Every now and then, a game comes along that truly deserves to be called capital-g Great. I don’t mean a game that’s merely fun, or entertaining, or even aesthetically beautiful – all great things, but no single aspect of which would nudge a title beyond the level of “good”. I’m talking about a game that manages to mix a creative, imaginative world filled with original, memorable characters, equipped with polished gameplay, and to pull it all off with an expert craftsman’s level of skill and attention to detail – including literally thousands of frames of character animation. Skullgirls is a traditional close-combat fighting game that manages to bring all of this to the table, and offer it up on Steam with a $14.99 price tag – a price which gets even lower if you take advantage of combo-pack deals. If you are a fan of 2D fighting games who has yet to add Skullgirls to your library, you owe it to yourself to rectify this situation as soon as possible. It would be a deal at twice the price.
Now, I’ve enjoyed fighting games since the days of King of Fighters and Street Fighter II – but outside of casually decking friends in Soul Calibur, the fact is I’ve never been particularly enamored with the genre for the gameplay’s sake, or even very good at the games. What’s always drawn me in, believe it or not, is the story and the personalities. Sure, the actual plots are typically paper-thin, cotton candy fluff – the Heihachi family’s internal squabbles in Tekken, the Orochi power in King of Fighters… it’s all silly stuff even (perhaps especially) when it tries to be serious, and it mostly serves as a backdrop to create fun, creative characters and personalities. The setting of Skullgirls stands out even alongside the crazier, Guilty Gear variety of bizarre worlds, setting itself in the fictional Canopy Kingdom – a cartoony environment most reminiscent of the art deco designed 1940s, dominated by crime, strange creatures, and hybrids of technology and magic. Even before you get to the actual character storylines in Skullgirls, the visuals it presents you with – a mix of black, gold, neon and film reel decorations – is enough to make it incredibly distinct, as if someone took the setting of the original Bioshock and decided to make it all ten times more cartoony, and about a quarter as serious.
As for the plot itself, Skullgirls provides a situation reminiscent of most fighting game contexts: every seven years, a living artifact known as the Skull Heart offers to grant the wish of one woman. But if the wisher has an impure soul, she’ll instead be transformed into a powerful, monstrous Skullgirl – leading her to terrorize and wreak havoc over the world. A young girl named Marie has made her wish and apparently been found unworthy, leading various characters to set their sights on her, each with their own motives – some seeking to simply bring her assault to an end, while others are after the power of the Skull Heart for themselves. In Story mode, you’ll select one of these eight characters (with five more either available or on the way via DLC) and follow their journey, learning about their histories and their motivations along the way via beautifully drawn cutscenes and dialogue – but mostly, you’ll spend your time kicking ass in straight up frantic combo-chaining, guard-breaking style.
But before you even throw punch one, you’d do well to encounter the first feature that really makes Skullgirls shine – the tutorial mode. While it may sound odd to heap praise on what sounds like the most bog-standard addition to any game, let me emphasize: what sets Skullgirls apart on this front is the sheer depth of the tutorials. Let’s face it – fighting games are complicated, and despite having played many of them for so many years, I’d be lying if said I understood half of the fundamental mechanics that were at work in more serious matches. Here, things are different. Rather than simply cutting the player loose to understand the mechanics of the game on their own, or hunt details up online, the tutorials walk you through everything from the most basic low-medium-high punch/kink button layout, right down to throws, combo chaining, cancels, and even the ins and outs of each of the individual characters’ styles and moves. This is a godsend for anyone who’s wanted to actually try and get better at these games, but who never really knew just where to begin when it came to learning how to play. If you choose to do so, you’ll be walked through one set of moves after another, each of them helpfully explained to you in clear, detailed english, so when you finally start the game proper you’ll actually have a leg up on the action, rather than be blindly button mashing. This is also where it will become crystal clear to you that, while Skullgirls supports a keyboard interface, you really should be using a controller for this game. Trying to pull off complicated combos using only the directional arrows and your a/s/d z/x/c buttons will have you either giving up in frustration or relenting and plugging in a gamepad in short order.
If you go through this tutorial – or if you’re just an old hand at fighting games and already know how to learn fast in the heat of a game – the next step is the actual single-player modes. Training, arcade and story modes are available for single-player play, while versus mode allows for lobby play, local play, tournament mode, and quick match options. There’s a ranking and tiering system available for the online matches, though I was getting my head handed to me even as a beginner – but then again, I was also being stubborn and trying to pull this off primarily with a keyboard interface, so chances are things will go a bit easier for gamers bringing the proper equipment to the fight. One interesting touch with the competitive modes is the ability for players to choose between three normal powered fighters, two more powerful fights, or one super powerful fighter – so if you’re particularly good with Miss Fortune but not so good with anyone else, you may want to simply go all-in on the single option. More diversely skilled players may choose to spread their choices out a little bit, and work in some tag-team combos besides.
