XBLA review: Skullgirls Encore

Fighting games have never been my specialty, which is a bit of a shame, considering how cool I find many of the character designs in series like Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat. It’s simply been the case that, much as enjoy watching others play fighting games, I’ve never been particularly skilled at the genre, save for a few oddball exceptions like Street Fighter III: Third Strike and the Smash Bros. series (the latter of which I hardly consider to be a traditional fighting game). Skullgirls was brought to my attention a couple of years back when the gang over at Two Best Friends Play talked it up as one of the most bold undertakings from a small studio – a fighting game developed for those who love fighting games, but with artwork that was entirely hand-drawn.

Skullgirls Encore fits the bill of a fighting game designed for the most hardcore fans of the genre, with character motions that are arguably some of the most fluid in its class, and a high degree of mobility for nearly all eleven of its playable fighters. While that number may not seem a particularly impressive representation for a fighting game roster, it provides the most balanced roster I’ve personally come across in the genre. Each character has varying range and offensive power in their attacks, but they also have effective means of countering each of their fellow fighters.

For example, Big Band, one of the latest additions thanks to the extra Indiegogo funding, is a massive half-man, half-band wearing a trenchcoat. He takes up an insane amount of space on the screen, and is, by default, a large target. He’s not particularly fast, but can take hits like a champ and can deal out some decent damage via hits from the trombone slides, cymbals, and timpani drums concealed beneath his coat. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the Frankenstein-esque cat girl Ms. Fortune lands rapid-fire claw strikes from both the ground and air, and can launch her head from her shoulders as a projectile. She ranks among the most fast and agile of all the playable fighters, but is appropriately not the most durable.

Stages such as a dimly-lit research lab, a calm neighborhood street, and an eerie chapel will be revisited a number of times over the course of each character’s story mode. And while none of the stories last particularly long, each of the cast members is provided ample time to develop into someone interesting and given a reasonable motive for either seeking out the Skull Heart for their own ends or attempting to destroy it. As they all converge toward this one key artifact, the characters of the Skullgirls universe will cross paths with mobsters, mad scientists, and – most importantly – one another. The endgame is surprisingly deep for such a game, however, and with three more playable characters on the way, there are no doubt many more surprises in store for this one-of-kind world.

In truth, the art style does wonders for Skullgirls. It not only sets the game apart from the competition, it reinforces a degree of dedication to shaping the overall quality of the game rarely seen from studios these days. While larger studios map their launch plans around paid DLC release schedules, Skullgirls has opted to offer these first two new fighters free of charge, and they feel like they have had just as much time in playtesting as all the rest – in short, they feel like they were designed as part of the core cast from the outset, despite the fact that this was obviously not the case. The bright cartoony visages of Cerebella, Squigly, and Valentine are a breath of fresh air in the modern era of video gaming, and the soundtrack being heavy on America jazz influences doesn’t hurt either.

Skullgirls is a game that is equal parts form and function, and it excels at both. It is one of the most polished fighting games I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing, while also proving easy to access for those not long-since devoted to the genre, thanks to its intuitive control scheme and intelligently laid-out tutorial mode. The degrees of difficulty maintain a very natural progression, while the classic horror film-inspired characters squaring off in art deco environments proves an utterly bizarre but entirely welcome hybrid. Skullgirls Encore plays fast, plays smooth, and does surprisingly well in outshining giants of its field in more ways than one.

My rating: 9.25 (out of 10)

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