April 30, 2012, Author: Phil Ubee
It is fair to say that we have seen a sudden uptake of the old-fashioned arcade brawler in recent months, with a wealth of titles looking to challenge for the crown once so comfortably worn by Street Fighter. Skullgirls is the latest off the conveyor belt and it makes no excuses for the obvious influence from Capcom’s granddaddy of the genre. Reverge Labs have produced a 2D fighter that at face value is as much an homage to the old school as it is a modern, complex, involved challenge.
Personally, I have to say that arcade fighters have always proven to be a bit of a challenge for me. Back in the old days of hitting the local arcade and crowding around a cabinet, I was always over by the likes of Football Champ and Double Dragon, rather than facing the inevitable embarrassment of yet another five second drubbing on the aforementioned Street Fighter. However, it is a genre that has given me moments of pure gaming joy that just don’t come around too often, so I was pleased to get the opportunity to take on this review.
The question is, does Skullgirls welcome in a novice like me, adding to those moments of gaming joy; or does it add to the humiliations of my youth?
Girls wanna have fun
Skullgirls talks of a legendary artefact known as the Skull Heart, which has the power to bestow all wishes on to any young woman. However, if their heart is unpure this leads to trouble, as even the best intentions are twisted to evil. Those cursed in this way become the very soul of their own nightmares and take the persona of the Skullgirl.
Each of the game’s characters has their own reasons for seeking out the existing Skullgirl and getting their hands on the Skull Heart. In typical arcade fighter style, you can sit through page upon page of dialogue in-between fights of the story mode to discover the burning force of each and every one of our lovely competitors.
As back stories go there’s some variation in there and a touch of light humour at times, but let’s be honest. Nobody’s really too bothered with why our girls are kicking seven bells out of each other, are they?
Skullgirls takes the fairly universal approach of a three-tier attack system with X, Y and RB working as punch attacks from light to heavy and A, B and RT used for kick attacks in the same vein. Character movement is controlled with the left stick, where the lower half of the axis is used to duck, the upper half for jumping and the backward half for defending against your opponent’s attacks. Throws are performed by pressing X and A together and a dash can be performed either on the floor or sometimes in the air, to get you closer to your opponent with a double-tap of forward.
In addition to these basic movements, each character has a selection of special attacks performed with a combination of movement and button presses, as well as some higher-powered blockbuster moves that will test your dexterity and potentially dislocate the knuckles of some older gamers. If you think this all this sounds rather familiar then you’d be right. As mentioned in the intro, Skullgirls has more than a hint of Streetfighter about it and anyone who’s ever pulled off a Hadouken or a Sonic Boom will be well on their way to mastering the moves here. Many of the basic level special moves are performed in the exact same way.
You would think, then, that this would be an incredibly easy game to master wouldn’t you? Not a chance! You see, the basic special moves and standard attacks alone are utterly useless when the action really gets going, and even on the easiest difficulty setting in the Story modes will only get you so far. In order to be successful here you need to master the higher level blockbuster moves and, more importantly, be able to combo together huge chains of unanswered attacks. This is where you’ll learn if the game is truly for you.
You see, the satisfaction of stringing together a stream of attacks that will throw your opponent from one end of the screen to the other totally helpless against your awesomeness, is matched only by the utter frustration and anger felt when you’re on the receiving end of the very same bombardment. The line between the two is as thin as it gets.
The reason for this is that every move, every combo, every attack is performed by stringing together a selection of joystick movements that need to be as precise as if you were removing a brain tumour. These are mixed with a combination of button presses that need to be timed to absolute perfection; if you get them wrong, you’ll leave yourself wide open to the counter-attacks of your opponent.
Fortunately, Skullgirls offers you a helping hand before you get started in the form of a rather thorough tutorial. This gives you seventeen different challenges with various characters, to get a handle on everything from simply moving left and right to building those elusive combos with special and blockbuster attacks linked to full effect. What it doesn’t give you is an in-game command list to pull up when you’re struggling to get it right, though; and in the later tutorials it will only name the move you need to perform and let you figure out how to perform it yourself.
