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Skullgirls review: Close, but no cigar

Jordan Mallory

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Despite the fresh renaissance the fighting game genre has grown into over the last couple of years, the medium is still dominated by the superpowers that brought it to its knees during the late twentieth century: Capcom, Namco Bandai, SNK Playmore, etc. Now, however, a new challenger comes.

Skullgirls, the debut title from Reverge Labs, is unique in that it's one of the very few original IP fighting games to come out since the genre regained its popularity. What's more, its also an anime-style 2D fighter from an American development studio, which is crazy. I've been following Skullgirls' production since it was announced last year, and as much as I wish it were the paradigm-shifting indie darling the fighting game scene so desperately needs, that is sadly not the case.

Gallery: Skullgirls (XBLA/PSN) | 18 Photos

In the Canopy Kingdom, a mysterious artifact known as the "Skull Heart" possesses the ability to grant the wish of any pure-hearted girl that finds it. Should the Skull Heart be obtained by a woman whose motives are unpure, her granted wish will eventually claim her life, as she is slowly mutated into a monstrous being of unthinkable power and corruption, known as the Skullgirl.

Yup, Skullgirls' premise is precisely as hokey in execution as it sounds on paper, but fighting games have never been known for groundbreaking narrative construction or enthralling character development. Seeing as Skullgirls is as much an homage to the history of fighting games as it is a new entry in the field, it's fitting that its story should be so goofy and immature, though I doubt that was a conscious decision.

Flimsy character motivations and shoddy dialogue aside, the world of Skullgirls is vibrant and well crafted from both an artistic and world-building standpoint. It's obvious that an immense amount of time and energy has gone into meticulously forging Canopy Kingdom's lore and mythos, and that the player is only exposed to a small, vertical slice of that history.

Similarly, its art design is stylistically unified while remaining thematically varied, both in terms of set design and character design. Despite how wildly disparate every stage is from the other, it's clear that they could all exist in the same world. The same is true for the fighters; while thematically varied to an absurd degree, they all fit within the boundaries of what's plausible in this universe.

As wonderful as the design is, it should be mentioned that Skullgirls' buxom cast and gratuitous amounts of anime-esque fanservice do nothing to help the fighting game community's quest to establish itself as a gender neutral, equal opportunity organization.

As far as the actual fighting is concerned, Skullgirls' gameplay balances precariously between innovation and regurgitation. On one hand, director Mike Zaimont's extensive tournament fighting experience has yielded several forward-thinking design innovations that cement Skullgirls as an original, unique title.

The game's variable team sizes, for instance, let the player fight within their comfort zones – Guilty Gear veterans may feel an affinity for fighting with a single character, whereas Marvel vs. Capcom 2 alumni can spring for a full three-fighter team. Since health and attack power scale with the number of characters on a team, the advantages gained by having assists are balanced out by allowing lower HP per character. Conversely, a single-fighter team may not have the strategic advantage of being able to call in assists, but its sole character will sustain less damage while dealing more. The end result is a level playing field that conforms to the preferred play style of the user.

The player's ability to use any move in the game as an assist also breaks new ground, as all team-based fighting games previously relegated the user to a predetermined list of three or fewer assists. The ability to roll your own assists sounds like it could be dramatically abused, but in practice it isn't, thanks to Skullgirls' anti-infinite combo-breaker system. While combo breakers have existed since time immemorable, Skullgirls' is different in that it isn't based on any kind of resource or meter. If the player is stuck in an attack loop, the breaker becomes available – no questions asked.

There are other, more subtle innovations working within the game's machinations as well, such as preventative measures to keep the system from interpreting a hadouken movement as a shoryuken, and vice versa.

Unfortunately, no amount of design brilliance or trailblazing can distract from the fact that Skullgirls' characters are, generally, randomly shuffled carbon copies of characters from other fighting games – to such a severe degree that a sizable number of their attacks have essentially been lifted directly from other games.

Filia, the schoolgirl host of a sentient parasite, is a hodgepodge of Millia Rage, Eddie/Zato-1, Felicia and Psylocke – her "Ringlet Spike" attack lifted from Eddie/Zato-1, her "Hairball" special lifted from Felicia and her "Gregor Samson" super taken from Psylocke. Each character is a grab bag of moves from other fighters, many of which are taken from characters that do not match Skullgirls' particular visual style: a wide selection of Valentine's attacks trace their lineage back to Chipp Zanuff, but her "Checkmate Incision" super originally belonged to Dio Brando. Similarly, Peacock plays like an odd balance between Hsien-Ko and Dizzy, but her air heavy punch is identical to Baiken's air-dust.

