Release Date: August 22 2013
Publisher (Developer): Lab Zero (Marvelous AQL)
ESRB Rating: “Teen” for Blood, partial nudity, violence, and tobacco use
Back in 2012, developer Reverge Labs, with the help of publisher Autumn Games, released Skullgirls on Xbox live arcade and Playstation Network. The fighting game was created by tournament veteran Michael “Mike Z” Zaimont and illustrator Alex “o_8” Ahad.
Skullgirls was hailed as a visually appealing and mechanically solid game, but despite the praise, there were some little sticking points, such as the lack of characters, limited online play options, and no in-game command list. The PC port promised to go above and beyond just being a simple port of a console game by expanding on its shortcomings, especially online multiplayer. A year later, Reverge Labs, now going under the moniker of Lab Zero, have released. Skullgirls for PC.
The game has been updated with a more robust online multiplayer, more characters (courtesy of Lab Zero’s highly successful Indiegogo campaign) and command lists, along with some general bug fixes. The new characters are slowly being released the form of DLC content, and will be free as they are released.
Eventually, these updates will trickle down to the console versions as well, so consider this review not only for the PC port of the game, but for the future revision of the console version as well.
Act 1 Scene 1
Skullgirls‘ story revolves around the hunt for an all powerful artifact called the “Skull Heart” which grants its user one wish. However, if their soul is impure, than they are corrupted by the Skull Heart, and turned into a monster known as the “Skullgirl”. The game follows the nine girls with various stakes in finding the Skull Heart first. These stakes vary from destroying the Skull Heart, taking it for themselves, to saving Marie, the Skullgirl.
The game takes place in the fictional land of Canopy Kingdom, a colorful land which seems to be some amalgamation of pulp noir mixed with splotches of fantasy, sci-fi, and a few healthy dollops of Looney Toons and anime, which gives Skullgirls a very stylized and unique look compared to other 2d fighters of its kind.
All the World’s a Stage…
The first thing that I noticed with Skullgirls was that it looked like someone sacked an entire store of eye candy. The art-deco themed menu screen, detailed stage backgrounds, and hand drawn sprites of the characters drip with style. The entire game is so visually appealing that even watching the game being played was just as entertaining as playing it.
If you want a taste of how visually interesting these fights are. Imagine these three scenarios:
- A schoolgirl with demon poscessed hair fight a circus performer with a hat made out of two giant arms
- A ninja nurse armed with a variety medicine-themed ninja tools duking it out against Lovecraftian horror
- The crown princess of the Canopy Kingdom with an entire army at her disposal versus a Looney Toon armed with lasers and an Wile E Coyote-esque arsenal of cartoon gags.
There’s a level of surrealism to the fights in Skullgirls that almost reaches the point of absurdity, but I didn’t expect anything less from a game influenced by games such as Marvel Vs. Capcom and Guilty Gear.
Speaking of influences, Skullgirls has no qualms in showing off it’s fighting game heritage. Hints of classic fighting games can be found all over the game, both visually and mechanically. visual hints of Guilty Gear’s industrial aesthetic are found in the game’s health and blockbuster (read: super) bar. A hint of mechanical influences is the option to have a 3-character team a la Marvel vs. Capcom. Unlike MvC, however, 3 person teams are optional, and health and damage are scaled when one fighter goes up against 3, or 3 fighters going against 2, etc. Michael Zaimont has also commented that the fighting engine that Skullgirls runs on is modeled off of Marvel Vs. Capcom 2: New Age of Heroes.
Introducing Our Colorful Cast
The nine character roster in Skullgirls pales in comparison to the huge selection that mainstream fighting franchises offers, but what the game lacks in variety, it makes up in quality. The characters’ sprites are fluid and well animated, and each character is distinct, through moves and playstyle as well.
For example, one character, Peacock, the Looney Toon with lasers, utilizes all sorts of cartoony gags to keep opponents away with zoning moves. Ms. Fortune on the other hand, is a fortune hunting catgirl with the ability to detach her head to poke opponents and chain up combos. Many characters’ moves are reminiscent from other fighting games, but they seem to blend well nicely together making Skullgirls’ characters more like a hybrids of past fighting game characters rather than just rip-offs.
