As much as I enjoy fighting games, I feel fatigued by the sheer number of fighters nowadays. Since the debut of Capcom's Street Fighter IV, we've seen a revival of quality fighters, all vying for our attention. It's hard to stay focused with so many great entries in recent years, such as numerous BlazBlue titles, Marvel vs. Capcom 3 and Street Fighter X Tekken. There's enough existing competition that this particular fighter, Skullgirls, might seem like a tough sell.
Skullgirls is developed by Reverge Labs and comes to us as a digital-only release for both Xbox Live Arcade and Playstation Network. It features an all-female cast of eight fighters and incorporates a pretty 2-D art style that sets it apart from other fighters. It's a really good-looking game, with some awesome animation work that's been poured into every fighter. I was actually taken aback by how great the characters look in motion.
The style in Skullgirls definitely has an anime influence, but not in a generic sense. The graphics don't fall into any clear categories, and I think that's an asset. There are other design elements that I really enjoyed, including the old-school font in the menu and the background work for each stage. All of this comes together to form a package that stands out from the crowd.
Another big plus is the soundtrack, which was done by famed video game composer Michiru Yamane. Over the years, she has done a lot of work for Konami, who also happens to publish Skullgirls. Yamane is best known for her work on the Castlevania series, most notably Symphony of the Night. The soundtrack is no slouch, but it's also not necessarily a Castlevania rip-off. It carries a jazz-themed musical presence that feels unique in comparison to other fighting games.
Anyone who's played an entry in the Street Fighter series will feel right at home with the basic controls in Skullgirls. It uses a six-button interface, with three buttons for punches and three for kicks. Each attack uses a strength variant: light, medium and hard. Most of the inputs for special moves are pretty standard for fighters, so you'll use a lot of down-to-forward motions, half-circles, etc. The developers didn't change much here, but that's definitely a smart decision, as the game is really easy to pick up and play.
There's a definite learning curve, though. To help new players get accustomed to various mechanics, there's a tutorial mode that other fighting games would do well to copy. This tutorial covers everything from basic moves and attacks to more in-depth strategies, like defending against mix-ups, or learning to cancel special attacks. It'll take a while to nail down the movements and timing, but it's nice to give new fighting game players a little help beyond online FAQs and message boards.
It is odd, then, that Skullgirls doesn't feature an in-game move list. Despite having a great tutorial, if you try to bring up a move list, you get a Web site URL where you can print out PDFs of each character. Having an in-game move list is pretty standard for fighting games, and while I understand that it was omitted for time restraints, Reverge has underestimated the importance of that feature. It's apparently something that'll be patched in, but it's annoying to not have it on hand.
For playable modes, Skullgirls feels a little light, as it only has arcade, online, story and training modes. These are pretty standard in most fighters, but more variety would always be appreciated. Since the game is only 1,200 Microsoft points ($15), you're getting some decent value, but I'd love to see more done with the game.
Story mode is pretty fleshed out, and all eight fighters get a tale to explore. Stories intertwine between characters on occasion, but for the most part, each plot is a standalone affair. Arcade mode is pretty self-explanatory; it gives you an option to battle against the CPU without a story behind the individual fights.
Online mode features ranked and unranked play, and you can create or join rooms for unranked matches, but there's no option (yet) to watch matches in progress. I didn't have much trouble finding matches to play, even weeks after launch, so that's a good sign that there's a decent community behind the game. I had some difficulty when searching for ranked games, but that was mostly due to low ping issues with random match-ups; the other player would often back out due to a weak Internet connection. I wish there were better search options, so I could find those with similar connection strengths. It would make it less cumbersome to find ranked matches.
One big plus on the online side is that it uses the GGPO system, which has been popular on PCs for a while but has only recently appeared on consoles with Street Fighter Alpha 3 HD. This system allows for some pretty smooth matches that help you accurately time your inputs even when lag is present. It makes it almost feel like you're playing against an actual person in your living room. It's a great tool and needs to be implemented in more fighting games.
One neat thing about Skullgirls versus modes, both on- and offline, is that you're not just doing one-on-one matches. Instead, you have the option of creating a team that consists of up to three characters. You can make a team of three, with each character being normal strength, you can make a team of two that's slightly stronger than normal, or you can use one character who's super-powered. This variety can lead to some interesting and intense match-ups, and it's pretty nice to have this instead of a standard tag mode.
The AI isn't bad, either; I actually had a little trouble with the game on its default difficulty level. Sometimes, the AI seems to fall for the same handful of moves over and over again, but if you ratchet up that difficulty setting, you'll get taken to task for the smallest of mistakes. Skullgirls also doesn't suffer from a ridiculous end boss character that caps off most fighting games. The end boss is a challenge, but not frustratingly so.
Skullgirls is definitely worth a look, even if you're feeling a bit burned out by the fighting game revival. It's a beautiful game, especially in motion, with some great artwork, design and music backing up a solid gameplay framework. It might not reinvent the wheel when it comes to the fighting portion, but for $15, it'll certainly provide fighting fans and newcomers with some enjoyment. It's also great that the online community is still pretty active, as that helps to justify picking it up. Hopefully, it'll be outfitted with some DLC relatively soon, as the character roster feels a little light.
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