On the surface of it Skullgirls comes across as unabashed fan-service. Fan-service to the legions of teenage anime fans desperately seeking their next hit of panty shots, cleavage bounce and sexually suggestive animation. Given that the all-female cast is dressed in clothes that would make Rio Carnival participants feel exposed, there’s plenty of all that here.

However, to write Skullgirls off as a simple boner-bringer is to do it a great disservice. Under the mass of ass and boob is a sophisticated, well-balanced fighter that does a great job of giving the genre’s establish franchises a run for their money.

There are only eight characters, but that has allowed each to flourish as an individual rather than a slightly altered doppelganger of another roster member (Street Fighter’s Ken and Sakura… here’s looking at you, kids). The grappler, the speed Queen, the all-rounder, the tactician, they’re all here and they all stand alone with they’re individual skill set.

What that balancing precision allows you to do is very quickly play through the available characters and come to a decision as to which you’re going to use as your ‘main’. There is an argument to be made that the cast is too well-defined, that their move-sets force you down one style of play and lock you out from all others. However, don’t give that line of thought too much credence.

Get two skilled opponents facing off and the tactics come into focus. Experienced players know the moves of their opposite number, so misdirection and acting out of character in order to set up your most devastating attacks becomes the order of the day. It’s a tense game of cat and mouse that many fighters, with their focus on generous input sensitivity and genre accessibility, have forgotten.
Combine that cat and mouse essence with the ability to fight in teams of up to three characters and the tactical depth quickly reveals itself. This is a significantly robust fighter that will keep you experimenting with character combinations for days, if not weeks, before you come to a decision as to which is best suited to your style of play.

While Skullgirls is unwilling to compromise its gameplay to cater for newcomers, it does have the best tutorial system I’ve ever seen in a fighting game to ease you into things. The design philosophy seems to be: help people improve by helping them understand, rather than help them improve by making the game easier. It’s a welcome approach.

The tutorials don’t assume you know anything about the genre, beginning with how to move and block before working up to more advanced techniques such as air chains and canceling into special attacks. Being a 2D fighter, much of what’s on offer in the tutorials will be known to some of you already, but a recap in such a welcoming form is not to be scoffed at.

Opponent AI in the tutorials is excellent, letting you practise techniques in a safe environment before moving into the real world. AI will attack from all angles in blocking stages and block all angles during combo lessons. It’s a far cry from the dummy setups of Street Fighter IV that are, if anything, a lesson in tedium that no one other than the most dedicated will bother seeing through to the end.
Being a cut-price downloadable title there are some compromises to the well-trodden fighting game format, in this case it comes in the form of a Spartan selection of game modes. Alongside the tutorial, there’s story, arcade and multiplayer (local and online).

Story mode is worth playing with each of the eight characters if only for the stylish comic book panels that accompany your journey. Parasoul’s opening scene, for example, is made up of beautiful hand-painted panels that are a celebration of everything that’s good about Japanese-inspired Western animation.

Stark lines, high-contrast colours and oversized body parts are mixed with noir lighting, smooth jazz and a strong art deco vibe. The result are story panels that are at once familiar but fresh, further emphasising Skullgirls’ uniqueness and desire to advance (rather than overhaul) the fighting genre. The same artistic flair has seeped into the design of each stage, all of which are magnificent to the point of distraction.

Arcade mode is less impressive, a series of random fights, but decent enough for a quick single player session or two. If you’ve got a friend of a decent enough skill level, then I’d advise you go down the local multiplayer route whenever possible. After all, beating friends is more satisfying than beating the AI.

If you’ve not got a friend (or not got one good enough to provide a challenge) then online comes highly recommended. Matches are smooth and precise, with none of the lag that often destroys a beat ’em up’s online experience. Of course, once the online user numbers increase, that may change.

At this price, Skullgirls is a steal. It’s wonderfully balanced, packs a striking art style and offers a tutorial section that should bring genre virgins up to scratch quickly and efficiently. More game modes would have been nice, as would an in-game move-list, but other than that there’s little to complain about.

Don’t be fooled by the lack of flashy advertising and recognisable names, Skullgirls has the moves to compete with the genre’s best.

IncGamers Podcast/Vidcast #77

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