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Skullgirls Review

Game Rant’s Aaron Leach reviews Skullgirls

With the fighting genre in a bit of an upswing over the last few years, tournament champion Mike “Mike Z” Zaimont and the team at Reverge Labs set out to build a fighter that functions as both tournament-worthy and a place for newcomers and casual fans alike to throw down and have some fun – Skullgirls. With some unique visual flair and notable fighting engine innovations in tow, is this downloadable title able to go toe-to-toe with the rest of the full-retail fighting genre giants? The answer to those questions is a resounding… kind of.

Skullgirls, which features basic Story, Arcade and Online modes, offers players the chance to choose from eight combatants in an effort to defeat the Skullgirl. In the world of The Canopy Kingdom, there is an object known as the Skull Heart. It has the power to grant the wish of the girl who finds it. However, if said girl isn’t totally pure of heart, her wish gets twisted, and then she becomes the monstrous Skullgirl.

While the game’s story mode doesn’t break any new ground in terms of the narrative itself, it does have more on hand than many of today’s current fighters. The drawback here is that there’s much more, in terms of narrative, than what the game delivers. There are hints at a rich back-story and interesting characters and motives, but the title reduces these ideas to the usual, minimalist fighting game storytelling approach, which could leave some players underwhelmed. The entire world of Skullgirls was developed as a concept completely separate from the game itself and it’s a shame that very few of these elements actually make it into the game itself – since the characters, their stories and the setting do contain a fair amount of fun and intrigue.

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Speaking of the game’s underused world, it would be impossible to not mention the overall beautifully crafted aesthetic. Some are likely to be put off by the game’s lineup of buxom femme fatales, viewing the characters as no different than the exploitative eye-candy on display in other notable fighting franchises. However, creative director Alex Ahad has hand-crafted a compelling mash-up of art deco meets pinup meets Golden Age of Hollywood (a mix that works likely due to their crossover periods in history) that has all been thrown off-kilter by a slightly dark twist that the ladies on the roster fit into quite nicely.

Rather than looking exploited or objectified, the character designs are fitting of the weird game world. The doe-eyed vulnerability that underpins many of the Dead or Alive girls is instead replaced by a combination of empowered ferocity and visual oddity that will keep those who usually only play fighting games to gawk at the latest jiggle-physics looking elsewhere. The aforementioned amalgamation of influences creates a vibe that definitely feels new, and offers a refreshing visual jolt to gaming in general.

Few things are as important to a fighting game as the actual mechanics, and this is where Reverge Labs definitely succeeded on at least one of their aspirations – but faltered on the other. Skullgirls is absolutely a fighting game made by fighting game fans for fighting game fans. It reaches the “tournament-worthy” label with room to spare. Sure it may only have eight fighters, for now, but that is easily overlooked by a well balanced roster and satisfying diversity between each character’s respective playstyle. The satisfying balance prevents players from being overwhelmed when choosing a tag team – by wading through a massive roster with characters that are often just slight alterations of others. The overall experience feels focused – with lots of room for practice and veteran strategy.

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When you include features like an infinite attack loop breaker – a system that takes into account all of a player’s inputs and recognizes when they are setting up an infinite looping combo (and subsequently provides the opposing player a chance to break out) — along with customizable assist moves, fans of the genre should have plenty to sink their teeth into. It just shows the type of near-perfection that can be achieved when a game is built on a well-planned gameplay foundation.

While the game features one of the best fighting tutorial systems of any game before it (any newcomer or casual player will get a fairly thorough crash course in how to actually play a fighting game), Skullgirls lacks the pick-up-and-play appeal of games like Marvel vs. Capcom 3 or Mortal Kombat. Simply put, Skullgirls is a hard game. Giving someone all the knowledge on paper doesn’t automatically make them a better player in practice, and unless gamers are extremely willing to do just that, practice practice practice, it’s unlikely that the title is forgiving enough to encourage to keep coming back. Any game that ranges from hard to soul-crushingly hard isn’t exactly going to inspire many new players to stick with it.

One glaring omission, that is ultimately a glaring roadblock for casual gamers, is the lack of a moves list in-game. Ironically, the all-digital download Skullgirls instead provides players with a URL to the PDF version – so they can print out their own cheat-sheet. Toss on top of that the lack of visual input feedback during training modes, and the three steps forward taken by the great tutorial system gets knocked two steps back.

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For fighting fans, Skullgirls has a lot to get excited about. At first glance the short roster and slim mode variety (the functional yet bare-bones online mode is adequate but doesn’t offer any new ideas worth mentioning) may seem like a turn-off, but the knockout presentation, with personality to spare, genre in-jokes, and phenomenal depth of play creates an extremely solid first outing for a new franchise. Even as a digital download, Skullgirls is a must play and can easily be put alongside heavy-hitters in the fighting genre. Casual fans looking to button-mash their way to victory should probably try the demo first but anyone willing to put in the time will be rewarded with a terrifically fun and fresh fighting experience.

Skullgirls is currently available on Xbox Live and the PlayStation Network. Game Rant played the Xbox 360 version for review – using a standard controller.