When Reverge Labs’ Skullgirls launched in April 2012, it was received very well. What’s incredible, however, is that it’s managed to maintain that level of popularity in the months since, with crowdfunding keeping the release alive once its ties with publisher Konami were cut. During all of the real-life drama – and name changes – the title was actually pulled from the PlayStation Network – but now it’s back as Skullgirls Encore, with some improvements over the pre-existing game. To sweeten the deal further, those who already purchased its predecessor can download the new and improved version for free.
The story for the brawler is brief at best, but being a fighting game, this is hardly a surprise. The genre is renowned for shoehorning narrative between bouts, and this release is no exception. The action takes place in a fictional realm named Canopy Kingdom, where there are many individuals and organisations seeking something called the ‘skull heart’, which grants the wish of one woman every seven years. There is, however, a catch: the organ twists desires into something demented, creating ‘Skullgirls’, and you’ll face the most recent of these – Marie – at the end of the campaign.
Each character has their own reasons for wanting to obtain the heart, be it for power or destruction. Regardless of motive, Encore has boosted the roster of pursuers from a measly eight to 13; however, these bonus combatants will be gradually deployed over the coming months. The first of these – Squigly – is available now, so this certainly isn’t an incomplete package – it’s just one that’s going to grow in time.
From a gameplay perspective, this is a fairly straightforward fighter, with expected elements such as tag-team matches, combos, special moves, and more. This latest edition has seen some inevitable balancing improvements over the original, as the initial release included some severely overpowered characters, where the playing field is much more even now. One of the improvements that’s helped to achieve this is the addition of a cool down meter of sorts, which prevents you from being able to exploit the same move over and over. We still reached the conclusion of the story with ease, but pro players will no doubt appreciate the tweaks.
Of course, it’s in the arcade and versus modes that you’re likely to spend the majority of your time. The latter offers a wealth of replay value, as playing against real opponents is far less predictable than the computer. If you’re not up to speed with the intricacies of the combat systems, the title also boasts one of the most comprehensive tutorials to appear in a fighting game for years, with approximately 25 different lessons schooling you in the art of battle. It’s a welcome addition – especially in comparison to most other fighters, where the tutorials are laughably sparse.
Sadly, the controls do pose a problem in a couple of places. The first is the interface for the moves list, which is designed to cover various different arcade sticks and schemes, and subsequently shows attack types rather than buttons. While quite common for the genre, this may confuse newcomers, which is a shame given the effort put into teaching beginners how to play. However, a much bigger issue can be attributed to the controls, which feel a bit finicky in places. We’d often gesture towards a high block, and end up performing a crouch block, leaving us unfairly punished in places.
At least the excellent art is on hand to ease some of the irritation. The environments are vibrant and varied, and the characters themselves appear lively, bouncing across the screen uttering much more dialogue than you may expect. It’s Michiru Yamane's soundtrack that really steals the show, though, with Cowboy Bebop-inspired jazz songs punctuating the peppy action. This audio really elevates the experience, and will leave you bouncing around in front of your arcade stick while you string together punishing attack patterns.
All of the tweaks in Skullgirls Encore are appreciated, with the rebalancing in particular improving upon what was already a great game. There are arguably bigger and better fighters available on the PlayStation 3, but you’ll be hard pushed to find one of this quality in the $15 price range.