Platform: Xbox 360
Review Date: 4/28/12
Anyone who knows me knows that I love female fighting games, and I go out of my way to track down even the worst ones. Unfortunately, precious few ever make it to the US, and American offerings are typically appalling bad ("Catfight") and overly sexualized ("Bikini Karate Babes"). And the Japanese imports that do make it to The States ("Arcana Heart") tend to be weak and uninteresting. For me, the best titles of the genre are "Asuka 120% Burning Fest. Limited" and "Advanced V.G. 2", which manage to implement both cute characters and deep, robust fighting systems.
Which brings us to "Skullgirls", an odd 2D fighting game that looks like a typical Japanese anime fighter, except with a bizarre Tex Avery animation style. The first thing you notice when you start the game is the unusual and superbly crafted music score, composed in part by "Symphony Of The Night" composer Michiru Yamane. (available here, through Amazon.com) The next thing you notice (apart from the long and frequent load times) is how quickly and utterly you'll be defeated if you're foolish enough to jump straight into a match. Make no mistake - this game is HARD. Beginners and casual players need not apply. To its credit, the fighting engine and mechanics were developed by fighting game professionals and optimized for serious players and tournament gameplay. You know, the kind of people who actually count how many frames it takes for certain moves to complete. So on that level, the game totally succeeds in addressing the 1-on-1 tournament market.
Unfortunately, it disappoints in nearly every other regard. For me, in order for a fighting game to be engaging, I have to be interested in the characters and care about them, and "Skullgirls" fails on that front. It's even more challenging in a female fighting game, because you typically want the characters to be attractive as well. Not surprisingly, the characters in the game are laughably sexualized, but that tends to be overshadowed by the juxtaposition of grotesque absurdity. One character is a schoolgirl with a tentacled demon growing out of her head. Another character is a cigar-chomping cyborg, while another is an undead cat-girl with a detachable head. Yet another character is a circus performer with a hat that sports two enormous sentient arms. While most of the characters are cute and curvy and have exaggerated breasts, Peacock and Painwheel don't resemble anything that's even remotely feminine. Parasoul is the only likable character of the bunch, but she's slow and her ranged move set is difficult to execute. Ninja nurse Valentine matches my playing style more closely and is my player of choice.
"Skullgirls" uses a tag team fighting model where you can choose up to three characters in your party. Sidelined characters can recover a certain amount of health over time, so switching characters frequently is encouraged. The tag assist moves also come in handy when you're getting pounded on. Each character has a refreshingly small move set and a number of "blockbuster" special moves. These require you to build up your "dramatic tension" meter over the course of the fight before you can execute them. These moves are bold, flashy, and highly entertaining to watch. The game features the standard Story Mode, Arcade Mode, and Vs. Mode, along with an in-depth tutorial mode that really gets into the fine details of the game (and fighting games in general). Unfortunately, about half of the lessons are simply outrageous and impossible to pull off, which is made worse by the unreadable onscreen text. It is literally impossible to read the instructions on most of the screens, as the text is rendered in a small, fancy font that's white against white. And having a standard resolution TV makes all of the text in the game a complete nightmare.
Even on the easiest difficulty setting, the game is rage inducing and victories are earned through skill and perseverance. Do not expect to master this game in a weekend or even a week. It takes time, skill, discipline, and lots and lots of practice. Unfortunately, like many fighting games, the final boss is ridiculously powerful and full of cheap tricks, which makes her nearly impossible to defeat. In fact, I've yet to do it. Another annoyance with arcade mode is that with such a small roster, you'll end up facing the same characters over and over during the course of the game, including annoying mirror matches. Again, the game's primary focus is on the player vs. player tournament crowd, not the single player experience.
As much as I dislike the character designs, the animation is very good and extremely smooth. Each character has multiple palettes/outfits to choose from, and additional palettes can be unlocked. The writing is clever and the voice acting is pretty decent for an American game. It's odd to have the characters shout out their moves in typical Japanese fashion, but overall it works well and complements the campy tone of the game. The backgrounds are attractive, but static and non-interactive. The game has a lot of deficiencies and it took me a long time to warm up to its style and appreciate its depth and nuances. It's very challenging and frustrating, and it's not a game you can simply pick up and play whenever you're in the mood. While I'm happy and excited to see a legitimate female fighting game on the scene, I just wish it were more accessible and had more likable characters that I could connect with and want to dedicate time to.