A New Standard Of Excellence In Fighting Games
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.
The game itself is a six-button (three punch, three kick) Marvel vs. Capcom-style affair. Before each match starts, you get to choose your team size of one to three characters. The fewer characters you use, the more powerful they become, though teams with more characters gain access to assists, DHCs, tag counters, and more. Speaking of assists, you can literally set any move in the game as an assist move for all characters on your team. The game has a built in “unblockable protection system,” which allows your opponent to block when you and an assist character hit high and low at the same time. So you can be as creative as you like without putting your opponent in an impossible position.
But more than anything else, the game is fair. Damage is high enough to make combos count but low enough to prevent one-touch deaths. Combos are never long enough to make the opponent feel as if he’s not playing the game, due to the infinite prevention system. Zoning characters have incredibly powerful keepaway tools but are weak in ways that allow you eventually close the distance. Rushdown characters can put horrible pressure on the opponent, but can be punished to great extents if they get sloppy. There is even a character with near infinite flight who can’t run away while using it, and a grappler that just might be the best grappler in any fighting game ever. Every character has the exact tools she needs and feels incredibly powerful and “correct” without feeling broken.
Then there’s the netplay, which utilizes the popular GGPO networking library. When playing online, the game will actually show your ping in plain old numbers and will give you an “input delay” recommendation to make the game feel as smooth as possible. As long as you follow these recommendations, the game has one of the best if not the best online performances of any fighting game yet. However, you can always adjust the delay higher to experience fewer rollbacks (game adjustments when you fall out of synch with your opponent) or lower to experience more with the tradeoff of having split-second responsive controls. You can fight in ranked and unranked fights, but multi-person lobbies are unfortunately absent. Once again, this is something the developers have promised to patch in later.
Skullgirls is as close to art as the fighting game genre is going to get. From its quirky character designs (you just have to love characters based on 1940s cartoons) to its incredible gameplay systems, it shows that the designers of the game put a lot of care into every aspect of it. It’s just unfortunate that time and budgetary problems have forced them to leave some features behind. However, many of these features are planned to be released for free as updates in the future, and the team has promised an incredible amount of DLC support, from characters to costumes to story expansions and more. For the low budget price of fifteen dollars, you can’t really ask for anything more. Whether you are a fighting game veteran itching to toy with the game’s open combo system or a newbie looking to take advantage of the game’s amazing tutorial to hone your skills, you owe it to yourself to give Skullgirls a chance.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 4.5 Graphics
Skullgirls is one of the prettiest 2D fighters to come out to date. With incredible HD sprites drawn at twice the resolution of the screen and more frames of animation than any fighting game before it, this game is a feast for the eyes. 4.8 Control
Skullgirls controls perfectly. Every character plays exactly like their fighting game archetype should. The game also includes input assistance to help new players start out, such as jump prevention for 360 motions. 4.4 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
Castlevania composer Michiru Yamane is a welcome addition to the Skullgirls team, as she scores the game with combinations of haunting orchestral melodies and upbeat jazz. 5.0 Play Value
I have literally never had this much fun with a fighting game before. 4.6 Overall Rating – Must Buy
Not an average. See Rating legend below for a final score breakdown.
|Review Rating Legend
|0.1 – 1.9 = Avoid
|2.5 – 2.9 = Average
|3.5 – 3.9 = Good
|4.5 – 4.9 = Must Buy
|2.0 – 2.4 = Poor
|3.0 – 3.4 = Fair
|4.0 – 4.4 = Great
|5.0 = The Best