Fighting games occupy an odd space within the games industry. A genre so heavily dominated by a handful of big names; it’s very rare for a brand new fighting game franchise to emerge as an entity separate of giants like Tekken, Street Fighter or Dead or Alive. It’s even rarer that these underdog titles are actually worth playing for any reasonable stretch of time.
Any fighting game worth its salt should be able to accomplish three key things. It should boast a large and varied cast of colourful characters that are well designed and fun to play with. It should be easy and accessible enough for casual fans who are just after some button bashing mayhem, yet still have a command list worthy of the hardcore, competitive players looking for a deeper challenge. It should also include enough game modes to keep its core fighting mechanics fresh; in order to facilitate multiple playthroughs.
Skullgirls is a brave and daring fighting game with enough flare and independent spirit to make it stand out above almost any of its kin. It may not push every button that die-hard fighting fans look for, but for some funny, insane and gloriously disturbing action, you could do a lot worse than Skullgirls.
Set in the fictional realm of Canopy Kingdom, Skullgirl’s story is your typical fighting game schlock. Once every seven years the mysterious Skullheart appears and grants the wish of one woman; unless that wish is impure, then the Skullheart will transform the woman into a monstrous Skullgirl. It’s effectively an all-girl rehash of Soul Calibur’s storyline, only delivered with a knowing and absurd sense of humour, as well as a marvellous dedication to its own insanity. Narrative aside, the dialogue and banter featured in Skullgirls is actually pretty sharply written, with enough wit and charm to match the characters’ darkly flamboyant designs. Skullgirl’s innate self-awareness only enhances its ability to make you smile, without poking fun at the fighting games it draws influence from.
Since I was reviewing the PC release of Skullgirls, it should be pointed out that although the keyboard and mouse controls are mapped pretty efficiently (although that’s not exactly saying much), a controller is absolutely essential for anyone hoping to pull off combos or special attacks to any respectable standard. Fights play out in Skullgirls as they would in most other fighting games. The player takes on an AI opponent or a real human being (!) in combat across several stages, either in story mode, arcade mode, or versus mode.
Every kick, punch, and jumping-body-bag-corpse-attack (that happens) feels responsive, fluid and powerful, and there are enough playing styles on offer to please ranged, offensive, high-flying and defensive players. In keeping with Skullgirl’s commitment to absurdity: each character also has a handful of special moves on offer that are often devastating, and always entertaining to watch. These can range from burying your opponent in the ground before dropping a tombstone on their head (this move belongs to Squigly, a mysterious woman with a talking snake wrapped around her body) crushing Zangief-esque moves on offer from Cerebella (a circus performer who wears a muscular, sentient hat).
Casual players will find Skullgirls easy to become accustomed to, since a good amount of the game’s combos can be accomplished easily or even accidentally through button bashing. However, more dedicated players might find that there aren’t enough complex combos available to warrant delving deeper into the game.
Skullgirls is mechanically solid, but it is in its presentation where the game really rises above and beyond its fighting game ilk. Everything about the way the game looks, sounds and feels is utterly marvellous across the board. Characters are drawn in a unique half-manga-half-Disney, dark-deco style, all of whom are animated with incredible attention to detail across the game’s beautifully crafted stages. This is to say nothing of the character designs themselves. Managing to straddle somewhere between Soul Calibur, Darkstalkers and Silent Hill, the fighting females of Skullgirls are some of the most interesting and deliciously gothic character designs you could hope to see in a fighting game. They’re better seen in action than described, but my personal favourite was Valentine: the ridiculously buxom (and equally evil) nurse character, who utilizes bone saw, syringes and scalpels to defeat her opponents.
Of course some players might find the game’s focus on oversized cleavage and gratuitous up-skirt peeks a little uncomfortable to say the least, and that is understandable of course. Although the idea of an all-girl fighting game might seem like some sort of third-wave feminist triumph, but some of the characters featured in Skullgirls are showing of assets that would make Morrigan from Darkstalkers blush. In any case, it’s probably best to evaluate where you stand on this issue before playing Skullgirls.
Michiru Yamane’s (of Castlevania fame) gothic-jazz-rock-blues-fusion soundtrack lends itself perfectly to the game’s trippy, pseudo-1940s visual style, and serves as a great accompaniment to the frantic action on offer in Skullgirls.
Despite the truly inspiring character designs on offer though, the cast of fighters is actually surprisingly small (only 8 characters without DLC) compared to most fighting games. Although I found the variety offered up by the characters to be a satisfying substitute for a larger cast of characters, there simply isn’t enough on offer here to keep hardcore fighting fans invested in the game on a competitive level. This lack of characters becomes particularly apparent when playing the game’s tag team battles. Despite these battles being well balanced and entertaining, when you’re picking a team of three fighters to battle your friend’s team of three, it doesn’t leave a lot of choice; particularly if you both like the same characters.
As a relatively casual player of fighting games, I found Skullgirls to be a tremendous and surreal ride. The characters are silly and overblown, the art design is beautifully dark, and the game boasts enough fresh ideas to make it stand out among other fighting games. If you crave deeper and more challenging fighting experiences though, Skullgirls might not be for you. The small number of characters and the relatively simple command lists are significant stumbling blocks that will probably prevent the larger fighting game scene from embracing Skullgirls. If you’re looking for well-presented and instantly satisfying 2-D fighter action though, they don’t come much better than this.