For this you will need to visit the official website at skullgirls.com and download the character guide, which means that initially you’ll be playing Skullgirls with your laptop on and open next to you, trying to work out how to perform the special moves. I personally found this rather annoying. What’s more, the guides aren’t particularly in-depth and there is a little too much trial and error needed for the blockbuster moves for my liking. Finally, due to the perfectionist nature of performing some of these attacks and combos, you will find yourself getting to the final part of a complex combo you need to perform three times in a row to progress, only for it to go wrong and have you start the whole thing again.
Having beaten the tutorials (or given up on them all together) there are two single-player game modes on offer. Story mode lets you take any of the eight characters (only six are available initially) through a collection of battles and a typically drawn out, convoluted story to defeat the Skullgirl and claim the Skull Heart. Battles take place over a single round through a nice mix of arenas, and opponents become more difficult as you progress. This culminates in a showdown with the Skull Girl herself, that even on the easy mode is likely to cause you more than a touch of game rage.
Arcade mode allows you to pick any of the available characters and set up a battle with a chosen opponent. Here there is the added option of playing with one, two or three player teams, adding an additional tactic called the Ensemble attack, which is utilised by the left shoulder buttons and sees one of your allies jump in and help out. Although this does add something slightly different to the mix, the Arcade mode in itself is just a repeated battle and soon grows tiresome.
Man’s shirt, short skirts
Skullgirls is unquestionably a beautiful game, with a mix of Japanese Manga and old-school arcade brawler throughout. There are clear references to some of the genre’s legends, like the spectators that stand in the background on some of the levels à la Street Fighter. The arenas all have a hand-drawn appearance and are quite varied in style, but with a genuine polish to them. Likewise, the characters are lovingly created and superbly animated, with combos literally lighting up the screen at times.
The main menu and loading screens have a touch of noir about them, with film negatives used as the main outline in the former, and chalk-style sketches in the latter. The loading screens follow into the tutorials area, with a classroom theme to the background and a chalkboard used to select your chosen lesson.
The noir theme continues into the music within the menus and the story introductions, with a jazzy, piano number that wouldn’t be out of place on Jools Holland’s show. In the fights, the musical score changes slightly with a techno kind of theme that raises the tempo suitably.
The effects are mixed, as each punch, kick and throw is met with a suitable “whack” or “pow” sound, but the characters’ taunts and shouts are horribly repetitive and unforgivingly annoying. This is to the point that you will want to throw something at your TV when things aren’t going your way, which for me was rather too often.
Girls, girls, girls
Any fighting fan will tell you that games in this genre, perhaps more than any other, will live or die on the versus mode. I would argue that Skullgirls possibly fails ever so slightly here. There is a local option for the throwbacks, but as my missus plainly refused to join in I haven’t been able to give that a proper test. Online the only option is ranked or unranked, with the only variation in team setup, where you can select to have one, two, or three fighters on either side. This plays the same way it does in the single-player arcade mode, allowing you to utilise the ensemble attacks to vary your approach.
Matchmaking is fairly painless overall, although there are times when it might take a little while to find a viable opponent and actually reach the arena, as both yourself and your opponent have the option to pull out before it kicks off when the latency is calculated. In my review time with the game I have found that, although there are regular opponents available, there isn’t quite enough of a community to be too choosy here. This has unfortunately led to a few occasions of lag, which has made the game almost unplayable at times.
(Skull) Heart broken
Overall I cannot say that Skullgirls is a bad game. In fact, the opposite is true really. It’s lovingly created with a look and feel that is very pleasing on the eye. What’s more, there is a strong challenge and fight fans will no doubt relish in the quest of perfecting those complex blockbusters and long-string combos for each character.
However, as a relative novice to the genre I have found it thoroughly unforgiving and painfully frustrating throughout. Skullgirls doesn’t just chew you up and spit you out. It will give you a few kicks while you’re down, before outstretching a finger and firmly shouting “IN YOUR FACE!” to make absolutely sure you know you who’s boss.
As such, any of our three badges could sit quite comfortably here depending on your level of familiarity with the genre. I am sure having read the full review you will already know whether it’s for you or not. If you are still undecided, however, I would suggest that before you take the plunge you’d be best to have a go at the trial first.