As of the writing of this article, there is only one new character premiering in Skullgirls’ PC port, Squiggly, an undead opera singer. Her two main gimmicks are her stances where she can charge up certain moves into more powerful versions, and her camera-centering singing move, which centers the camera towards her, and shortens the distance between her and her opponent. The camera centering metagame mechanic is definitely a first in fighting games, and introduces new and unique opportunities to the veteran fighting game enthusiast.
The two upcoming DLC characters, Big Band and Beowolf, are coming soon, and will be available for free for a limited time upon release. Hopefully these two characters, like Squiggly, will introduce some fresh ideas for the fighter genre.
Behind the Curtain
Skullgirls bring a few new ideas to the table. One particularly good idea is infinite combo breaking, in which the game detects when a player is stuck in an infinite combo. The victim of the combo can press any button the break the loop. The feature, while simple, does a lot to keep the game balanced.
Another more subtle mechanic is having a slight grace period between blocks. Mechanically, this means that people have a chance to block high to low “Unblockable” attacks, which brings a lot of variety to the game. Of course, like in all fighting games, there will be optimal strategies and hard to break combos, but at the very least there are opportunities to counterattack, which makes the gameplay more engaging and less “Dial-a-combo”
Taking Center Stage
There are two single player modes: story mode and arcade mode. These modes are, like most fighting games, mostly window dressing. Things to pass the time between online matches, or just something to hone your skills on.
Arcade mode is like every other arcade mode in the fighting genre- a random chain of opponents that you fight through, until you reach the final boss. Story mode is pretty much the same thing, except that the opponents are in a certain order, and there are cutscenes in between each battle that follow the story of your chosen character as they hunt for the Skull Heart. The cutscenes are more like slideshows than actual animated scenes, with some dialog between characters in the form of text and character cutouts.
The dialog and slideshow cutscenes actually do a pretty nice job in fleshing out each character’s personality and backstory without weighing down the overall experience. Sure, the overarching story isn’t exactly breaking any new ground, but at least the characters have enough personality to make the dialog parts worth watching.
For those who are new to Skullgirls, or fighting games in general, the game offers up a very robust tutorial mode, an interactive and very detailed look at the basics of fighting games (complete with community lingo), as well as strategy lessons for each character.
Each lesson is divided into sections, and you can only complete a lesson after you achieve the specific goals in each section. Goals vary from blocking a series of attacks consecutively, to doing a combo that demonstrates a particular mechanic. I found myself a little frustrated at times, especially since you need to do the proper commands consecutively, but the only way you develop reflexes for the fighting genre is through repetition. However, if things get particularly tough, you always have the option to go on to the next lesson and finish up the other one later.
The multiplayer modes offer many more options. Alongside with the traditional versus mode (with two people playing against one another in the same room). There is also tournament mode, which features little touches that regular versus mode doesn’t offer. Some of the tournament features include a controller check before starting a game, disabling achievements so they don’t slow down the game, and locking the default options so would-be cheaters would not change the options.
The online multiplayer, as promised, has gotten some nice new features. For example, lobbies have finally been implemented, so you can actually figure out who you’re playing without blindly selecting quick play, and you can even filter out lobbies by region (From both sides of North America to Africa), difficulty, and number of people. One particularly nice feature in these online modes is the option to make adjustments to the GGPO networking library in order to have the smoothest online experience.
I do wish that there was a spectator mode in lobbies, but the version that I played didn’t seem to have that option. Lab Zero does seem to be working on a spectator feature though, and is accessable through Skullgirls’ Endless Beta version, which is packaged with the game.
While Skullgirls is a pretty solid game, there are some parts that stick out. For one thing, the learning curve, like many games in it’s genre, is relatively steep. If you’re brand new at fighting games, the tutorial will be helpful, but you’re going to spend a lot of time in honing your reflexes and getting acquainted with the controls and mechanics of the game.
You also better have a controller or an arcade stick, because the default keyboard layout is cramped and unwieldy. Most fighting game fans would probably such things on hand, but if you’re just getting in to the fighting game scene, an arcade stick, or at least a Xbox controller for windows would be a wise investment.
Dressed to the Nines
Overall, Skullgirls is a great love letter to fighting game fans and their community, as well as a nice starting point for newbies. However, to those who don’t really have an interest in the fighting genre, or the patience to learn the ins and outs of a 2d fighter, you might want to look elsewhere.