Fighting games aren’t necessarily my forte, but it isn’t hard to catch the charm of Skullgirls. What can be difficult, though, is grasping the hardcore, in-depth fighting mechanic that comes packaged in this artistic and mechanically inspired downloadable title. Spamming moves and jamming buttons won’t get you far, and the story and accompanying roster are just plain loopy…it’s just a tad frustrating for me.
The visual style combines classic anime with a subtler, cartoon-y presentation that sometimes reminds me of cel-shading, for some strange reason. It’s certainly one of the more impressive digital titles in the graphical department, as the animations are quick and sweet and I’m a big fan of those vivid colors and slick overall design. The best part is that much of this game features hand-drawn models, which you don’t see often anymore, and the backdrops are especially appealing.
We get a decent soundtrack, crisp effects, and a comically melodramatic narrator (along with a few other over-the-top voices), which means the audio is a definite benefit. Much of the sound category might be subjective, though; if the art style resonates with you, chances are, you’ll enjoy the voices and music much more. If not, you might find such a presentation slightly annoying and even childlike. But hey, that’s the point of Skullgirls: A satisfying fighter with a glossy, humorous, laid-back exterior that is bound to put a smile on your face.
At first glance, there’s not a lot here. You won’t find a lot of modes (there are really only two) and the roster is surprisingly small (only eight characters), so you might think you’re looking at a watered down version of a more robust fighter. But the minute you start a match, you’ll realize two things: 1. You had better go through the tutorial first if you hope to be successful, even on Normal difficulty, and 2. This is a game that punishes you for being too predictably and generally lazy.
The key features of this mechanic lie in its diversity and demanding nature. In Arcade mode, you can choose from three different match setups; one vs. three, two vs. three, and three vs. three. You can even choose a special secondary skill for your chosen character. On top of which, if you go into battle thinking you’ll just execute the same move over and over, you’ll soon realize that the AI is onto your lame trick. There’s an infinite combo breaker that detects spammed moves and gives a power-counter option to your opponent. Yeah. Take that.
This is why the tutorial really feels almost essential. Unfortunately, without an in-game moves list, you can still feel a little overwhelmed, especially when the computer is going apesh** on your ass. You’ll also need to do some homework, as each fighter is so unique, and in turn presents such a singular challenge, that having a pre-set strategy in your head is typically a good idea. Some fighters just aren’t suited to take down certain other fighters and you’ll soon learn this, one way or the other. Even though there are only eight characters, each character is very well defined.
The Story mode doesn’t give you the aforementioned customization options, as you’re following the plot surrounding a particular roster member, but at least the stories are always…strangely enticing. The characters are actually interesting, even if the writing and actual plot unraveling is amateurish. Most of the stories are just too insane to actually mean anything, and that’s just fine with me; we have plenty of games that take themselves seriously. It’s nice to have a game that knows it’s a video game and doesn’t try to hide the fact and instead revels in its lighthearted charm.
But as I said before, there is some frustration and indeed, the lack of content does start to grate after a while. No in-game moves list makes things unnecessarily complicated, and I’ve always hated this trend where most special moves are dictated by various analog movements. I did take solace in the obvious creativity and imagination behind the character designs and animations, though. A girl with giant long muscle-bound gorilla arms is strange enough, but a girl whose head pops off and rolls around, causing additional problems…? Wow.
The flow of the game isn’t as fast as some other franchises, like BlazBlue, for instance, and that helps somewhat. It lets novices get their feet wet and they don’t feel so bowled over by the challenge. I’m not sure how hardcore fighters are going to feel about this mix of slightly slower action and an in-depth mechanic, but I have a feeling most will be satisfied. On the other hand, the final boss – the Skullgirl herself – isn’t really what I was expecting and I wasn’t impressed. Again, though, that may be more subjective than anything else.
The online multiplayer is pretty damn good, though; it’s enhanced by the GGPO netcode, and you can adjust your settings depending on the pings of each player involved. You may have some difficulty in finding other players at first (the game just came out, after all), but I’m sure it’ll attract the die-hard fighting fans. The only question is whether or not you’re willing to pony up the cash for a limited Story mode and an Arcade mode that gets a little tiresome after an hour or two.
In the end, Skullgirls is an inspired and entertaining fighter with lots of appreciated imagination. The design, style and animations are its strong point, and the intricacy of the gameplay mechanic is solid without being too intimidating. There’s not quite enough content in this package, it can get pretty damn frustrating, and the control isn’t always perfect, but there’s a lot to like. Definitely recommended for fans of the genre.
The Good: Beautiful hand-drawn artistry. Great presentation. Unique, imaginative characters. Intricate, rewarding fighting mechanic. Several surprising and appreciated gameplay features. Online play works well.
The Bad: Control isn’t perfect. Stories are just too zany. No in-game moves list hampers learning curve. Not quite enough content to keep us playing.
The Ugly: “Damnit, what’s the proper combo again?!
4/10/2012 Ben Dutka