Fighting games on a competitive level are a very difficult task for a developer to get right. As larger rosters and new mechanics are introduced with the progressing genre, so too do the challenges in keeping the hardcore community satisfied that it can be played seriously. Thankfully, we are in a console era that does allow titles to be patched in order to sort out games like Super Street Fighter IV: Arcade Edition when the gamers kick up enough of a fuss. Skullgirls, developed by well-respected fighting game tournament player Mike Zaimont places much more emphasis on the technicalities and balance of the game from the outset rather than dumbing down aspects of the titles to appease more casual fans or creating an absurd roster infected with dozens of characters that essentially play the same.
The plot of Skullgirls is secondary to its main focus, but as with all fighting titles the story mode provides a quick way of getting to grips with each character. Each character’s story is told through a series of nicely drawn static slideshows in a similar manner to King of Fighters XIII as each fighter looks for an artifact known as the Skull Heart, guarded by the Skull Girl. The plot is as generic as they come, though fortunately even if you don’t skip the cutscenes the story mode doesn’t last too long for each character.
In addition to the Story Mode, there’s also a more traditional Arcade run-through which allows for players to utilise the tag-team aspect of the game without having to sit through the narrative. As always with these games, there’s the obligatory cheap boss fight to finish off both modes, although nowhere near as bad as some recent titles. The default difficulty is much more challenging than something like Super Street Fighter IV where sitting back and throwing hadokens will get you through to the end boss without much difficulty, as the enemy AI will punish pretty much every mistake you make with some devastating combos.
For those who are new to the fighting game scene, or those who have played a Street Fighter or King of Fighters and aren’t so hot on the more advanced tactics employed in the genre will no doubt want to look at the tutorials before venturing into the training room or online. The tutorials on offer are somewhat similar to Street Fighter X Tekken and are a great example of how to teach people how and more importantly why mix-ups, pokes and punishes are all important strategically. Rather than just having a set of trials like the latest installments of the previously mentioned series, each lesson breaks down each aspect of the game before asking you to do something complicated without explanation.
For example, as part of the lessons in combos, the game first teaches the player about linking basic moves, before special-cancels, launchers, air combos and dash cancels in chunks ahead of a final test where the player combines everything as part of a final exam. By breaking up the more advanced and flashier combos into more manageable parts, the tutorials offer possibly the best primer of not just this game but for any fighting game.
Many of the core concepts on offer here are the same as many other fighting titles, especially the Capcom Vs. series. The first choice players are given is the size of the team with one character having higher health and damage output than a full team of three, although at the expense of calling in assists or tagging out if a player requires a change of tactics. A team of two or three offers a combined health advantage over a smaller team at the expense of the raw damage output of a single player who can KO a member of a team much quicker with a higher damaging combo. Tagging out a character in favour of bringing a new player in off the bench allows them to heal any recoverable damage while not in use, in a similar fashion to Marvel vs. Capcom 3. There’s also the option to select each character’s assist abilities depending on the characters selected in a given team. When fighting an opponent there’s the usual array of normal moves and character specific special moves, with even more powerful super moves governed by a special meter which builds up as hits are landed. There’s nothing really new added into the mix here, but everything is polished and works great.
Each selectable character is unique and has their own strengths and weaknesses, which many of the more hardcore fighting gamers out there will be pleased with when compared to Street Fighter IV’s seemingly endless array of characters spamming hadokens and shoryukens. Cerebella is the grappler, offering great damage when up close with her grabs and throws, yet if kept at a distance has few options to deal with Peacock who makes up for a her lack of damage output by throwing everything, even the kitchen sink, at her opponents.
While the characters are indeed diverse in playstyle (if not actual design, with the game's all female cast), unique and incredibly well-balanced, it does come with a pretty significant cost. Unfortunately at the time of release, Skullgirls features only eight playable characters with more promised to come in the form of DLC. If the game was a simple one-on-one fighter then it wouldn’t be such an issue, but when you’re creating a tag-team of up to three characters there are far fewer than you would ideally like.
The lack of content overall makes the game feel like it could have done with a longer development process, as several features that we have come to expect with the genre have been completely left out, with the biggest offender being the lack of an in-games movelist. It’s understandable that the developers would want players to experiment with the characters in order to come up with their own combos, punishes and mix-ups but asking us to look up the moves on their website takes us back to the days when you’d have to hope the developers left a movelist in the manual of the game. The Training Mode also lacks a fair few common features such as displaying button inputs to see where you may be going wrong, as well as no ability to set the training dummy to jump or duck, adding to the feeling that the game could have done with just a little more time to finish properly.
Despite the lack of content in comparison to the larger budget fighters on offer, the game is well worth the tenner it costs on Xbox Live Arcade and the Playstation Network (available May 2nd) if you’re an enthusiast. The amount of thought gone into eliminating infinite combos and other generally despised tactics are welcome, but despite the developers’ efforts with the excellent tutorials on offer, I’m not so sure that less experienced players will appreciate the unrelenting beatings they undoubtedly will face in their first few online matches.
Using the GGPO network tool, Skullgirls runs extremely well online. There are options to narrow down players to various regions and even gives the players their ping to assess the quality of play that can be expected. There’s no lobby or replay system which is unfortunate as players would benefit greatly from watching others play, as well as being able to see where they themselves are going wrong.
The game’s 1940’s ‘dark deco’ visuals certainly stand out, featuring beautiful hand-drawn visuals. Those who don’t like the bounciness of the cast of King of Fighters and the Dead or Alive series will more than likely be put off with all the jiggling cleavage and panty flashing on display here. The graphics are much sharper, smoother and higher resolution than King of Fighters XIII and the animation is silky smooth through the course of gameplay. Sometimes the animation can get a little over the top, but certainly not to the same extent as the absurd screen filling special moves of Marvel vs. Capcom 3. Overall, the hand-drawn style does give the game a lot of personality and charm that personally I feel is lacking in the more recent Capcom fighters featuring polygonal fighters. The light jazz soundtrack sometimes feels at odds with the fast-paced gameplay, despite it being in-keeping with the established art direction, but overall the game is presented very well with the only real issue throughout play being the very frequent, if brief, loading screens.
Skullgirls is an incredibly balanced and fun beat ‘em up, refining the core mechanics of the genre even if it doesn’t add many new ideas of its own. It’s a game that invites new players to learn the language of the genre, rather than dumbing down or taking a step backwards to talk down to them. The lack of content currently available for the game is a little disappointing, but with the developers’ promise to support the game with updates and downloadable content in the future, the foundations are set for something very special.