2009's Street Fighter IV inserted plenty of coins into the ailing fighting genre, bringing it back to the forefront of competitive gaming. With six buttons on the agenda again, Reverge Labs is hoping to capitalise with Skullgirls, a new title aimed squarely at serious fighting fans.
Skullgirls doesn't completely close the door on those without prior experience though, with a decent tutorial mode taking you through the basics: mix-ups, throws and more, from both offensive and defensive perspectives, explaining the terms' meanings as well as their uses. It won't turn you into a character master like SFIV's trials, but it does give you a solid grounding in fighting game staples.
While the tutorial mode puts you in good stead, the absence of character move lists is baffling: while you can access the Skullgirls website to view fighting guides, and Reverge says the game will be updated with these in future, an in-game reference list is a must. The training mode lets you study hit boxes and gauge hit stun, but not learn how to execute moves.
You might think that's because it's got an overly complex control system, but actually Skullgirls trims some of the fat from other fighters. Super moves (called Blockbusters) are executed with a single 90º motion and two punches or kicks, not the double-quarter-circle and three buttons, and many special moves are command inputs (one direction + button) instead of less memorable combinations. Its emphasis on aerial combos will be familiar territory to anyone who's ever played a Capcom crossover fighter, but offers battered players a way out of infinite combo loops — when an opponent repeats a combo section, the victim can press any button for a 'breakaway' move that knocks the attacker back. At a casual level it's rarely seen, but for high level players it necessitates more varied attacking play and should make matches less about losing a full life bar to a single punish.
When you get into the action, Skullgirls is a riot. Chains fly from your fingers and input execution sits somewhere between the all-access SFIV and Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike Online Edition's more technically demanding approach. Matches are well-paced, not just simply fast, and there's a sense of cut-and-thrust about it all, perhaps due to a tutorial focusing on punishing wayward attacks instead of simply pounding your opponent to submission.
For single players, CPU opponents go from pushovers to punishing within a few matches, and without the basics nailed down you'll fall in no time. While story mode puts you in charge of one fighter for a solo jaunt, all other modes let you choose one, two or three characters, scaling their strength accordingly. A noble attempt to keep things balanced — a single powerful lower tier character can overcome a trio of weaker middle tier characters — it throws combo potential wide open too.
If you want to battle human flesh you can shoot for ranked or unranked online play, using the GGPO framework seen in SFIII to let you adjust the frame delay before a match starts. We encountered some sizeable lag in some matches, although you see your opponent's ping before starting battle in case you want to back out. When it works smoothly it's plain sailing, but we have to say we didn't encounter too many lag-free matches in our hours spent with the game.
Less chaotically colourful than Marvel vs. Capcom 3, its so-called "dark deco" style is filled with sharp animation and varied styles — Tex Avery homage Peacock scampers around, while catgirl Ms. Fortune plays with her severed head like a ball of wool. Like the unlikely lovechild of Scott Pilgrim and Darkstalkers, it's a blend of the comic and kitschy, but it hangs together surprisingly well.
Less likely to please is the array of fetishised female forms on display. Skullgirls' twisted humour might deflect some of the usual ire directed at such a variety of stereotypes — the schoolgirl, the busty nurse — but it's still disappointing to see a fighting game with an all-girl cast rely on so much cleavage. Cerebella, a circus performer with an extra set of giant muscular arms on her head, seemingly can't pull her top up to cover her chest, and Valentine's standing animation makes Mai Shiranui look like Hillary Swank in Boys Don't Cry. Even the character guides list their measurements. It doesn't sit right that a game all about feminine power should rely on such crass presentations in its line-up, though we have a feeling the upcoming Girl Fight will go just that little step further.
Skullgirls doesn't rework the fighting game template; there's no massive overhaul of 2D scrappers, no single big idea that makes it stand apart from others in the genre. It takes what works and adds a few flourishes of its own, and that's a solid enough foundation for a series that we'll certainly see again.