Review: Skullgirls

Fighting games have evolved over the past 20 years or so, and since the game changer that was Street Fighter 2 you’ll find most people playing them fit into one of two camps. On one side of the fence you have people who spend hours learning combos and advanced techniques, mastering a small number of characters and taking joy in playing online or in tournaments to show off their moves. If you read our Mortal Kombat or Street Fighter X Tekken reviews you’ll have worked out that Rich is a bit like that. Not quite travelling to tournaments, but an arcade-stick wielding combo-unleashing pain in the arse.

And then you have the slightly less tactical players. The people who would quite like to be good, but never quite know what’s going on and end up mashing buttons and scratching their head with confusion when the screen explodes into a torrent of colour, noise and imminent defeat. This is where I sit. Apart from Soul Calibur that I was quite useful at, I’ve always been a bit rubbish at fighting games. I enjoy them, but in the same way I enjoyed looking at very attractive girls at uni – it’s nice to take part in the discussions, but I know full well that someone else will always have more success than me and I’ll end up looking like a cock. So it might seem strange that I took up the challenge of reviewing Skullgirls when there’s some more expert hands available, but then Autumn Games made a lot of noise about this being a game to bridge the gap between untalented bohemians like me and the experts. Well, there’s only one way to find out if they managed it…

The styling of Skullgirls is as unique as it is beautiful, from the menus and loading screens through to the gameplay itself, but don’t be fooled by what you see. It’s a layer of gentle sexiness that hides the vicious and fast-paced action beneath, a bit like a rabid wolf wearing a nice evening dress. My first instinct was to jump into a single player game, and the story mode seemed like a good place to start. There’s only a handful of characters available, something that seems harsh until you realise most games usually end up with everyone picking from 3 main characters out of a huge roster, and with only the pre-launch trailers to go by I picked a character and cracked my knuckles in readiness. After a brief intro to the storyline the fight was on. Moments later, it was off again. Bugger. Back to the drawing board, and time to turn the difficulty down. Same again. I’m not THAT bad at fighting games am I?

Apparently so. And so began my journey to the one area that makes Skullgirls stand out as not only a great fighter but also a great teacher: the training mode. Whether you’re a bit of a fighting genius or a clumsy oaf the training mode will not only give you the basics of the game such as blocking and various types of basic attack, but takes you all the way up to complex combos, breaking special moves into even bigger combos and counter attacking with style. Some of the challenges are very tough, especially if you’re not used to remembering chains of commands or getting tricky timings right, but a bit of perseverance and the occasional stroke of luck will get you through all of the lessons on offer. At this point you’re on your own again, but this time you’ll feel armed with a lot more tools than you had before. There aren’t any character-specific training options, but there’s a practice arena for you to play around with what you’ve learnt and get the hang of your fighter of choice.

The issue here is that there’s no move list anywhere. You can’t pause the action and check the list of special attacks, nor can you call up a handy list of combos when your mind goes blank. There are some great websites knocking around that give you some of the info you’ll need (including the Skullgirls site itself, to be fair) but unless you have these pages sat next to you there will be times, like trying out new characters, that you’ll be desperate for some in-game info. There’s every chance this will come in an update, but that’s besides the point really.

But the joy of Skullgirls comes when you finally hook up with what’s going on. Even I, a fighting ignoramus, managed to knock the difficulty away from the lowest setting and still have reasonable success in single player modes. As strange as it sounds, despite all of the super-complicated attacking options offered in the training mode it was the blocking techniques that made the biggest difference, especially with the final boss which has potential lot be one of the most frustrating gaming opponents you’ll ever find. The action is fast and fluid though, and until the hours have been put in you’ll still stumble over a memory block from time to time, but it’s surprising how quickly you start playing on instinct, helped by most special attacks having the well-known quarter-rotation action before the relevant button press.

These games are never designed as single player games though, despite how much fun this is. Instead you’ll want someone to fight against, something which takes away the worry about a cheaty AI and puts the fight’s outcome into your own hands. Jumping online is akin to leaping head first into a dark room wearing nothing but a pair of socks; you might end up in a fairly good place with someone also standing there with their own pair of socks and equally bewildered, but there’s just as much chance (probably a lot MORE chance) that you’ll end up with someone who is hell bent on beating you to a pulp before you’ve even worked out where you are. There are some very very good players out and about, and without a lot of patience and the willingness to lose a lot before you start winning it’s easy to get annoyed and forget that some people will be playing this every time they turn their console on. But like any game the more you play the more you’ll learn, and the more you learn the better you’ll get. It’s actually surprisingly hard to get a game online, I never had more than a couple of games to pick from which is quite unfortunate, and this in itself maybe suggests just how challenging and demoralising it can be to play online, but the games I played were all free of lag and there was never any suggestion that my poor results were a result of technical issues, just my utter incompetence.

I’m still very much near the beginning of my long trek to actually being good at a fighting game, but I’m pretty sure I’ll get there eventually. I’ll never hit the heights of being able to go online confident of winning, but playing against someone sat next to me is far more likely to be a close call and a better route up the learning curve. Meanwhile I’ve got a fantastically presented game to enjoy, with some great visuals as well as some fantastic sound blaring through the speakers. I’m hoping an update will soon show some special moves and combos in the pause menu as that will help the new players get into the swing a little easier, and it’s a shame that online games are tricky to come by, but you can’t help but recognise that Autumn Games have come up with a new game in an old genre that stands up brilliantly against the competition. Experts will revel in the complexity, and newbies will appreciate the training that does a good job to level out the learning curve. Just don’t expect to load it up and be an instant winner, it just won’t happen.

Reviewed on PS3

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