|System: Xbox 360, PS3|
|Dev: Reverge Labs|
|Pub: Autumn Games, Konami|
|Release: April 11, 2012|
|Screen Resolution: 480p-1080p||Violence, Blood, Use of Tobacco, Partial Nudity|
by Angelo M. D'Argenio
Skullgirls is a game that a huge part of the fighting game community has been looking forward to for a long time now. It's designed by a pro gamer to be balanced and fair, drawn in one of the most unique styles the fighting game genre has ever seen, and focused on allowing both pros and newcomers alike to enjoy its deep, rich fighting game system. It's a true work of art among the fighting game genre, and yet it is missing a few of the conventions that fighting game fans have come to know and love due to time, budget constraints, and other unfortunate circumstances surrounding development at an indie studio.
Let's start with the story, which revolves around an artifact called the Skullheart that can grant one wish to the lucky girl that possesses it. However, if the girl is not pure of heart, the wish is corrupted, "Monkey's Paw" style. Not only does the wish backfire in some awful way, but the Skullheart itself possesses the wisher, transforming her into a horrible undead monster called the Skullgirl whose only desire is to see the world burn. The game takes place in the Canopy Kingdom, several years after the last Skullgirl, their former queen, was killed. A new Skullgirl has appeared, which leads many foolish souls to search for her—and the Skullheart that resides inside her—in order to grant their own selfish wishes.
When I first heard the concept of Skullgirls, I thought it was kind of goofy. However, jumping into the story mode completely changed my opinion. This story is dark. Very dark. Children die, families are torn apart, and ancient primordial beings conspire to throw the world into chaos. It contrasts starkly with the game's cartoony art style. As a result, this juxtaposition of the tragic and the cute produces a sense of unease in the player, which in turn evokes a much more powerful emotional response to significant story moments. In simpler terms, the story is damn good!
However, a significant problem with the story is that there simply isn't enough of it. It's entirely told through high-res art stills and text, and it seems to leave out some important details in the middle. Choose any character and you'll end up running through several fights without any context or reason before getting to fights that the story actually explains. As a result, the story mode isn't all that different from the arcade mode, which is a shame because the quality of the story that does exist is really high. The story also ends on a cliffhanger without any real questions answered. Reverge Labs has promised expansions to story mode in the future, but personally, the lack of resolution is a bit annoying.
Single-player fights In Skullgirls are actually rather interesting. Instead of the A.I. making stupid mistakes or dropping combos for no apparent reason, the Skullgirls A.I. is, at all levels of difficulty, quite competent. You'll rarely see a dropped combo, and you'll be punished if you whip out your unsafe moves too often. However, on lower difficulty settings, A.I. will fall prey to mix-ups more often and will rarely tech-throw. It will also sometimes end combos on unsafe moves, allowing you to punish them for it. It essentially makes the same mistakes that a newbie fighting game player makes. As you go up in difficulty, the A.I. begins blocking better, avoiding throws, keeping its moves safe, and employing powerful offensive pressure.
Some people say this makes the game's A.I. too hard, but, on the contrary, it is rather easy to overcome if you actually know how to play the game. To make sure that you do know what you are doing, Reverge Labs has included one of the best 2D fighting game tutorials ever made. Not only does it teach you how to jump, block, and throw special moves, it also teaches you how to avoid mix-ups, throw the opponent when he turtles up, construct powerful combos to make the best out of your hit-confirms, and more. It essentially teaches you fighting game theory, which is something no other 2D fighter has done before. The tutorial does so much to make you a better Skullgirls player and a better fighting game player in general. It will give you all you need to overcome the A.I. and if you ignore it before hopping into single-player, you only have yourself to blame.
Once you have spent some time in single-player, you might want to check out the game's training mode, which is yet another triumph in fighting game innovation. This mode allows you to see the hit-boxes of your characters as you train and provides hit-stun counters which make it very easy to see what combos and what doesn't. You can also go directly into "sparring mode" from a vs. game in progress, which is great if your friends want you to show them a new piece of tech you just busted out in a match.
Unfortunately, as innovative as the training mode is, it is missing some staple features that we have come to expect at this point. Lack of input display is a notable omission, as is the inability to record your opponent's movements or play against an A.I. Perhaps the most glaring omission is the lack of a move list, which was unfortunately cut due to time and budgetary constraints. The game points you toward the official Skullgirls website, which has a full list of moves for you to read, and the designers have promised to patch in move-lists and other training options down the line, but it's still a little awkward to have to refer to a printout like you did in the old days of the arcade. (Though it is a bit nostalgic.) The developers have said that putting in a move list would have taken time away from the game's netcode development or other important features. It was the correct decision to make, but it still feels wrong.
Of course, any good fighting game lives or dies on the worth of its fighting engine, and Skullgirls' engine is the cream of the crop. The most notable feature is the "infinite prevention system," which allows an opponent to burst out of any combo that loops back on itself. This simple system finally fixes issues that fighting games have had for years. Because of this, the developers were able to avoid putting things in like "hit-stun deterioration" or "juggle points," which artificially limit combo possibilities, and, as a result, combos are very easy to do and even easier to be creative with.