable fighting titles.
Multiplayer is available both online and off. The online is as bare bones as it could be; your only options are ranked quick matches and unranked 2-player lobbies. A strong online set-up could have made up for the lack of single player content but what's actually on offer only exacerbates the issue. The online is powered by the GGPO middleware to provide a nearly lag-free experience, although it’s weird that you must set the frame delay manually every time you join a room. The text for this option can be hard to read, so those that are hasty to get straight to fighting will have a laggier experience than those who take the time adjust it based on their opponent’s ping.
Skullgirls has some definite faults. The lack of a move list for any of the characters is as egregious an omission as any fighting game could possibly make (though a PDF is downloadable from the official game website). The controls can be quite demanding, especially when playing with a controller rather than a fighting stick. Taking the time out to train with each of the characters definitely pays off in the long run, but the steep learning curve will alienate more casual fighting game fans. At $14.99 (1200 MS Points) Skullgirls offers a square deal in terms of the amount of content you get. However, I’m not quite as convinced that it is worth your time. With only 8 characters, you can’t help but wish for more, which I guess can be construed as a complement. It should only take a few hours to complete story mode for each character, thereby unlocking all of the hidden skins the game has to offer.
I enjoyed my time with Skullgirls, but it didn’t captivate as I thought it would when I first encountered the game. It was everything I thought I wanted until I decided that I wanted more, much more. Skullgirls offers a strange paradox wherein those that commit the most time will be rewarded in terms of skill and accomplishment, but there's only enough content to keep the most dedicated fighting fans interested for all that long. It’s strange how a game and gamer can grow apart like that. At least we’ll always have LA.
This review is based on a copy of Skullgirls for the PlayStation 3, downloaded from the PlayStation Store.