Game Info:

Skullgirls 2nd Encore
Developed by: Lab Zero Games
Published by: MarvelousAQL
Released: August 22, 2013
Available on: PC, Mac OS X, Linux, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita, Xbox 360
Genre: 2D fighter
ESRB rating: T (for blood, partial nudity, violence, use of tobacco, mild language)
Number of players: 1-2 (local or online)
Price: $14.99
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I still remember the first time I played Street Fighter II. My friends and I were at a bowling alley, and we figured we would give this new game in the arcade a try. I chose Dhalsim, and ended up beating all my friends because they couldn't get past his long limbs.

Just one quarter led to a long-time enjoyment for 2D brawlers like Street Fighter, World Heroes, Samurai Shodown and Smash Brothers. I never really got into the Mortal Kombat scene, but that's another topic entirely. I developed quite a fondness for fighting games with outlandish characters, cool-looking special attacks, and the possibility for insane combos. 

Unfortunately, if you're not gaming on a console, your choices for these are severely limited – especially for a Mac user. And some of those that do make it to the computer – aside from the aforementioned Street Fighter franchise – really aren't worth the time to play. For the most part, computer users have been left out in the cold in terms of 2D fighters, especially as the trend went to 3D, with successes like Tekken, Soul Caliber, and Dead or Alive franchises.

And then came Skullgirls. The game had its troubles at first, especially with the distribution rights, but after a rough road, the game became available as a "2nd Encore" edition. For fans of 2D brawlers like myself, it was well worth the wait.


Skullgirls 2nd Encore

Strong Points: Balanced gameplay, crazy characters, variety of game modes, nostalgic feel, and just plain fun!
Weak Points: Not all controllers supported, DLC.
Moral Warnings: Violence, sexualized characters, blood, some horrific imagery, minor occult references.

The main cast of the fighting roster consists of young women, so many people may be quick to dismiss the game as little more than fanservice. Admittedly, there is some of that in here, but those quick to dismiss it are overlooking a solid, well-developed brawler. Skullgirls delivers a game that requires just as much brains as quick reflexes, and only falls into the category of "button mashers" at the easiest difficulty levels.

The premise of the game revolves around an artifact called the Skull Heart. This mysterious object appears in the Canopy Kingdom every seven years, and the girl who can obtain it receives one wish. However, if the person who gains it makes a selfish wish or their heart isn't pure enough, they become a force of destruction known as "The Skullgirl." The Skull Heart has reappeared, and several characters have emerged with their own reasons for obtaining it. Some of the characters have dark, haunted backstories. For example....

A schoolgirl with amnesia seeks out the Skull Heart to regain her memories. She wants to learn what caused her memory loss... and how an ancient creature became fused with her skull to help her in fighting other young women.

A young orphan was enslaved, mutilated and blinded. "Rescued" by a laboratory, she was subjected to various experiments to transform her into a murderous cyborg. The only thing keeping her together is her enduring love of classic cartoons.

A police officer trying to do the right thing is betrayed by his fellow cops. He is beaten so badly that he is forced to spend the rest of his life in an iron lung. Yet his love of jazz music motivates him to turn his musical hobby into deadly weapons so he can continue his quest.

Skullgirls 2nd Encore
Score Breakdown:
Higher is better
(10/10 is perfect)

Game Score - 90%
Gameplay - 18/20
Graphics - 9/10
Sound - 9/10
Stability - 5/5
Controls - 4/5

Morality Score - 59%
Violence - 2.5/10
Language - 7/10
Sexual Content - 6.5/10
Occult/Supernatural - 7/10
Cultural/Moral/Ethical - 6.5/10

Those are just three characters in the 16-character roster, and some of the stories are even darker. However, the game swerves sharply into "black comedy" territory, because despite their apparently sinister natures, most of the characters have hilarious attacks and mannerisms. For example, the "bloodthirsty cyborg" I mentioned is a character named "Peacock," and she attacks with cream pies, drops anvils on her opponents' heads, and chucks cartoon bombs wherever she can, often with silly quips and goofy expressions. Many of the other characters also are presented in comedic fashion, from the antics of a zombie lounge singer to an undying cat girl with detachable body parts. Some of the characters are frightening in appearance and actions, but these are in the minority. 

One thing that makes them consistent is the amount of detail that was dedicated in drawing them. All the sprites are hand-drawn and animated, and the level of detail is astounding. The backgrounds are remarkable as well. The scenes in the story mode tend to be still frames, but are well drawn, too. The artist, Alex Ahad, does seem to like the characters and the world that he helped to create, and the love shows. The music is an interesting mix of jazz and big band – an odd choice for a fighting game, but in this context it works. Even the interface has an art deco flair to it. The whole atmosphere to the game tends to be antique and old, yet familiar. A lot of aspects of classic fighting games are here, from pulling back to block to the "hadoken" fireball move made famous by Street Fighter. Fighting game veterans will be quite comfortable with the game, and the style helps to add to the nostalgic feel of the game as well. And for those not familiar with the genre, Skullgirls also offers an extensive tutorial. It goes beyond just the basics and the moves of the individual characters – the tutorial also details more complicated aspects of the genre, such as air canceling and infinite combos. 

Despite what it does well, it does have an occasional fall. The game was incompatible with my Logitech Precision controller, so I had to use a third-party program in order to play it (as with most fighting games, it's extremely difficult to play with just the keyboard). And although the game comes with a roster of eight fighters, eight more are available as downloadable content, at $4.99 each. Some people may be annoyed that they don't get the "full game" for the purchase price of $14.99, but the game is perfectly playable with just the default roster, too. 

As for moral concerns... hoo boy, where to begin? Obviously, as a fighting game, the object is to beat the ever-living snot out of your fellow pugilists. Attacking people with severed body parts does occur – and is actually part of Ms. Fortune's schtick – as well as blood that appears during the course of the game. In the story mode, some characters are shown with extreme, bloody trauma, and even are murdered as part of the story. Not to post any obvious spoilers, but the main boss of the game is fought in an ossuary under a church, so there is the presence of undead and lots of skeletons. Some of the characters wear skimpy clothing, and those that wear dresses  or skirts often show their underwear. This includes the 13-year-old Peacock, but as she wears ankle-length bloomers, this is more for comedic purposes than fanservice. Most of the women – especially those with exposed cleavage – tend to jiggle in their idle poses and during some attacks. The language is about even with prime-time TV. Each character has a different icon associated with them, and one of the characters – Parasoul – has an icon of an inverted cross. There isn't any other occult symbolism associated with this particular character, though, so its placement seems odd, to say the least. Finally, one of the characters, known as Double, appears to be some sort of eldrich abomination shapeshifter. Her realm is called "Gehenna," which is synonymous in the Jewish tradition to "hell." She masquerades as a nun and religious leader for the "church of the Trinity" – no, not [i]that[/i] Trinity. The three female figures depicted in the stained glass of that stage certainly are not that of the Father, the Son or the Holy Ghost. In fact, one of those female figures looks similar to Double's real appearance. Her "true form" while she is fighting is bizarre – and vaguely feminine – but her appearance during some of the story modes can be truly nightmare inducing. Yes, there are some villains you can play in the game, and they are about as bad as they come. Needless to say, this is not really a game for children, and some Christians may take pause with some of the aspects of the game as well.

With the moral concerns aside though, Skullgirls in an incredible game – both a tribute to the history of the 2D fighter, and a solid brawler that can stand proudly with the likes of Street Fighter and Smash Brothers. It will be interesting to see where Lab Zero Games goes from here with this fantastic start.