Skullgirls Review—Painwheel is My Waifu

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Skullgirls is available now for PC and playable on your choice of various operating systems. The game has graced Xbox Live and PSN for some time, yet the PC release seems somehow more significant and tangible given the increased sense of permanence. Honestly, when it was initially released, the downloadable only nature of the game and the abysmal nature of both consoles’ digital storefronts had helped it slip under my radar.

I’m willing to admit that perhaps some of this is my own prejudice. Skullgirls is neither disposable nor is it in any way diminished next to nearly any 2D fighter you can name. If you were worried that Skullgirls was going to be some kind of low budget pretender like I was, then you can and should go download it now. Reading the rest of the review will give you something to do while you wait for it to install.

In case you don’t know what Skullgirls is, it’s a fairly straightforward 2D fighter set against this kind of alternate 1920’s America that combines the aesthetics of The Great Gatsby, Astro Boy, and The Nightmare Before Christmas. All of these influences combine into something that is somehow inexplicably not terrible, something the game’s creators have dubbed “Dark Deco”.

All of the games combatants are girls or women whose fates are somehow tied to The Skullgirl. The Skullgirl is pretty much any girl who comes into the possession of something called a Skull Heart, which apparently grants wishes.

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However, instead of granting wishes, it turns the wish maker into a killing machine with their very own army of the undead. Presently the Skullgirl is a little girl in a maid outfit who is using the power of the Skull Heart to destroy the mob who sold her into slavery. She’s also destroying the city and losing her mind in the process. The rest of the Skullgirls characters are either acting in direct opposition to the Skullgirl, seeking obtain the Skull Heart for their own ends, or out for the blood of one of the other characters.

The amount of creativity that went into each of the characters is almost immediately evident upon spending any time with them.  The game contains a sort of underwhelming amount of characters in the roster, yet each character has an entirely unique play style. There’s not a single fighter here who is a variation on a common theme. Each character requires a bit of experimentation in order to not execute her move but rather in order to learn how to best employ them.

There are definitely some things here that you haven’t seen before, like a character that can inflict role-playing game style status aliments, a girl who can fly and hover about the screen, and a girl who can throw her own severed head at her enemies as a projectile. While the roster is the smallest I can recall in recent memory, the emphasis placed on individuality here does a lot to counter balance and possibly excuse it, depending on how important this is to you.

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Each character also has their own story in the game’s story mode that features not only opening and ending sequences, but also bits of dialog between random battles. These bits of dialog serve not only to explore the character you have selected but also to elaborate on the other characters in the game, and the bizarre world they all inhabit. It does all of this without dumping a bunch of nonsense exposition on you, which a lot of lore heavy games tend to do in place of proper pacing.

In a genre not exactly well known for its storytelling, Skullgirls really succeeds in creating something truly memorable. The stories do introduce a lot of non-playable characters. I worry more than a bit that the game is basically a DLC vehicle since many of these characters practically have “I was intended to be playable at some point” tattooed on their forehead. Still, I’m almost positive I will buy all of them, as well as any merchandise associated with them, because I am entirely enamored with the world of Skullgirls.

Nobody plays fighting games for the story, but you should check this one out. Even if you don’t enjoy fighting games you might want to check this out just for the characters. This isn’t exactly Hamlet, but it’s the completely endearing kind of pulp. It feels like you’re playing through a child’s idea for “the most awesomest comic book ever”, and the whole thing absolutely shines with youthful absurdity and passion.

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I realize that I have talked a lot about the story, but that’s not to suggest that the game play is anything to just glance over. There’s a lot to like about the combat in Skullgirls. It’s quite combo focused, but the game allows for some very simple combinations to produce some very impressive looking animations, so even if your style is weak you can still at least feel like you know what you’re doing.

Special moves are also pretty simple to actually pull off and the button inputs are surprisingly uniform. This allows you to focus on playing characters that are in line with your own play style rather than the characters whose moves you can pull off, and it does this without ever really feeling like things have been over simplified. The game also features a system where repeating the same combo or move repeatedly will have diminishing returns, therefore spamming simple combos and mashing buttons is entirely discouraged.

The game also allows you to bring in teams of up to 3 characters into a match against another player. You don’t have to select any kind of tag team mode either. Instead, Skullgirls allows you to select the number of fighters you want to bring into a match and then adjusts the power and durability of each individual character accordingly. There’s no reason to select three characters if you only want to play one, and it can make for some interesting match ups.

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The game does a lot to make matches feel dramatic. It features work by the pretty much legendary composer Michiru Yamane of Castlevania fame. The way she effortlessly blends various musical styles really serves the atmosphere of the game and does a lot to help hold its clashing artistic influences together. The dynamic music helps make your matches feel that much more cinematic.

The transitions between animations are silky smooth and the 3D rendering in the backgrounds allows for real time lighting and environmental effects on hand drawn 2D characters. That sounds ridiculous but somehow the retro anime vibe the characters have manages to allow this to happen in a way that doesn’t make everything fall apart or look flat. There’s a level of artistic flourish here that makes individual matches almost watchable.

All in all, Skullgirls is a complete package, and it’s certainly worth your time. It is simultaneously inviting while featuring enough complexity to keep you busy for quite a while. The games characters, world, music, and style are truly memorable. All of this together makes for something that carves its own place for itself in the genre.

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John Sabin