Platforms: PSN | XBLA (reviewed)
Developer: Reverge Labs
Skullgirls is one of the most exciting games I've reviewed in some time. Not only has Reverge Labs, a plucky yet small outfit of elite designers, players and fans, entered an arena dominated by AAA franchises, but they promised to beat the big boys at their own game. Skullgirls planned to deliver the most balanced competition fighting game ever, and set a new standard for the FGC by fixing the myriad problems present in the genre. All while delivering a sensational hand-drawn visual treat and some jaw-droppingly (cynically?) sexy protagonistes. It's aimed squarely at the hardcore, and makes no bones about it.
Before we begin, it's important to bear in mind that us reviewers often don't have the time to practice and specialise at a single game, and the days of absorbing every command, character and nuance of MvC2, Street Fighter and Soul Calibur over several months are long gone. For the sake of full disclosure, I fully admit that I'll never be good enough to compete with the online community - the spirit is willing, yet the thumbs are slightly too slow even after many hours of practice.
But damn, I still know a sweet fighting game when I play one. And Skullgirls is oh so very sweet.
Using competitive classics like Marvel vs Capcom 2 as a base, Skullgirls packs a familiar punch. Characters all have access to three varieties of punch and kicks (low, medium and high-powered), grapples and aerial moves/dashes, all of which can be chained and cancelled together into a dynamic flow of varied mix-ups and swift transitions between defence or attack. It's one of the most fluid and versatile combat systems we've ever seen, bolstered by staggeringly smooth hand-drawn animations that can include up to 120 frames in a single manoeuvre. A charging meter grants access to a range of varied super moves, providing an accessible way of turning the tide or assuring a swift victory, but forcing players to concentrate on their solid fundamentals over cheap tricks.
Skullgirl's ultimate triumph stems from the character roster. Alex Ahad and Mike Z, two of the world's most respected designers and players, realised that most competitive tournaments tend to be dominated by a small number of overpowered fighters within otherwise sprawling character lists, and instead decided to create a small yet perfectly formed selection. Each of the eight female fighters is an archetype; a specialist who fully embodies a particular tactic or play style. For example, the umbrella-wielding Parasoul is the consummate mid-range poker, while the burly Cerebella deals in devastating grapples and throws. The nightmarish Painwheel absorbs attacks and flits around the arena like MvC2's Sentinel, whereas Fillia channels Felicia and Guilty Gear's Eddie. And Peacock, a bizarre sideshow performer, loves to summon objects with merry abandon. While uniquely specialised, no one character is capable of overpowering the experience, and they're flexible enough for players to enjoy their own personality and tastes.
In fact, the roster is so well designed that players can opt to choose between 1-3 fighters, either focusing on a single powerhouse or two-three weaker, but more versatile, tag team partners. Better yet, any attack can be used as an assist, and canny players can force opponents to switch out mid-battle. Skullgirls provides a uniquely fair and level playing field, an essential and sought-after position when hardcore players absolutely play to win.
Perfect balance doesn't just extend to the characters, though, and many of the genre's most irritating gameplay foibles have been completely excised. Blocks are pared back into standing and crouching varieties, which both mitigate standard damage - thus vastly reducing the potential for exploitative high-low combos. Skillful mix-ups are still more than possible to pull off, but obvious telegraphing for the majority of high attacks makes it much easier for defenders to quickly change block position and push the advantage during their opponent's recovery time. And deliciously, cheap 'infinite' combos (repetitive attack chains that stun-lock opponents ad infinitum) are now a thing of the past: if Skullgirls detects an infinite in progress, the victim can opt to break out of it and soundly humiliate the offender.
It's wonderful. Deeply, profoundly wonderful.
Controls are slick and accessible, especially thanks to the tried-and-tested reliance on quarter-turns and some clever software running behind the scenes that ensures commands are interpreted properly. Some of the timings can be a little on the finnicky and unforgiving side, especially compared to SFIV and Soul Calibur, but practice eventually breeds perfection. However, if you own an Xbox 360, the controller can't really do the experience justice - and a proper Arcade Stick is definitely the way forward. If you're already excited about Skullgirls, chances are that you already own at least one.
Intimidating doesn't even begin to describe the sheer, glorious depth behind Skullgirls' mechanics, but there is a way in for new players. Even veterans are advised to take part in a near-comprehensive suite of tutorials that explain everything from movement basics to cancelling out of supers into showstoppers. Though the use of commands instead of button prompts is a little confusing (what does s.HK -> c. LP mean again?), Skullgirls sets the bar for the entire genre in terms of educating players about the underlying systems.
