Edit: This review is also posted on http://www.dpadmagazine.com with some alterations at this link:
The recent release of downloadable fighting game Skullgirls has served as a good reminder of how genuinely difficult and potentially rewarding the genre can be; however, the game does everything in its power to help new players out, and that really sets it apart from most entries. If every fighting game had a tutorial as detailed, lengthy and useful as Skullgirls then there would be no need to make “more accessible fighting games” with one-button special moves or over-reliance on spectacle. The fact that it has taken a downloadable game made under the watchful eye of an expert player of the genre to even explore this, rather than simply provide customisable sparring partners and tutorials that merely show the inputs to canned chains of moves, suggests perhaps that developers have some way to go.
What makes learning a fighting game hard is the sheer number of variables that must be mastered; interactions between characters, interactions between moves, precise timings of inputs, and most of all consigning to memory the details of how a character works. One only has to go to any competitive fighting game players’ forum to see how in-depth this analysis can become; and Skullgirls ably avoids all of that in its tutorials. Instead it explains the concepts; what the terminology means, how it is done in the simplest form, and why it is useful. The player can then build their own strategies based on this knowledge, in matches against the entirely serviceable AI. As a single-player experience, it is a game that does little to innovate; one fights the AI. There is not much more that can be done with the 1v1 fighting game genre. As afficionados will say, though, it is the multiplayer that counts. Again the offerings are slight; one plays against other players. But at the core of it, fighting games are not about litanies of game modes, or gimmickry; they are among the closest there is to real competitive gaming – something players can get their teeth into, learn, master and compete at in genuine tests of skill and chance. One would not complain that tennis did not have enough game modes (real tennis excepted).
The main mechanical innovation in Skullgirls is the asymmetrical team system; one can pick either one, two or three fighters and the game adjusts itself to suit. It’s not the same relentless chaos as Marvel versus Capcom but at the same time it’s not the same staid one-on-one self-expression of Street Fighter. That set aside, the main fighting mechanics could be from any game; there is a bar which accumulates and powers up setpiece moves, there are combos and chain attacks and throw breaks. They’re well done; controls are responsive (although it rewards the use of an arcade stick) and the inputs will be familiar to anyone who has played a fighting game before.
That is the good; as an arcade-style fighting game, it does nothing wrong and the professional player’s input is clearly evident in how every effort has been made not to alienate new players while not compromising on any of the mechanics that ultimately define the genre. One must learn to master it, for sure, but it will always extend a guiding hand.
The bad, however, is yet to come. Firstly the online mechanics. The menus are largely intuitive, but inefficient; a failed attempt to join a server requires manually pressing cancel with no onscreen prompt to return to the online menu. There is client-set lag compensation which worked all times but once while reviewing this, but the one time it did not the game was unplayable. Server population seemed comparatively low, and those who were online were incredibly good at the game (although it is not an actual reason to criticise the game, it is a fair heads-up). Compared to how slick Street Fighter IV‘s online is, it seems clunky and irritating.
Secondly, the absolutely inexcusable lack of movelists for the characters. In most fighting games, pausing will allow the player to browse a list of inputs for special moves. Skullgirls instead directs the player to a website where they can do this – which is entirely useless, and needless complication. For a game which has tried so hard to make a rewarding experience for new players, to leave out such a fundamental piece of functionality seems an unforgivable oversight.
And finally, perhaps the most contentious point. The aesthetics. There has been an impossible-to-avoid debate recently about the inherent sexism of video games and fighting games especially, and Skullgirls, to be absolutely brutal here, is as male-gaze oriented, sexist and puerile as it comes. Normally it is possible to roll one’s eyes at, say, a revealing outfit or poorly presented female character. Sometimes it is evidently a parody, as with Bayonetta. But Skullgirls, if it is a parody, is a poor one. Perhaps it is trying to provide so much teen titillation as to be patently ridiculous – but it does it awkwardly and the end result is quite distasteful in the same way as Soul Calibur‘s gradual move towards sex appeal. Bosoms heave, underwear is flashed like one is at the Moulin Rouge and fetishes are pandered to. Buying the game is thus, arguably, tacit approval of this status quo; agreeing that it’s all a bit of fun, games should have hot chicks in miniskirts high-kicking. For a fighting game that does so much to break down barriers of entry to a foreboding genre, this ill-advised attempt at what can only be assumed to be parody of the sexed-up nature of games like Blazblue or Guilty Gear falls flat on its face. Indeed, it confirms the belief that any sufficiently advanced parody is indistinguishable from sincerity.
VERDICT: Were there even the slightest concessions to moderation in Skullgirls’ aesthetics, and a few small but fundamental UI changes, it would be a superb entry-level fighting game which allows a player new to the genre to leap in, and through practice become a master. But as it stands, the relentless sexuality on display is ineffective as parody and serves only to reinforce the belief that games are designed for young men who read FHM.