I understand that Skullgirls is full to bursting with references to internet memes and the fighting game community as a whole, but when the number of homage moves outnumber the amount of original attacks, it stops feeling like a tribute and starts feeling disingenuous. These attacks are so randomly allocated and obscurely sourced that they feel like a development shortcut, not subtle winks at the genre's past.

As a result, Skullgirls feels like the fighting game equivalent of a cover album, rather than an original composition – The String Quartet Tribute to Guilty Gear XX Accent Core Plus. It's nearly as fun as the real thing, the musicians are just as talented and, if you're not paying attention, you may not realize what you're actually listening to. But it's still a cover album.

At just eight characters, Skullgirls' roster is drastically smaller than what is commonly seen in fighters these days. This shortens its shelf life considerably, as the player is routinely fighting the same matches over and over again, shortening the length of time it takes the experience to go from exciting and new, to predictable and mundane.

Mirror matches are also much more common, as the chances of your opponent picking the same character are one in eight. That being said, the small number of available fighters has lead to an extremely balanced group of characters – I've yet to find any match-ups that felt uneven to a troublesome degree.

There is one area in which Skullgirls shines brighter than all of its contemporaries: its training mode, which is one of the most in-depth learning engines ever put into a fighting game. Its tutorials teach essential techniques left unexplained by the likes of King of Fighters XIII and Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3, including but not limited to air dashing, canceling into specials/supers, hit confirmations and even how to correctly anticipate and block mix-ups. These are universal fighting game concepts, and understanding them is the primary building block required to really get how fighting games work.

Historically, these ideas were taught to new fighters through brutal experience over a period of years, but Skullgirls explains it all in plain English and teaches the player how to actually use the techniques on display. For the advanced fighter, the game's freeform training room offers full hitbox data and a block-stun meter – two extremely useful tools for the hardest of hardcore fighters.

Training mode does have its shortcomings, however, as there is no input-data display and character move-lists must be downloaded as a PDF from the official Skullgirls' website. Still, literally every other fighting-game developer in the whole world can learn something from what this game's tutorial mode does correctly.

On the other hand, absolutely zero developers should take note of Skullgirls' online implementation, which is precisely "enough." There are ranked quick-matches, unranked 2-player lobbies, and ... that's it.

It's not terrible by any means, and while the GGPO-powered service doesn't suffer from the same framerate/animation stutter that plagued Street Fighter III: Third Strike Online Edition, it's definitely not leading by example, either. It's also strange that the amount of frame delay must be set manually by the player every time they join a room, instead of being adjusted automatically by the game. GGPO recommends a frame-delay setting based on your opponent's ping, but it still must be set manually. Users that don't read the fine print and leave frame delay as is will ultimately have a laggier experience, as their connections won't be optimized.

That being said, so long as my rival's ping was displayed in green numerals and the frame delay was set to GGPO's recommended setting for said ping, online play was mostly smooth and required very few combo-timing adjustments. The sound even worked and everything.

Despite the level of knowledge it may possess with regards to what a fighting-game player might want or need, Skullgirls is very obviously Reverge Labs' first game. Bugs of varying severity abound, from momentary display glitches during fights to total system freezes during loading screens that can only be solved via hard-reset. That, coupled with a placeholder "Extras" section on the main menu and a jumpy, slowdown-heavy loading screen make for a UI presentation that feels unpolished and rushed.

Skullgirls is the end result of some guys getting together and deciding to make a fighting game, and I respect it for that. The people at Reverge Labs have been knee-deep in the competitive fighting scene for a long time, and if there's one single trait that I find lacking in modern life, its the capacity for aspirational thinking. When it comes down to it, though, Skullgirls should have spent another year in development. What we got is good for what it is and will adequately fill a very niche void for serious fighters pining after a non-Blazblue Guilty Gear methadone, but it could have been so much more.

This review is based on a retail version of Skullgirls for XBLA, purchased by Joystiq. it is currently available on XBLA and PSN for 1200 MS Points/$14.99.

Joystiq's review scores are based on a scale of whether the game in question is worth your time -- a five-star being a definitive "yes," and a one-star being a definitive "no." Read here for more information on our ratings guidelines.

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