Skullgirls is a weird beast. The game was created by Mike Zaimont, a tournament-level fighting game player, and Alex Ahad, an artist who specializes in a “dark deco” aesthetic. Together, they formed Reverge Labs, and their talents resulted in a hardcore 2D fighter that features a roster of bosomy girls that inhabit an absolutely insane anime-inspired world. This kitchen sink approach produces an interesting experience, but not necessarily an interesting game.
Platforms: PS3, Xbox 360 (Version Played)
Publisher: Autumn Games, Konami
Developer: Reverge Labs
Genre: Foxy Boxing… With Demons, Cyborgs, Sexy Nurses, and More
Release Date: April 11, 2012 (PSN), April 12, 2012 (XBLA)
ESRB Rating: Teen
Skullgirls takes place in Canopy Kingdom, a mostly 21st century-looking burg that is also filled to the brim with gangsters, demons, secret agents, and lots of barely-dressed 16 to 25 year-old girls who like to beat each other up. The entire kingdom is searching for the Skullgirl, a girl who has been corrupted by the demonic entity residing in the Skullheart. Killing the Skullgirl passes the Skullheart onto a new host, and if their intentions are pure, the Skullheart will take years, perhaps decades, to corrupt them. But if they have evil in mind, they instantly transform into a new Skullgirl.
The fighter selection is both small (the game features eight characters total and only six are selectable at the start) and downright insane. The cartoonish visuals (anime-like if you prefer) show off the ample assets of the characters, including a sexy nurse, a catgirl in a bikini, a schoolgirl with living hair, and a military babe who isn’t wearing any pants. The anime/pinup look of all the characters takes some getting used to. It is, at the same time, both incredibly cheesy and very visually impressive.
For good measure, there’s also a shape-shifting demon, a girl with a fan blade attached to her back, a girl with Hulk arms growing out of her head, and (for a real change-of-pace) a flat-chested female cyborg obsessed with 1920s cartoons. Considering the fact that even the gelatinous demon blob has recognizable boobs, I have to admire their restraint.
This is a shame, as beyond the eight selectable fighters, Canopy Kingdom is bursting with characters that bring this story to life. There’s a crime family that runs a circus, a recently massacred guild of thieves, a secret organization devoted to destroying the Skullgirl, and many, many more. Sadly, the story panels push it forward in such a plodding and ham-handed way that the whole thing just feels like a sham to distract the more mature players from the copious amounts of T&A. The cheesecake factor definitely takes away from the actual world Reverge Labs built for Skullgirls, which could have been the equal of Mortal Kombat or Soul Calibur. An out-of-nowhere plot twist concerning the identity of the Skullgirl (which comes after a tedious boss battle) doesn’t help matters either.
The 2D fighting system in Skullgirls will feel very familiar to anyone who’s played other tournament-level fighters like Street Fighter IV or Marvel vs Capcom 2. You know the drill: light/normal/heavy attacks, screen-filling special moves, tons of assist options, and a big emphasis on combos. If you close your eyes, it’s very easy to assume that Capcom made Skullgirls, which is high praise for such a young studio.
While the stated goal of Reverge Labs was to build a fighter that could be accessible to everybody, even on “Sleepwalk” difficulty, Skullgirls is extremely unforgiving. If you’re willing to put in the time, the game can become an enjoyable fighter. But with such a small character roster, after you’ve put in all that time, you’ll have seen everything Skullgirls has to offer… several times over.
To that end, Skullgirls has a very extensive Tutorial Mode that attempts to teach players the basics of fighting games while also showing them the high-level tricks of tournament fighters such as mix-ups, hit confirmation, and combo canceling. All of this stuff was pretty new to me, but then, I’m a Mortal Kombat guy.
If Reverge Labs wanted to teach new players some old tricks, then I have to wonder why they failed to include an in-game move list. Instead, you’re instructed to go to the Skullgirls website and download a massive PDF. This is unacceptable in 2012. The developer has promised to fix this in a future update, but I am absolutely baffled by its exclusion.
In addition to the Story Mode, Skullgirls includes an Arcade Mode that offers a mix-and-match option for multiple team sizes. You can select one “super-powerful” character, two “high-powered” characters or three “normal-powered” characters, and your opponent can do the same. It adds a level of strategy that I wasn’t expecting and I hope other fighting franchises pick it up. But when you’ve only got eight fighters, any Arcade Mode isn’t going to take long to start feeling a little samey.
That said, if you want to take the fight online, the Versus Mode is super smooth, even when tons of projectiles and multiple characters fill the screen. The online play is powered by GPPO, a matchmaking service selected by Reverge Labs to ensure Skullgirls stays fluid when playing online. And as long as both players select the correct “Frame Delay” setting for their connection, you’re golden. Though why it isn’t set automatically, I’ll never know. Once online, you’ll be beaten to a pulp as the game’s lobby is already overflowing with players who are way better at Skullgirls than you are.
Finally, the jazzy soundtrack by Michiru Yamane is just amazing. Best known for her work with the Castlevania series, the bebopping tunes fit the game’s art style perfectly and there were times I’d just let the menus loop while I listened to the music.
If you’re in the market for a new tournament-level fighter, you’ll want to give Skullgirls a look. For the rest of us, the game’s lack of content and juvenile character design (the moves list PDF includes each character’s measurements, for pete’s sake) make this a borderline case. It’s a good fighter, but it feels like the warmup act for Reverge Labs’ next big project.
Review Disclosure: A review copy of Skullgirls was provided by Autumn Games for the purposes of this review.