But what really makes Skullgirls shine above all else is the sheer effort that has gone into the polishing of all of its audio-visual aspects. The soundtrack is actually something to stand up and take notice of, being a collection of largely-jazzy tunes that do a good job of fitting the fantasy-1940s setting of the Canopy Kingdom. Character voices are crisp, clear and distinctive, adding a whole lot of personality to the Skullgirls themselves. But it’s the art and animation that is truly breath-taking, in more ways than one. First are the character designs themselves – a largely (but, as of the DLC, not exclusively) female cast of off the wall, zany characters. You have Peacock, the war orphan created by the Anti-Skullgirl labs, a freakish and grimly amusing mixture of old school Looney Tunes animation tropes. On the other end of the spectrum you have Parasoul, princess of the Canopy Kingdom, a stunning redhead in a black dress who fights with a possessed umbrella, and who is able to call in members of her elite fighting force to act as allies and block damage for her. Miss Fortune fits into the rogue catgirl stereotype – and then adds in an ability to detach her head from her body and use it as a remote weapon against her opponent, forcing enemies to deal with the possibility of being hit from two sides at once by a single player. Each and every character oozes an abundance of charm and personality, and they do so with a tremendous amount of hand-drawn animation between each of them – roughly 1400 frames per character, if wikipedia is to be believed. That goes a long way towards explaining the smoothness and grace of their every motion, from getting hit with abilities to launching into attacks of their own.
Their personalities show through in their respective storylines as well, but most of their personality doesn’t need to be augmented by dialogue – it comes across in the way they move and act in a fight. Now, one thing Skullgirls’ character roster has had attributed to it since its original console debut is sex appeal. I won’t mince words – in this game, a good share of the girls are drawn on the sexy side (though there are exceptions, such as the cartoony Peacock, and the just-plain-horrifying Double), and with the already mentioned ~1400 frames to work with, that means some of the animation accentuates that sexiness. Cleavage is displayed, breasts sway and *gasp* even jiggle, high kicks may flash panties on the characters wearing skirts… and if you’re the sort of person who would play a game where this sort of thing doesn’t show up whatsoever, be warned – it’s present in this game, and you’re going to notice it. Others may appreciate these kinds of displays, in which case, hey – this game’s right up your alley, though it always stays at the level of the suggestive, rather than the truly explicit.
But there’s one thing I want to comment on. I’ve seen other commentary on Skullgirls making the suggestion that the sexy poses of the relevant girls overwhelm the game – that there is little more to, say… Parasoul, or Miss Fortune, or Filia, than the sexual appeal. Let me be clear: this is not merely wrong. It is insane. Let’s take Parasoul for example. She’s drawn as a femme fatale redhead in a short black dress, but if someone notices only the occasional jiggle of her chest, well – they have mighty selective eyes. They miss the way her personality comes across in the way she moves, the expressions she makes – confident, dark, and dangerous. They’re ignoring the way she summons her large, uniformed minions up to do everything from throw their bodies in front of her to take damage, to hopping on a motorcycle and driving on past to perform a catch-and-grab maneuver on her opponent. They miss the haughtiness and confidence of her presentation, and honestly, the lion’s share of her character, that shines through abundantly thanks to that insane amount of detailed art and animation that went into not just her, but each and every character in the game. And that’s with Parasoul, one of the most expressly ‘human’ characters – as opposed to the ‘living demonic hair’ amnesiac schoolgirl Filia, or the monstrous and quasi-zombified Painwheel, and all the rest of the Skullgirls cast. I want to be clear – I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with disliking the game for its depictions of sexuality. One’s tastes and principles are their own, and beyond the scope of this review. But credit deserves to be given where it’s due, and each and every girl has a lot more to her than the attractiveness of her design, or the perceived allure of her poses.
With that commentary aside, let me also highlight another side of the girls: their mechanics. They are easily as diverse as their personalities, and that’s saying something. This is going to be made clear by the tutorial itself, which emphasizes the strengths and weaknesses not only of each of the core characters of Skullgirls, but also with the new DLC-added characters such as the recently released Squigly – an undead opera singer with a parasite ‘sidekick’ – whose abilities have also been added to the lesson list. As mentioned earlier, five additional characters (including Squigly) are currently planned for release, so it’s looking as if there will be a decently sized roster of unique characters to pick and choose from once all is said and done, though that’s going to require some additional investment.
So here’s where we’re at when all is said and done: a fighting game set in a gloriously original world, racked out with unique characters whose hand drawn animations are stunningly detailed and comprehensive. The soundtrack of the game is – at least for jazz fans – beautiful enough to warrant an OST purchase all on its own. The graphical presentation is phenomenal, the story mode is entertaining, the characters are unique and engaging as a whole. There’s a comprehensive in-game tutorial available for the game’s mechanics in general, and each character in particular. There’s DLC coming, there’s online and local matchups available, there are achievements and alt colors to unlock… and on top of all of this, the whole package is available on Steam for $14.99, or even less if you buy a multi-pack with a friend or three. The only real downsides to speak of is some highlights of sex appeal that may turn off some players, the frank necessity to own a controller to truly enjoy the game, and the fierce competition players will face in online versus play. Those are some incredible positives, and very forgivable negatives. As it stands, this very likely is the best PC fighting game available, period – and doubly so for the money. And not only that, but buying the game gives you access to the Skullgirls Beta, so you can test out changes in advance of their going live in the game proper. If you’re a fighting game fan, what more do you want? Whip out your wallet or queue up your Paypal password and go buy this one for your Steam library, and start kicking some ass.