Brains, brawn, and looks to boot.
'Fighting' is generally not a genre that comes to mind when considering the indie game scene, but the recently released downloadable title Skullgirls
has the guts to show that a quality fighting game is less about the size and notoriety of its roster and more about solid mechanics and variety. With its all-female cast, many might scoff at its upfront sexualized pandering (which it's fairly honest about in a comical way), but it'd be foolhardy to cast it aside because of this. Skullgirls
is damned clear about who its audience is: male fighting game aficionados that were raised on Capcom fighters. Fortunately, there's a lot more to it than that, making it one of the more notable indie games to come along in a while.
With its retro-inspired arcade-like intro sequence, Skullgirls
presents a throwback presentation in more ways than one. It's catchy 'Old-School Hollywood' vibe is fresh and original, incorporating all kinds of antiquated slang into the classic, over-the-top fighting game lingo fans are used to. There are oodles of style to be had and the writing hits the right note of comedy while still presenting a dark, moody world with its own distinct art design and jazzy musical flair. Each character's story is presented with lots of artwork, though the quality of the art varies depending on which story being told, with some looking more detailed than others. They can be a little lackluster at times, noting that this was, in fact, developed by a smaller team.
But those minor chinks in the armor are easy to ignore in the thick of combat, when there’s plenty of dazzling animations, varied fighting styles, and thoughtful voice-work. Multiple recordings for move-shouts add personality while preventing repetition, and the way that seemingly every character match-up seems to have its own specialized dialogue intro is a nice touch. Being able to form teams of one to three characters (with strength balanced accordingly) and input your own assists opens up the combat tremendously.
As a friend of mine put it, Skullgirls
is “like Marvel vs. Capcom 3
but without the bull****.” There's no magical comeback moves, infinite combos can be broken out of, and while the AI is beastly even on the lowest difficulty and the final non-playable boss is expectedly cheap, the game feels fairly balanced and well thought-out for player-on-player action.
The cast is the real focus of Skullgirls
, and while there are only eight playable characters (there's been talks of more being added in over time), every single one is interesting and engaging, and offers their own unique playstyle, including some traits and properties I've never seen in a fighting game before. It's evocative of Blazblue
's variations and creativity but with a Western spin to it.
Whether you're manipulating space with Peacock's retro cartoon projectiles, separating Ms. Fortune's head from her body to flank your foe, or keeping your opponent guessing with Cerebella's grapple game (seriously, I have never really enjoyed playing a grapple character before now), Skullgirls
offers a surprising amount of gameplay variety for so few characters. The story modes, however, can be completed quickly, and once that's over, there's little else to push players further. A reasonably robust tutorial will walk players through every main mechanic of its system (and in turn, the basics of many tournament fighters) and there's the default 'Arcade Mode', but otherwise, the only thing left pushing players onward is to fight against others.
There isn't even an in-game movelist (word is that the devs want to patch that in), which seems like an odd setback given the amount of detail paid to the characters themselves. Having to pull up a PDF file on a separate screen while trying to learn a character is tedious and will make easing your friends into it irksome.
What will keep people playing Skullgirls
is what keeps any modern-day fighting game alive and well: online play. The netcode for Skullgirls
holds up, offering a much more detailed layout of network compatibility before a match than other fighters do (none of that vague, inconsistent, colored bar nonsense here). It even allows players to adjust their input lag to accommodate the speed of the connection. I played against a friend who lives in the East Coast from my home here on the West Coast, and while our first match lagged horribly—usually I play against other West Coasters—every single match after that played shockingly smooth and without incident (as if the game needed a match to 'warm up' and acquaint itself with our connection). My time with random ranked matches was painless, but there's no visual representation of rank other than a leaderboard in a separate menu that ranks you across everyone in the same network.
is an engaging, memorable fighting game that presents more of a skeleton than a full experience—but that skeleton is both rock-solid and highly flexible. The bulk of a fighting game is really its gameplay and characters, and Skullgirls
has both elements focused and condensed like coal into a diamond, offering pick-up-and-play casual action with pretty visuals but a lot of combo potential and depth that sidesteps the cheaper, unfair aspects of other fighters. It's the most noteworthy original fighter to come along this entire generation after Blazblue
. Its practical shortcomings hold it back a bit (time will tell if DLC fleshes these out), but it's ambitiously refined for such a smaller-scale game and at least a must-try for fighting game fans.
Review based on PS3 version. Code provided by publisher.