Skullgirls first started out as a meeting of minds between an illustrator with a motive to bring his highschool doodles to life, and a pro fighting game veteran in the midst of programming his own combat engine. The result led to one of the more ambitious fighting games to have ever risen from the indie scene. Unfortunately, a bizarre lawsuit and publishing politics between overlords would not only see the redundancy of what would now become a sizeable development team but it resulted in their game being pulled from both PlayStation Network and Xbox Live Arcade.
In a wonderful turn of events, the Skullgirls team would soon resurrect themselves as Lab Zero Games – thanks to the overwhelming support from fans through a crowdfunding campaign. This aided the gang to keep their promise to further support their cherished six-button fighter to what would evolve into this more fully-fledged ‘2nd Encore’ release. It’s like being kicked into the losers bracket during a double elimination fighting game tournament only to bounce back and take the final.
It’s clear from the outset that Skullgirls 2nd Encore is a competitive fighting game made to satisfy the Marvel vs. Capcom crowd with its deep combo-heavy combat system and bizarre over-the-top moves between characters. Take Ms Fortune, for example – a nippy undead feline fighter who can detach her head and use it to set up greater damage potential during a string of attacks when placed in the right hands. Or one of two male fighters on the roster in the form of Big Band – a multi-instrumental detective crossed between a giant saxophone and Q from Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike. His unconventional style can overwhelm the opposition with trumpets and a giant tambourine, while containing armour properties during certain attacks to suit his mammoth-sized musical presence.
Skullgirls 2nd Encore is a gorgeous looking game with an incredible amount of frames of animation and an absolute joy to watch in motion. Filia’s hair has its own devilish personality while Cerebella’s sentient beefcake beret contains giant arms tailor-made for smashing and grabbing. The visually-unique roster oozes personality and despite being seven years old at this point manages to distance its art style from the congested anime scene popularised across the genre.
With that said, I’m quite torn over whether to recommend this particular game to absolute beginners to the genre. Unlike many other fighters on the market, there isn’t really a universal combo system to deviate new players into feeling like they’re accomplishing something that seems extravagant. Sure, you can link a mixture of light, medium, and heavy attacks, launch the opponent in the air and aim to repeat the combination. But the player really needs to be a bit more meticulous in button execution to truly feel rewarded. It’s a game that demands more investment in skill development to appreciate its worth, especially when compared to the absolute surface basics of something like BlazBlue Cross Tag Battle or Dragon Ball FighterZ.
The barrier becomes even thicker for the more casual player as there really isn’t an obvious or familiar bread and butter character to lean on. The timing of button inputs during strings and chains are lenient enough to manage, they just differ quite substantially between characters. Thankfully, Skullgirls 2nd Encore has an in-depth tutorial mode that covers all the universal mechanics, as well as character-specific guides to provide a good insight into their potential. The tutorials themselves do work as an incredibly helpful tool, especially for those who really want to understand fighting games in general and the deeper underpinning gameplay systems that accommodate them.
A fine example of this is the way the formula of combos is monitored not to be exploited into a broken infinite loop of attacks. If a player manages to find a repeating loop midway through a lengthy combo that would otherwise be indefensible, a combo-breaking burst mechanic becomes available to the player on the receiving end. On the other hand, the player can be educated to understand how to avoid repeating attack patterns to keep the flow in motion for longer. Furthermore, Skullgirls 2nd Encore even explains how a good enough player can potentially bait the defendant’s burst as a more advanced counter tactic within itself. The damage properties on how a combo is measured can also differ depending on whether or not the flurry began its course from a starting counter-attack. This is just a tiny watered-down example of what is far better explained in-game. However, it does make the player appreciate the mindset of how a professional competitor rides out a strategy during high-level play.
There are some really clever mechanics coded into the arteries of Skullgirls 2nd Encore that has no qualms in segregating the skilled player from the noob. This within itself is far from a bad thing if you are hungry for coordination across a more demanding playing field. Not to say a new or casual player wouldn’t benefit from the purchase as there are modes certainly catered for such a cause. The story mode provides some lore and background for each fighter while challenges, training, and combo-conundrum trials provide the breathing space to develop input muscle-memory without the fear of getting smashed online.
It isn’t difficult to tell that Skullgirls 2nd Encore has been developed by genuine hardcore fans of the genre who really understand their craft. The way the game balances out the preference of the player’s team count is something that has certainly been thought about during development. You can have up to three members of your team slog it out and depending on your opponent’s team size will determine how much damage is received or dished out. So if it’s three against one, the player with just one fighter takes much less damage with the added benefit of hitting harder. It’s a great way to even out the score for those who want to concentrate on one character at a time. However, having multiple fighters in a team may still be at a slight advantage due to the benefits of partner assist attacks executed on command.
Skullgirls 2nd Encore uses the tried and tested GGPO rollback netcode for both basic ranked matches and custom lobbies. Ping information before matchups is visible so both players are aware of how smooth the fight is going to be before diving in. Even on an average connection, online play can be very smooth indeed – which is good considering 90 percent of Nintendo Switch players are more than likely wirelessly connected to the internet. Unfortunately, I often struggled to actually find matches and frequent connection loss made me think that there may be a few server issues that need fixing. One big gripe I had was not having background searching during single-player options, which was unfortunate. I would much rather be studying hitboxes in training mode waiting for an online fight instead of staring at a dull dark screen to the annoying musical loop of trumpets.
Over the years, Skullgirls has built up a decent following across other major platforms and PC. So, to finally have it available to a whole new audience on a Nintendo console is fantastic to see. It’s a fighting game that doesn’t apologise for its learning curve as it does more than enough to teach the player to improve as long as they are willing to put the effort in. Whether it rivals some of the more famous entries in the genre on the system is of course down to personal preference. Either way, despite a rocky online experience, I had a blast with Skullgirls 2nd Encore on Nintendo Switch. Lab Zero Games truly know how to tune up a decent fighter, and I for one would love to see them revive a new Darkstalkers game that Mike Zaimont has recently been seen playfully pitching across Twitter.
Version Tested: Nintendo Switch
Review copy provided by Skybound Games