Back in 2012, new fighting franchise Skullgirls was widely praised for its creativity and dynamic fighting systems; launchers, air-dashes, team assists, custom assists, snapbacks, blockbuster combos, wall bounces, ground bounces, superfluous bounces, and more were all crammed into the ambitious title. The game has now made its way onto the PlayStation 4 – cross-buy compatible with the imminent Vita version – as Skullgirls 2nd Encore, a 'Game of the Year' style repackaging. So what's new?
The most obvious change is that 2nd Encore comes with all of the DLC characters previously released: Big Band, Robo Fortune, Squigly, Eliza, and Beowulf enter the fray, bringing the core cast to 14. For the most part, these characters bring more mayhem and unlikely experimentation to the formula.
Possessing a particularly unique design, Big Band is an enormous one-man brass band who can charge in with armoured special moves to really lay down a beating. Robo Fortune is a robotic version of undead cat-girl Ms. Fortune, summoning additional robotic cat heads to aid her powerful zoning game. Eliza has a parasitic skeleton living inside her, which can pop out at any time to attack, and has infinite armour – meaning that you can punch, kick, and blast the nasty critter to kingdom come, but its approach will be relentless.
If it sounds insane, that's because it absolutely is. Thankfully, the game has an excellent and essential training mode which serves as an invaluable aid for those new to Skullgirls' style of bedlam, not to mention fighting games in general. Three years after release, it still sets the standard for fighting game tutorials, for you get the why as well as the how. The training room is similarly impressive, with tons of options to fiddle with, and the newly added 'challenges' mode pits you against enemies with greatly increased health, infinite meter, and so on.
Single-player modes include story mode, where you get to learn the background and motivations of your chosen character, usually terminating with a particularly lazy final boss Maria, who simply floats in mid-air and peppers the arena with projectiles. These stories are engaging although short.
Elsewhere, when playing with others, the title is technically solid. Our online battles showed good network performance (tweakable GGPO netcode, for those of you who pay attention to such details), with everything feeling as crisp and precise as can be expected. The omission of lobbies for upwards of two players is particularly painful, but developer Lab Zero states that these are forthcoming.
Multiplayer modes also include local, ranked, and unranked play, as well as a tournament mode – specifically designed for offline tournaments, with button reconfiguration available before every match. You shouldn't be lonely in Skullgirls 2nd Encore, either, as it's cross-play across all PlayStation platforms, and any custom PlayStation 3 controllers or fight sticks are compatible with the PS4 edition.
When it comes to actual gameplay, the combat presented is pleasingly approachable though generic in terms of execution, with each character having chains of normal attacks that combo together simply, leading to launchers and airborne strings inevitably knocking your unfortunate victim back to the ground, where the pummelling usually continues. Once these patterns become entrenched in your hands and mind, it's quite satisfying to hammer your friends and enemies across the screen and back after landing a particularly lucky opener, but nothing feels significantly exciting in action.
The variety of mechanics imported into Skullgirls – the wealth of ways to batter your opponent – warranted the creation and inclusion of so-called infinite breakers – a system specifically designed to break never-ending combos should sufficient repetition be detected by the game's systems. Explaining this system is one area in which the otherwise brilliant tutorial drags, but it's an important contribution to the genre, so it's understandable that the designers felt that rigorous detail was necessary.
On the visual side of things, the game is colourful, smooth, and fluid with no perceptible framerate issues. Sprites are hand-drawn and superbly animated, lending an organic, crafted appeal to proceedings. The backgrounds are slightly muted in contrast to the fighters, providing much-needed visual clarity to the fighting chaos, though some stages feel uninteresting.
Various nods, winks, and asides to other games and inspirations will no doubt be enjoyed by players upon discovery. A tribute to Edward Hooper's oil-painting Nighthawks was pleasing given a filmic, 1940's art-deco styling permeates the title; naming conventions, music, fonts, and more knit together thematically to create a well executed, cohesive whole.
The music, meanwhile, fits both the action and styling superbly. Penned by Michiru Yamane, a spooky twist on 1940s-style jazz makes up the larger part of the game's composition and is particularly worthy of note. Likewise, all the characters are voiced well, with a great ensemble cast now providing their takes on the game's story mode.
Skullgirls remains a fine fighter with finesse and an interesting solution to excessive imbalance. The game boasts a brilliant implementation of GGPO netplay, and a sublime tutorial. However, 2nd Encore misfires with a lack of winner-stays-on lobbies at launch, quite a small roster, perfunctory story mode, and the game's art style – superb in places – feels needlessly cheapened at times. While offering a solid counter to infinite combos, the rest of the game's mechanics are possibly too derivative of its peers'.
It's curious that a game somewhat light on fighters and playable content is overflowing with flourishes, style, and extras – four announcers, nearly 900 items in the gallery, 30 options to tweak in training mode, a star-studded voicing cast, and so on. While by no means unimpressive – fighting game enthusiasts should have plenty of fun with the game, especially when played with friends – Skullgirls often feels like the wrapping is in danger of out-pricing the gift.