Ready For This Showstopper?
Until recently Steam wasn't really the kind of place you could find 1 on 1 fighting games. Evidentially something changed and this games started to seep into the market. Amongst the big names such as Capcom's Street Fighter entry, Skullgirls also made itself known. A new IP from a less prominent developer featuring an all female cast (excluding the forthcoming DLC characters)? I wasn't just in, I was there pre-ordering the thing. This was a game that I thought would be excellent to play here and there. As it turns out I was totally right. Skullgirls is a truly excellent fighting game that leaves you wanting more.
The game itself looks amazing. The character sprites showcase excellent detail and boast very colourful palettes and interesting designs. It would have been easy for an all female fighter to focus too much on adhering to male fantasies, and while you can certainly point out a few examples of that in Skullgirls as well (if only from Valentine with her dress-busting cleavage on show), it's very nice to see a wide variety of distinct designs. Fillia is still designed to be cute, but has a body frame that's distinctly more chubby than the average female character and that set of eyes and teeth in her "hair" may cause a double-take for those unfamiliar with her. On the other hand, Painwheel hides her face with a creepy mask and her body is very gaunt with various objects implanted into it.
The animation is also fantastic and does an excellent job of matching up with the style of each character. Squigly is a very graceful fighter and her movements in combat reflect that very well. Peacock is very cartoonish and so her actions are relatively exaggerated as a result. Character flow well from one attack into the next and showcase a wide variety of special effects. The developers certainly enjoyed the concept of cinematography so a lot of effects revolve around that kind of concept, like the brief zoom-in during specials and the film reel effects layered onto the screen at times.
There are a number of different stages to fight in which, in typical style in these kinds of games, don't differ in gameplay content but do so in visual content. You can find yourself battling it out in locations like a busy casino, across the rooftops of New Meridian or the especially cool looking Final Atrium. Some of these also have their own things going on in the background that never take away from the main action but serve to give them that little bit of extra life.
The music delivers a very nice selection of tracks for the various stages and events in the game that goes well with the overall theme of the game and serves as an ideal accompaniment to the combat. What stands out more than that about the audio though is the voiced dialogue. Every character has a wide range of sound-bites they will throw out, including a number of phrases that are said specifically to certain other characters. The narrator also does his job very well, getting players excited for the next battle.
Skullgirls is a 1 on 1 fighter where two opponents fight each other until the health of one side is depleted and a victor is declared. There are six attack buttons consisting of three punch and three kick actions of varying levels of strength. As well as using these on their own, you can combine them with direction inputs for more impressive special attacks. You can also grab opponents or guard against attacks. Then there are the showstopper attacks, which are basically this game's version of super moves. During the fight both sides will build up their own special gauges, which can then be used to unleash notably more powerful attacks. The resulting actions depends entirely on the character, including moves like Ms Fortune throwing her head, Parasoul firing projectiles or Filia doing her best Sonic impression. Naturally the key to success is combining different moves into lengthy combos while guarding against the opponent's moves.
Much of this should sound like familiar territory to fighting fans, and I'm please to say that it is all handled brilliantly. Players have a lot of options for linking attacks as well as other tactics like poking to test for danger, launching aerial assaults, countering opponents and luring enemies in. It also helps that there are dashes and air jumps available. These depend on the character but they do help in keeping the fighting flowing quickly.
One of the best aspects about the combat is just how diverse the cast of characters are. No combatant plays anywhere close to anyone else. For my own personal experience I have ended up primarily using Filia and Squigly. Filia is a lot faster of the two, featuring some quick multi-hit strikes and her moves are generally easier to hit with. Squigly lacks the agility Filia possesses but has some trickier moves to deal with like several special grabs. Aside from these two, you run across projectile specialists who prefer staying at a distance, a grappler who loves to toss enemies around and a shapeshifter who is distinct in her rather slow but powerful approach.
