The first thing anyone notices in Skullgirls is the hypersexualization of its all-female cast. In this 2D fighter, the skirts are short, the legs are long, and the chests are, well, you get the idea. It's a treat for some, but for those who scoff at this most basic of carnal pleasures, take heed: behind all the eye candy rests a well-designed fighting engine that addresses several annoyances found in other contemporary fighters. Developer Reverge Labs has built a game whose pacing feels akin to Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3--with a little less overwhelming insanity. Skullgirls saves its spectacle for the characters, while keeping its combat fast and focused.
Skullgirls lets you bring one to three characters to a fight, even if your opponent chooses a different combination. These different combinations provide interesting variability to how the game plays. A single character can deal and withstand more damage than those of a two- or three-person team; however, that single character loses the ability to call for assist attacks, to link hyper combos, or to recover lost health while tagged out. This creates a natural balance to keep one combination from having an overwhelming advantage over the other two.
Adjustable team sizes naturally scale the complexity as well. Having more characters on a team means more variables to internalize during a fight. A lone, superpowered fighter is easier to manage than three average-strength ones. This trade-off between raw strength and versatility helps accommodate a wider skill range. This isn't to say that Skullgirls lacks depth. Each character feels wildly distinct from the rest. Even the two projectile-focused fighters--Peacock and Parasol--handle differently. Peacock fills the screen with fast-moving projectiles, while Parasol uses timed explosives and long-range pokes. With only eight characters, Skullgirls' roster may not be as large as other fighters--but its combatants are nicely varied.
The underlying fighting system is equally rich, with several smart and simple alternatives for typical fighting game annoyances such as high/low unblockables and infinite loops. An unblockable refers to a combination of simultaneous attacks that are impossible to guard against. These are accepted in some tag fighters, but Skullgirls automatically protects you if you block part of an unblockable combination. Infinite loops are just what they sound like: attack strings that can be repeated indefinitely. Most fighters patch these out on a case-by-case basis, but Skullgirls just says "no" with its Infinity Breaker. This quick, invulnerable attack is available only when an infinite is detected, it deals no damage, and it knocks the opponent away.
These and other design choices let the game be a little more flexible with what tools it gives you. Assist attacks are a great example. In Skullgirls you can enter a custom assist attack--and it can be any single attack you want. Normally this would lead to some nasty combinations, but the game doesn't have to worry about such exploits, since there are hard stops in place to prevent them. This opens up a lot more creative freedom for team synergy and combo potential. Skullgirls is filled with these little touches that should make any fighting fan happy.
If a healthy dose of cleavage also puts a smile on your face, then Skullgirls can provide. The game is a well-shaken cocktail of violence and erotica served with a side of smooth jazz. Blow for blow, it pairs devastating uppercuts with all the up-skirt shots a hot-blooded enthusiast can handle. It's difficult not to have an extreme reaction, whether positive or negative, to some of these character designs. It's a risque style that weighs potential alienation against exposure. And while exaggerated, hourglass figures aren't new to video games, their sheer abundance here can be embarrassing for members of all sexes.
The Skullgirls universe is centered on a malevolent MacGuffin called the Skull Heart. Each character has her own reason for hunting it, and the narrative tries harder than most fighting game narratives to establish reasonable motivations. The story mode is a typical collection of fights interspersed with dialogue. These scenes are filled with unique artwork that fleshes out the vast array of supporting characters working behind the scenes. Arcade mode is available as well, and it pits you against a randomly generated series of teams leading up to the final boss.
While the story is serviceable, the tutorials are where the game excels. They explain some fundamental concepts that have gone unspoken in many other fighting games (the basics of movement, defending against cross-ups, and capitalizing on hit confirmation) and give you a better understanding of how to approach a fight. They can help you succeed not only in Skullgirls, but in other fighting games as well. However, one critical element is missing: character-specific move lists. It's an unnecessary hurdle for players who are unfamiliar with these characters, which is just about everyone. Hopefully a list will be patched in later, but for now its absence is missed.
Once your skills are ready, you can take your game online for some competitive play. The backbone of Skullgirls' online experience is the tried-and-true GGPO technology. Featured in Capcom's Street Fighter III: Third Strike Online Edition, GGPO effectively hides Internet lag by substituting slight input lag to compensate. The result it a fight that seems lag-free, though your character might not always attack on cue. Thankfully, as long as your connection is in the green or yellow range, you won't be experiencing much lag of any kind.
Unfortunately, the game lacks some of the modern conveniences in other fighters. Spectating support is one, which the game works around by restricting room size to only two combatants. Replay support is also absent, which is especially unfortunate since observing others is an excellent way to improve your own skills. Still, at the oh-so-attractive price of $15, Skullgirls is a great value. Its strong fighting system can stand toe-to-toe with genre regulars, while the lessons taught in the tutorials should be adopted in all fighting games. There's plenty of fun to be had with the lovely ladies of Skullgirls, as long as you don't mind a little jiggling along the way.