Skullgirls is a stunning indie fighting game from Lab Zero Games who one day asked themselves, "How awesome should we make this game?" and then replied, "All of it." Which is sort of confusing since that makes no sense, but since Skullgirls is awesome, I'm pretty sure that's how it went. It's also weird, disturbing, and excessively violent. The story goes that somewhere in the world is a magical artifact with the power to grant a woman whatever wish she wants, but if she isn't pure of heart, that same power will turn her into a twisted abomination... the Skullgirl. Now that one such creature has arisen, it's up to a motley crew of bizarre, superpowered heroines to take her down... and seize the power for themselves! You know, because that's probably going to work out so well.
The cast of characters to choose from is... different. There's Ms. Fortune, a scrappy feline thief who swallowed a magical gem that keeps her from dying no matter how often she's torn apart. There's Filia, just your average school-girl who wakes up one day with amnesia and a demonic parasite named Samson living in the back of her head. Then there's the disgusting monstrosity known as Double who serves the Skullgirl and take on the form of anything, though it prefers to appear as a smiling nun. There are more characters, of course, and each of them plays drastically different from the other, sporting their own unique movelist and fighting style. Many character moves actually change depending on when and how you execute them, so chances are you'll probably want to play around with the included tutorial stages and training rooms to familiarize yourself with each leading lady. Or heck, get to know them all, since the game allows you to fight in tag-teams of any twos or threes as well.
Like most fighting games, Skullgirls has the modes you'd expect. You can duke it out against other players locally or online (huzzah!) or just play by yourself (forever alone) through Arcade Mode. Story Mode, however, is the real meat and potatoes, where you'll fight through each leading lady's story. Many of them intertwine in some ways, but all of them are after the artifact, the Skull Heart, to make their wish come true. You can play the game on the keyboard if you're not afraid of breaking it, but it also supports controllers (yes, even non-XBox!) if you're like me and prefer getting blisters on your thumbs for joysticks. The game has multiple difficulty settings, ranging from ridiculously hard to, literally, "sleepwalk", so you can play it however you like.
Analysis: Sure, Skullgirls has a strange story and a stranger cast, but that's part of its ghoulish charm. And it is charming, as well as drop dead gorgeous, especially when pared with its unique soundtrack and jazzy presentation. Alex Ahad's artwork is stunning, brought to life with incredibly fluid animation and rich colour that sort of makes you want to just sit and gape at it a while. While they might mostly all sport the same, ahem, assets, each heroine's design is unique, coming into play in combat in startling ways with a myriad of nice touches. Elegant princess Parasol moves in something that comes close to an elegant two-step waltz befitting her character. Ms. Fortune's stitches barely hold her legs together as she bounces around the screen and her detachable head reacts to everything you do. Some of the characters definitely have more satisfying Story Modes than others, but the bits of characterisation and world-building you get in the cutscenes create a fascinating place you're going to wish you knew more about.
The most impressive part about the cast, however, is how drastically different they all play from one another. Painwheel, for instance, is a powerhouse, but her limited reach and slower speed mean she can quickly get overwhelmed by faster characters, making chaining together devastating combos imperative. Though, that holds true with all of them on higher difficulties, and especially when it comes to the final boss, whose ridiculous health bar is a chore to hammer through. On anything except easy difficulty, it's not just about hitting hard, it's about knowing each set of moves inside and out to be able to pull them off when they're most effective. The controls themselves are very responsive, slow only when the character herself is, and perfectly suited for the game's "think and you're dead" nonstop action. Chances are you'll want a controller (the one I'm using cost me the princely sum of ten dollars) to really get the most out of it, but with the ability to remap every single key, you can also likely find a keyboard configuration that works for you if that's your bag.
That said, there are a few flaws. Training mode, for instance, isn't as useful as it could be. While the tutorials are fantastic for helping you learn the ins and outs of each character, your inability to really customise the movements of the "dummy" character in training makes it harder to practice some of the moves you might want to. The roster of characters is also, at least compared to some of the fighters out there, relatively small, though the complexity and depth of each one helps to take the sting out of it, and more are on the way as paid DLC. Speaking of DLC, as the first of four planned DLC characters and now available for free herself, if loveable Squigly is an indication of the quality you can expect from those extra playables, you don't have to worry. The quality in her animation, art, and fighting style are beyond reproach, and she might actually have the longest and most fleshed-out story mode of them all.
Skullgirls is freaky, occasionally grotesque, and packed with cheesecake, but it's also one of the most chaotically fun and visually jaw-dropping fighting games to come along in years, indie or otherwise. With online play, a wonderfully comprehensive set of tutorial stages, incredible production values, and some of the most unique and enjoyable characters the genre has ever seen, it's a game that deserves a place on any fighting fan's shelf.
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