By Tyler Lubben / September 19th, 2013
|Developer||Lab Zero Games|
|Release Date||PSN: April 10, 2012 XBLA: April 11, 2012 PC: August 22, 2013|
|Platform||PS3, Xbox 360, PC|
|Rating||ESRB – T|
As someone affiliated with oprainfall, it’s a little embarrassing to admit that I’m not usually a huge fan of crowdfunding projects. It’s not that I lack the funds to donate; it’s just that I’m the kind of guy who likes instant gratification. When I give my money for something, I want it now. Not later, or possibly never– my excitement for the recently announced Mighty No. 9 and Shantae notwithstanding. However, after playing Skullgirls and seeing just what kind of product an enthusiastic developer and a devoted community can produce, I may need to reevaluate my position. The game was originally released back in April of 2012, but due to some unforeseen circumstances, the PC version of the game only came out recently. Let’s take a gander, shall we?
Skullgirls is a fighting game and the debut title from developer Lab Zero Games. Following a traditional 2D format in its gameplay, the game is fast-paced and chaotic, yet simple enough for players new to the genre to be able to enjoy. The game has the standard fare of fighting game modes: an arcade mode where you fight a string of battles for a high score, a multiplayer battle mode, and a story mode. As with most fighting games, it’s a little light on the story, but the premise is delivered well enough in the game’s intro. Every seven years, an object known as the Skull Heart appears, which has the power to grant a wish for any woman who obtains it. However, if the woman’s soul is impure, she will become corrupted and be transformed into the powerful and destructive Skullgirl. This sets the stage for the game as each playable character sets out to confront the new Skullgirl, and obtain the Skull Heart for whatever purpose each sees fit.
Skullgirls features a modest roster of eight characters, with more available for download (one for now, with more to come). These include Filia, an amnesiac schoolgirl with a symbiotic parasite disguised as her hair; Cerebella, a circus performer who wears an ultra-buff living weapon on her head; detachable cat lady, Ms. Fortune; and cartoon-crazy Peacock, just to name a few. Each character plays differently, and there’s sure to be someone to suit any gamer’s play style. Melee-heavy rush-in characters, damaging grapplers, ranged and trap-laying styles are all represented, as well as a few that will mix the action up in ways not usually seen in fighting games.
As you can see from the art above, character designs tend to lean towards the sexy, in the order of low-cut tops and high skirts. As such, Skullgirls suffers no shortage of jiggly boobs and up-skirt shots. Thankfully, however, the game never tries to draw players’ attention to these *ahem* features, nor do I see it meant as a selling point, especially considering that just about everything in the game is simply gorgeous. I am in love with this current movement toward games with hand-drawn graphics, like A Boy and His Blob, Rayman Origins and Mark of the Ninja. When people get tired of ultra realistic computer animation but don’t really mesh with retro-style sprite art, beautiful hand-drawn gameplay like that seen in Skullgirls is a perfect solution. The game touts over 1,400 frames of animation for every character, and it really brings the characters to life during combat. It stands as a testament to the talent of lead animator, Mariel Cartwright, as well as everyone else involved in the game’s character art and stage backgrounds. Not only that, but the game’s story mode artwork looks great, too.
As I already said, fighting games tend to be light on the story, and Skullgirls is no exception. Each character’s story mode can be finished in about 15 minutes, as it generally just tasks players with fighting a string of battles with short event scenes littered between every fight or two. The cutscenes feature some well-drawn character portraits, but I found the artwork shown during the scenes to be particularly nice. It’s best when non-player characters were involved, as they showed off a bit more of the lore that Skullgirls was putting across, rather than only having the same nine characters talking to each other with nothing in particular going on. With the game’s fairly small roster, the entire story section can be completed in just a couple hours. I feel like these campaigns should have been fleshed out a bit more. It was pretty confusing when I had to go through some fights with absolutely no explanation as to why. Obviously, it was just a bit more content to keep any character’s story from seeming too short, but that doesn’t change the fact that it didn’t really seem to fit in whenever it happened. Even so, given the length of each story campaign, having a little something extra to do before the final battle was appreciated.
What I did find truly disappointing in the story mode was that it was oddly silent. Not in terms of music (which I’ll get to shortly), but I really felt the game would have benefited greatly from some voice acting. Considering how vocal the girls are during combat, I was surprised to find that the story scenes played out only in text, with none of the voice talent (and they are talented) adding a bit more color to the scenes. Of course, as far as gripes go, this is pretty minor, especially for a fighting game. There’s also a lot to love about the game’s soundtrack. Considering Skullgirls takes place in something like a 1940’s-era style setting, most of the music is suitably jazzy, peppered here and there with opera-inspired themes. Whether you’re navigating menus, battling it out against an opponent or watching a cutscene, the game features several great tracks to set the mood. My favorite, though, would have to be the final boss theme, which you can listen to below:
While art and music are key components of any game, what’s most important in a fighter is how it plays. By fighting game standards, I would not call myself an expert by any stretch of the imagination. I don’t have trouble beating those who use the “just go nuts on all the buttons and hope for the best” strategy, but I have a tough time against people who actually know what they’re doing. Even so, I found the combat system in Skullgirls easy to pick up. Starting with weaker attacks, it’s easy to string attacks together as you build up to harder-hitting attacks. It isn’t quite as simple as some other fighters, like Persona 4 Arena, which would allow players to string combos together by repeatedly hitting the same button, but one cannot fault Skullgirls for not copying such a feature. Mechanics that fighting veterans will be familiar with, like dash cancels, jump-ins and staggers, are also present.
A comprehensive tutorial mode helps to explain to both new and experienced fighters just about anything they’d need to know to be successful, from basic movements and attacks all the way up to some fairly complex combos. The tutorial also features a short primer on each character to give players an idea of how each one works. It’s pretty helpful for new players, though I wish it had gone a little deeper in the combo section. The game generally only teaches players how to do the more complicated and damaging combos with Filia and Cerebella, leaving it up to the players to figure out how best to go about using the others. It would have been nice if there had been a combo tutorial for all of the characters. Even so, as it stands now, players are given all the tools they’ll need to delve deeper into the game’s combat, and come out on top against their opponents.
Unfortunately, it might be difficult to find opponents to play against. The game’s AI opponents may prove a challenge at first, but everyone gets better eventually and will want to test their mettle against human opponents. Sadly, if you don’t have a friend with whom to play, you may be out of luck. I can’t really speak for the online communities on the PlayStation Network or Xbox Live, but finding opponents against whom to play in the PC version of the game was something of an ordeal. Any time I went looking for a match, I was lucky if I found even one or two lobbies to join. Fortunately, Steam offers Skullgirls in both two and four-packs, so there’s a little extra incentive to find friends who might be interested in getting into a scrap. Aside from online, the game also includes standard local play, letting players plug in and use multiple keyboards, controllers or fightsticks on a single computer.
Skullgirls is not only a fantastic fighting game: it’s a fantastic game, period. Despite not having the backing of a big studio and overcoming complications that threatened the game’s development, the committed team behind the game and the supportive community made it a success. The game may be lacking in some areas, but where it counts, Skullgirls excels. As it stands, the game’s varied roster keeps things interesting, but Lab Zero Games has promised four more characters yet to be released, meaning that now is the time to hop on board. Plus, for the price of only $15 on Steam, PSN and XBLA, there’s plenty of incentive to pick it up. If you love a good fighting game, or, like me, you’re drawn to games with hand-drawn graphics, you must simply must give Skullgirls a try.
Review copy provided by the publisher
Autumn GamesLab Zero GamesPCSkullgirls