Review: Skullgirls

Skullgirls

Nearly every fighting game, even the really tough ones, rocks the throw-a-bone approach in its story mode. In other words, the first few matches are generally cakewalks, breezy confidence-boosters that pump your fighter’s ego before the big boys come out and the boom lowers on the button-mashers.

Skullgirls has no time for such ego-stroking nonsense. Autumn Games’ 2D fighter features some of the most arresting animation we’ve seen in a fighting game in years–and a difficulty curve that’s as instant and unrelenting as a crowd of shoppers bashing down the mall doors on Black Friday. Or, more appropriately, bashing you upside the head..

Case in point: My first match was against Parasoul, a leggy, umbrella-toting redhead who can a.) shoot fiery projectiles out of said parasol, which also happens to be a living creature; b.) deploy difficult-to-dodge stationary mines in the air and on the ground; and c.) summon fleets of gas-masked, goose-stepping soldiers to block your attacks, bum-rush you or drive over you on a motorcycle. Sparring with her was like starting the game with a level 5 boss battle. Needless to say, my fighter got the tentacled parasite attached to her head handed to her in short order. And that was before I battled the undead would-be Skullgirl who can detach her head from her body and use it as a projectile. Incoming!

Okay, so Skullgirls is clearly not your run-of-the-mill fighter. What’s all the fighting about, you ask? Well, there’s this gem that unsettles the souls of the unworthy wielders who wish upon it, turning them into—wait for it–the nefarious Skullgirl. The eight combatants in the game have different backstories and motivations for pummeling each other to try to unseat or protect the Skullgirl. Whether they’re worthy or just insanely weird isn’t really something you control or care about, since you’ll be way too busy trying to survive each match.

Skullgirls compounds its steep difficulty curve by making the most frequently used feature in most fighters—the moves list—challenging to access. If you want to figure out how to bust Peacock’s Argus Agony blockbuster move, you’ll be surfing to an external site to download a character guide, or, if you happen to be a Rain-Man-like combo savant, by the force of sheer trial and error. (Hint: Don’t count on that second strategy.) Even once you’re clutching the downloaded moves PDF in your sweaty fist, it won’t function like that handy copy of Cliff’s Notes did in English Lit. The game’s most spectacular high level moves require eight- and nine-button/trigger combos to deploy. Button-mashing is absolutely futile in the Skullgirls universe. Surviving matches becomes a question of precise responses to opponents’ high, low and mid-range attacks, followed up by as many diverse special moves as you can pull off in quick succession. Yes, the same things are true in everything from Soul Calibur V to Mortal Kombat, but rarely have they felt so fluid and well deployed. Winning here is two parts execution, two parts intuition, and that’s a good thing.

Brutal difficulty of this magnitude is the sort of thing that can send many a gamer in search of something with a softer touch (like, say, backgammon, or Kinect Star Wars). It’s a huge credit to Skullgirls’ appealing design and art style that the game makes you want to bash your head against the wall in order to master it. All 8 of the warriors here are women, and there are some seriously interesting choices, including a deadly shapeshifting nun, a masked mutant with a Krull-like glaive attached to her ponytail and a circus performer with a bicep-buffed hat that does half her fighting for her. The limited fighter roster ought to mean the game ends up feeling on the short side; then again, given that none of the matches are gimmes, Skullgirls actually packs a fair amount of action into its compact package. (That said, it left me wanting to see more from the design team—both a good and bad thing.)

Skullgirls’ art style is easily its most powered-up move. The game’s decked out in classy art-deco cinema style, complete with film-reel menus and a snappy jazz soundtrack to back it all up. Even if you’re in the middle of a tense three-on-three throwdown, you’ll want to pay attention to the detailed stage backgrounds—assuming of course, that dividing your focus doesn’t result in Painwheel skewering you with her glaive-tail.

Skullgirls is a rare and solid blend of action and style, the kind of game that leaves you wanting more, even though your fighter’s probably crumpled in a heap on the floor. Bring your patience and your A-game, and have a blast.

BuyIt

Pros:
+ Beautiful and distinctive 2D visuals
+ Gameplay rewards precise response to attacks
+ Bizarre and compelling fighters

Cons:
– Insane difficulty level is initially off-putting
– Fighter roster is modest

Game Info:
Platform: Reviewed on Xbox 360 via XBLA, also available for PS3 via PSN
Publisher: Konami
Developer: Autumn Games / Reverge Labs
Release Date: 4/11/2012
Genre: 2D Fighting
ESRB Rating: Teen
Players: 1-2
Source: Review code provided by publisher

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About the Author

Aaron R. Conklin has been writing about games and games culture for more than 15 years. A former contributor to Computer Games Magazine and Massive Magazine, his writing has appeared on IGN.com and in newspapers and alt-weeklies across the country. Conklin's an unapologetic Minnesota sports fan living in Madison, Wisconsin, home of the Midwest's most underrated gaming vibe.