The one thing that may strike fighting game enthusiasts though is that the roster number appears smaller than what you may be used to. The standard roster only features eight characters, with a further five planned as DLC (as of writing, one of these is already released). That said, it hardly feels like there is any less variety than a lot of other fighting games, especially as there really isn't any case of characters playing too similarly to one another.
There's a flexible tag team setup in place as well. You can choose to have between one and three character on your team. In addition to being able to swap between active characters during a fight (together with a nice attack entrance for each) you can also assign an attack to each one and have them lend an assist with that attack during battle. On the other hand, small team sizes benefit from increased stats. Two definitely seems to be the magic number here though, as it affords the benefits of the tag team system while not over-complicating the whole thing. There is definitely something fun about comboing an enemy, only to have Squigly jump in with a silver chord assist to set them up for another vicious combo.
If you think this whole thing is sounding very complicated then Skullgirls has the thing just for you. In addition to offering a standard training option that lets you practice against a dummy all you want, there is also an extremely in-depth tutorial the likes of which I haven't seen before. You're starting off on the very basics and taken through a huge variety of lessons, leading you up to more advanced tactics and even giving you specific lessons on each individual character. You certainly can't claim the game isn't trying to get you to learn everything there is to know about the game.
Aside from the training options, there are two other single player modes consisting of arcade and story. Arcade is basically a series of random battles leading up to the final boss battle against Marie. Story mode is a lot more structured, as the fights all depend on the character you are using and you're given a storyline focused around your chosen character and their own reasons for going after the skull heart. A few bits and pieces are a bit vague but the depth is surprising for a fighting game. Granted, it's not going to draw you in like a great RPG or adventure title could due to the format it is in, but at the same time it feels a lot more than just an excuse plot and does manage to explain the events pretty well. Sadly, story mode tends to lack the tag team option outside of the odd battle, which is understandable given the format but means that arcade is the more replayable of the two.
As mentioned, Marie is the boss of this game and is always the final battle in either single player mode. Like many other fighting game end bosses she has the ability to ignore a lot of the rules of the game (for example, she never suffers from hit stun), hits hard and has a lot of health to make her a real challenge. Unlike certain other fighting game bosses I could mention though, Marie is a genuine challenge and doesn't come across as frustrating. While she is difficult, the battle always feels possible as long as you're playing at a difficulty setting appropriate for your skill level and the gap between her and the other opponents you've faced just previously isn't a mile high spike that comes out of nowhere. I feel like anyone else wanting to design a final boss for a fighting game should really take Marie as an example of how to do it.
The difficulty settings in general have definitely been handled well. There are a number of settings here that do truly reflect what they are. When that difficulty label says easy, it really does mean easy instead of only being 1% easier than insanely hard. On the other hand, you can feel free to throw yourself into the harder settings if your fingers and thumbs are up for that kind of challenge.
If you want to challenge other human players then you can do that too. As well as playing against someone in the same room as you, there are online options as well. Lobbies can be set up or search for in order to help you control the kinds of opponents you face. On the other hand, you can just jump into a random ranked match instead and skip all that kind of setup. From my experience, the game seems to handle it well from a technical viewpoint. I didn't seem to suffer any kind of lag when fighting online and there were no lost connections either. A downside here is that I couldn't seem to find all that many players online as I'd have hoped for. There tend to be few lobbies available and I tend to not see a large variety of people on random matchup. This isn't really a problem with the game itself though. It's just a shame to not see more people trying out the online, even if I do get my butt kicked most of the time.
The game supports both controller and keyboard input. I really wouldn't recommend keyboard though for the same reason I wouldn't recommend it for basically any fighting game. The controller I used (Xbox controller) worked perfectly and everything responded really well.
Skullgirls was a pre-order purchase and I don't regret a moment of it. Any worries I had about the game falling into the kinds of traps others in its genre tend to were smashed away once I really got into it. It mixes a really interesting unique setting with a fluid engaging combat system to make one of the best fighting games I've ever played. Seriously, go buy it now.
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