Everything You Didn’t Expect
Unless you’ve been living under a rock lately (or just don’t follow the fighting game genre), you’ve heard about Skullgirls by now. Konami, Autumn Games and Reverge Labs’ new hand-drawn all-girl fighter has caused quite a whirlwind of excitement in some circles; disdain in others. But the game is out; all rumors and supposition can be laid to rest, and the one question that remains on the table is: Does Skullgirls live up to the hype?
In order to answer this question to the fairest extent possible, a few basic facts have to be established as groundwork for my review. First off, I am a casual dabbler in the fighting game genre; I have played enough to have cut my teeth on some of earliest and best the genre produced, but am far from the guru of underground fighters. Skullgirls is built from the ground up as a tournament-level fighter, so keep in mind I won’t be competing in any championship brackets anytime soon. Secondly, while I may not be the most experienced player to have memorized every combo string available in each fighting game known to man, I am perfectly willing to learn, and enjoy a fair level of challenge.
That said, let’s delve into Skullgirls, and discuss what it is and isn’t.
A One-Two Combination…of Charm
Visually, Skullgirls is an immensely satisfying title, with its hand-drawn art style and sense of dark humor. Each of the eight currently playable characters is a treat to behold, and the team at Reverge Labs has packed a ton of satisfying, personalizing touches into their animation. For example, Cerebella’s living weapon hat, Vice-Versa, actually beckons with a mischievous finger when she’s backing up, attempting to lure the opponent toward her. Or I could cite the vile transformation of Double’s ready stance, changing her from wickedly grinning nun to a grotesque amalgamation of flesh and viscera, turning her body inside out by spewing her entire self through her mouth in an erupting fountain of gore. Not to mention the character of Peacock, who is a study of classic comic book slapstick, and each and every one of her moves begs to be closer examined – whether she’s attempting to slam a loose floorboard into her opponent’s groin area by stepping down hard on her end of it, or whipping out an array of Roger Rabbit-esque weapons mid-flight to swing at her attacker, including an axe, a mallet, a chainsaw, and more. There’s just no shortage of interesting, hilarious, revolting or downright brutal animations that fly by the screen during a typical match-up.
I also feel that a lot of credit is due to the developers for the music (and overall general look) used in-game. The game’s opening screens are styled as a filmhouse noir, with movie reels and sepia tones throughout. True to form, the music used in these parts of the game are a peculiar but brilliant mix of smooth jazz and cool lounge music. Battle stages, story sequences, hell, even the character select screen, all have their own catchy tunes. But, without a doubt, the sultry femininity of the closing credits’ In Just a Moment’s Time is the clear highlight in what is already an exceptional soundtrack, thanks to composer Michiru Yamane. If you think a fighter has to be all about pulse-pounding metalcore beats and bleeding-edge guitar riffs, Skullgirls will make you see the light.
Weep, You Fools!
Lest you go and think that just because Skullgirls is an – admittedly – top-heavy fighter, it’s made to cater to the casual comic-book geek or non-serious basement dweller, think again! In the ring, Skullgirls puts its money where its mouth is and brings it in a hard way. This game kicks ass and takes names without a second thought; true, that ass may be voluptuous and pleasantly misproportioned (you cheeky men!), but serious fighters take note: Skullgirls gladly takes out the trash.
Feel free to mail me and mock me (or agree with me), but I found out the hard way that I was nowhere near ready to take this game on as early as the tutorial. Not to take anything away from the tutorial mode, which refreshingly covers all the bases and all the basics, right down to blocking, cancels, staggers, combos and more. All told, it took me around five hours to reach the end of the tutorial. Five hours! That’s not due to the immense length of the mode, but rather a result of the game’s requirement of the strictest exactness. Pulling off special moves and combos requires incredibly well-timed precision, and some of the game’s upper-tier combos took me literally hundreds of attempts to pull off. (Mind you, the tutorial combos max out at about seven or eight hits!) Go ahead, heckle me to your heart’s content. Granted, though, I was using a standard Xbox 360 controller; seasoned pros will almost certainly come at this game with fightstick firmly in hand – it may be a requirement.
Onward to the actual game, and all the tutorial’s hand-holding goes right out the window. Single-player comes with five difficulties: Sleepwalk, Easy, Normal, Hard, and Ridiculous. Most players of average skill should be able to expect to begin any given game on Normal difficulty and do passably well. You probably know by now where this is going: Being anything but average, Skullgirls‘ combatants will put you through the wringer, landing double-digit combos mercilessly even on ‘Normal’ setting, Round 1. Hell, once backed into a corner and conceding to the ‘Easy’ difficulty setting, I still got my spleen served to me, fresh on a silver platter, after my AI opponent landed a 21-hit combo right off the bat! All I can say is: Make friends with ‘Sleepwalk’, for it is the only surefire path to victory in Skullgirls!
Of course, most will get this game for its online component, which offers many useful tournament options. Teams of up to three characters can be created, but are completely optional, as you can just as easily win with a single combatant. Fighters are balanced depending on how many make up your roster – if you choose to have two allies by your side, each individual is powered down, whereas, if you go it alone, your lady will be a powerhouse of…well, power. Rechargeable health while tagged out and being able to customize ally assists help to make each match-up a unique and completely customizable experience. But again a word of warning: Don’t venture onto Xbox Live hoping for an easy time. The other fighters have done their homework, and will take you to school in just how versatile these characters are.
Black Eyes on an Otherwise Spotless Record
After singing all the game’s overwhelming praises, it wouldn’t be fair for me not to point out some areas in which Skullgirls came up a bit short in. Extreme difficulty aside – which many view as a definite plus anyway -, I can’t help but feel that I would have loved to have a mode that let me get to know the girls of Skullgirls better as fighters; a personal, character-by-character tutorial mode, if you will. I want a chance to learn my chosen fighter’s specials and combos, while staying in-game. A training room mode does exist to let you try out moves, but an in-game movelist is, sadly, absent. I would have also liked to see the voice actors for each of the characters take a part in the story mode’s storyboard animations, and provide a fully voiced audio experience throughout the whole game. Besides, some characters and scenes, like Peacock interacting with her menagerie of cartoon pals, or the surgical torture that turned a sweet schoolgirl into the monstrous beast, Painwheel, practically begged for voice-overs.
To preempt the outraged shouts: Yes, I know that the developers have promised movelists, as well as many other extras like extra characters, to come soon. That’s fine, and perhaps once the extra content arrives, Skullgirls will be all the better for it. Sadly, I find it a tragic, albeit minor, oversight that some of that content wasn’t on-hand at time of release. YouTube videos galore have been created by the game’s already rabid fanbase; detailed character walkthroughs and strategies, movelists, etc. But I shouldn’t have to go digging elsewhere to find content so vital to the ultimate enjoyment of a product.
The Final Verdict
Skullgirls has come out of the gate swinging: With much conjecture and uncertainty, what some were afraid would clock in below expectations has instead showed that Reverge Labs can deliver the goods, and in a big way. Offering tournament options, a brilliant hand-animated visual style with gags and flair to spare, a top-notch soundtrack and relentless difficulty, Skullgirls is a contender for the strap (we at BNBGAMING always knew you had it in you, kid!). Nonetheless, there are some glaring hiccups that mar an otherwise spotless release, one of the biggest being no way to pick a character and master her in-game without lots of outside assistance. Barring that, we definitely recommend fans of the genre give this game more than just a passing glance.