I’m no beat ‘em-up expert by any stretch, I’ve never quite mastered the art of stringing multiple combos together or pulling off an endless string of super-powered finishing moves, but I do enjoy a good punch up with a well-balanced fighter that appeals to the hardcore and n00bs alike. Skullgirls attempts to appease both camps by offering a fun, all-inclusive training mode that takes you from the basics right up to the more advanced moves you’ll need in order to progress through the game, and does its very best to explain as much as it can to you.
The story tells the tale of the Skull Heart, a mystical artefact that grants its female bearer any wish they desire, but it comes with a price – like The One Ring in Lord of the Rings, it can turn even the kindest of people into a monster by twisting their wish into pure horror. Those who bear it inevitably turn into the Skullgirl, a being of pure evil – and the Skull Heart’s latest victim has arisen. There are 8 characters to choose from in the game, each with their own story and motivation to hunt down the Skull Heart and defeat the Skullgirl.
The all-female cast is a mixture of sexed-up vixens and demon kids, with some playing host to some pretty hefty augmentations or “parasitic partners” – Peacock, for example, is able to summon cartoon-style bombs and other explosives to cause maximum damage, whilst Painwheel comes fitted with a giant rotor on her back and spikes that shoot from her body, Wolverine-style. It certainly makes things more interesting, with special attacks (also known as Blockbusters) utilising these powers instead of the standard fireballs or dragon punches you may expect.
This originality runs throughout the rest of the title, with the whole thing wrapped up in a neat 2D cartoon/flash aesthetic that harks back to BioShock-era art deco (or Dark Deco), traditional Japanese anime and classic Disney animation, but the cutesy overtones belies Skullgirls’ fairly hardcore nature. For a start, there is a lot of cleavage on show, to the point where it’s not actually that necessary – Cerebella’s chest is particularly expansive, but her muscular “Living Hat” Vice Versa negates any sexual allure she may have. It’s quite contradictory but then so is the gameplay itself, as any notion of understanding of the deep control system you may have gained from the training mode gets thrown completely out of the window when facing your first opponent.
Now – as I said – I’m no fighting expert, but if there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s a cheap victory won through mindless button bashing – you know, when your girlfriend/mum/godchild fancies a bash on Street Fighter or Tekken and they just slap away at the buttons and end up winning? That really gets my goat. Saying that, I’m not the most skilled of beat-em-up players, but I can definitely appreciate the fine art of timing button presses in order to perform the best combos, so the fact that Skullgirls gives you absolutely no quarter when bringing the pain to you straight from the off is a bit of a shock. So, despite my best efforts to retain the lessons I’d learned, I eventually resorted to mindless button bashing in order to try to take a victory or two. What’s more annoying is the fact that the default number of rounds is set to 1, so instead of giving you the standard best-two-out-of-three chances to get your ass kicked, you’ll find yourself restarting after conceding a single loss which, compacted by the ferocity of the CPU opponents, makes Skullgirls an extremely frustrating prospect.
It’s a shame that the learning curve is so steep, as you’ll need to invest some serious time in the training mode and training room in order to stand a fair chance in the story mode, because even on Easy difficulty (yes, I went there) things are high-octane and balls (or boobs) out from the word go. To add insult to injury, you have to download the control layout for each character from the Skullgirls website as the game doesn’t feature a movelist in any shape or form. Arcade Mode makes things a tad more palatable by allowing you to create a team of up to three characters in six-on-six tag matches, and also gives you a choice of one bonus skill per character that adds extra power to your punches or kicks. Characters join each other on-screen to dole out two-on-one damage, and you can even stun your opponent’s current character out of the game for a short while, giving you the chance to concentrate on their weaker choices.
Predictably the online space is full of people who appear to have been playing this game forever, but Skullgirls has some nifty GGPO technology running underneath the hood to eliminate almost all lag you may experience whilst playing other fighting games – which at least starts everyone off on an even playing field from the word go, but unfortunately means that I can’t blame BT for my losses.
Skullgirls is the beat-em-up junkie’s beat-em-up game, it presumes you know what you’re doing and will benefit those who do – it’s an incredibly fast-paced title that will catch casual fans and n00bs unawares, which will most probably result in the latter launching their pads out of the window or at the screen, whichever is the nearest. Its steep learning curve is jarring, and although it looks superb and is packed with some genuine humour and originality, I found myself getting bored with its unforgiving nature and brutal offense very quickly.
Review: Skullgirls Results
What we liked:
Distinct and original look/feel
Excellent training mode lays it all out for you
Stunning offensive moves add originality
What we disliked:
Incredibly steep learning curve
Only eight characters on the roster
Marketed towards everyone, favours the hardcore the most