Well, almost. Reverge proceeds to totally drop the ball by forgetting to include - or omitting due to time constraints - move lists within the game itself. You can download a PDF from the official site to view on your PC, smartphone or tablet (the latter coming highly recommended as you can keep it handy during bouts), but its a bizarre stumbling block nonetheless. Worse, every character's unique attacks, such as Parasoul's hovering bombs, becomes an impenetrable mystery - and character-specific tutorials wouldn't have gone amiss.
But you'll learn by doing... and since Skullgirls is designed primarily for the pro competition circuit, those who have to ask for move lists are arguably not in the target audience.
Each character has their own storyline campaign (hinging around a silly plot about a magical wish-granting item) accompanied by some artwork stills and text, and while voice acting would have been nice, the singleplayer still oozes personality. Sadly, the final boss is one of the cheapest antagonists we've seen since Samurai Shodown Sen's shotgun-toting cowboy, and requires more in the way of repetition over strong fundamentals.
Multiplayer is naturally Skullgirls' forte, and local brawls are absolutely wondrous. Online proves to be similarly competent, with reasonable netcode to boot, though the need to manually adjust frame delay before each bout can be a little aggravating. In fairness, this feature will come into its own during competition matches, and is just the cherry on painstakingly-designed cake. Do be aware, however, that the online community will already be incredibly skilled, and will likely destroy newcomers with humiliating ease.
It's high time we discussed the visuals. Skullgirls' painstakingly hand-drawn artwork and sumptuous animations are a delight to behold, and supplemented by a toe-tapping smooth jazz soundtrack. The characters are also impressively designed, with Peacock's 1950s animation-inspired aesthetic standing proud as a particular highlight. But admittedly, their cynical sex appeal does little to counter the accusations of sexism within the FGC. In fact, I'd go as far to say that the copious amounts of knickers and cleavage actually detracts from the game, and threatened to overshadow the all-important mechanics. Still, it's a treat in raw graphical terms.
So Skullgirls absolutely has secured its place as a truly superior competition fighter, and proves that smaller contenders can beat the heavyweights in their own arena. Hardcore competition fighters, pros and longtime veterans will be in seventh heaven and should cue up an immediate download... but Reverge Lab's quest for perfection has a dark side.
First of all, the razor-sharp balance between the characters has lead to an unavoidable lack of raw content. Skullgirls' eight characters are all supremely balanced and surprisingly versatile, but the operating word is EIGHT. Two of whom are locked and arduous to access. With only short, linear story missions, arcade mode and training on offer, content is at a serious premium.
The second issue is more of an observation rather than a criticism. You need to be aware that Reverge Labs' compulsion to improve on existing mechanics comes at the expense of genuine innovation, it's a case of subtle evolution rather than genuine revolution. There's nothing particularly new; just what has come before, done better. While the art style and smooth jazz are a unique draw, you'll frequently experience an overwhelming sense of deja vu when pulling off many attacks... because you've seen much of it before in SF and MvC2 ad verbatim. Serious genre fans who understand the systems behind existing fighting games will actually appreciate this, mind, because it gives us context for Reverge Lab's hard work.
But if you're a newcomer to the genre or a fair weather fighter, you won't appreciate Skullgirl's myriad improvements - and may (probably fairly) balk at the idea of paying the premium downloadable price for such a small character roster and lack of added value. It's a strange state of affairs, but if you're not a competition circuit regular or longtime veteran, you'll probably be better off with a bigger, more fully-featured... and empirically worse... fighting game.
- Supremely balanced characters and mechanics
- Sweeping and subtle improvements to the genre
- Sweet (if exploitative) art style and graphics
- Quality at the expense of quantity and innovation: mediocre value for most players
- Lack of in-game move lists
- Ultimately only suited for dedicated fans who regularly play online, hone their skills and thrive on competition
The Short Version: Skullgirls is a sensational fighter that deserves to take the competitive/pro scene by storm. It packs more profound balance, greater flexibility and smoother animations than most games thrice its price, and Reverge Labs deserve to be congratulated wholeheartedly for their momentous achievement.
If you love fighting games, be sure to treat yourself as soon as possible. But newcomers or more casual players - those who love to play rather than play to win - will be better served elsewhere.