Skullgirls Review: Fluid, Competitive, and Full of Over-the-Top Fanservice

Any fan of fighting games knows that the genre offers a lot of options these days — almost too many. With a new fighter poised to be the next competitive masterpiece coming out seemingly every month, each new contender needs to offer something to set it apart from the rest.

Skullgirls gives us plenty of reasons to pick it up, with Mike Z — project lead, designer and long-time competitive fighting game player — addressing many of the common problems that have plagued the genre for decades now. It’s a very solid and fun fighter overall. At the same time, though, a few of the basic features we’ve come to expect in fighters are mysteriously absent, and the polarizing visual style can make it difficult to convince others to give the game a shot no matter how much you enjoy the game.

Click the image above to check out all Skullgirls screens.

We’ve all been spoiled as of late with 40-plus characters in most modern fighting games, so players will immediately be struck by the size of Skullgirls’ roster. With only eight characters, chances are you may not be drawn to one right off the bat. I typically like to play bad dudes like Sagat and Kazuya, but there aren’t any of those here. So, I ended up bouncing between Valentine and Parasoul before finally settling on Fillia.

Once you play a few matches, you’ll quickly see that a lot is going on with Skullgirls. Each character possesses a deceptive array of options and attacks. The gameplay system is closest to that of the Marvel vs. Capcom series as it utilizes chain combos, wall bounces, OTGs, wave dashes, and various forms of air mobility. Each character has her own unique play style and movement options — even more so than most other fighting games on the market — which more than makes up for the small roster size.

Fillia has an air dash and plays somewhat like Magneto from the Vs. series, while Cerabella is a grappler that has a moveset much like Potemkin from Guilty Gear. Sentinel players will feel right at home with Painwheel, as she’s the only character to offer flight options. This makes her one of the stronger characters right out of the gate due to her fly/unfly mix-up abilities.

If you’d rather play from a distance you might be drawn to Peacock, a zoning character where many of her moves are a nod to another video game, a cartoon, or some Internet meme or another. Ms. Fortune is easily the most unique character in the game, as she can remove her head and use it to attack an opponent from various angles, which makes for some insane combos and mix-ups.

Even after you find a character who suits your style, you’ll want to consider picking up another for backup. Though the game can be played one-on-one, it utilizes a ratio system that allows you to pick up to three characters, which in turn enables access to assist attacks. While we have yet to see how the game will be played at a competitive level long-term, even now it seems having an assist is a huge advantage over simply playing a single powerful character. You can even customize each assist to any of the characters’ attacks by inputting the joystick motion — another really well-thought-out feature not found in most other fighting games.

Regardless of how you form your team, once everything clicks the game plays very fluidly, naturally encouraging creative offense patterns and combos. That said, if you’re still having problems wrapping your mind around how everything works after a handful of matches, the developers have included a fantastic tutorial mode… probably the best in any fighting game to date. The tutorial in Skullgirls goes far beyond what you’re used to seeing elsewhere, as it actually teaches you how to play fighting games as a whole — defending against mix-ups, confirming hits, punishing unsafe attacks — while still addressing the specific gameplay elements found here.

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The attention to detail doesn’t stop there, as Skullgirls includes a number of handy features that truthfully should have been present in other fighting games for years. The button config is spot-on as it allows you to map each attack by simply tapping a button instead of scrolling through a list like most other games. There is also an accidental pause-prevention feature that forces you to hold the start button to get to the pause menu, which is great news for tournament players.

Reverge Labs also decided to go with GGPO to power the netcode. This is the same netcode found in Street Fighter III: Third Strike Online edition and results in netplay that is about as close as you can get to playing local matches.

Yet for everything that the game does right, you’ll be left wondering why certain features are left out. The biggest omission is lack of an in-game move list. This may not sound like a big deal as you can just hit the web to find the moves, but this may not occur to newer players, who will be left wondering how to perform certain special moves or how they caused an attack in the first place. Even I was a little irritated to find that I couldn’t simply press Start to learn a character’s super or see a full list of special attacks.

Click the image above to check out all Skullgirls screens.

Also, for the life of me, I couldn’t find a dummy recording feature in training mode, which I found to be odd considering how much this game is designed around tournament player feedback. This is a feature found in most modern fighting games and is crucial for competitive players to recreate certain set-ups and see what attacks are punishable or completely safe. In fact, the dummy can’t be set to do anything like blocking high or low, jumping, performing specific movements.

Beyond that, Skullgirls offers no input display in training mode, either, which is yet another strange omission. This isn’t a huge deal, but it’s always nice to see where you are messing up when performing more complex combos or attack patterns. All in all, these omissions don’t take away from the overall experience, and the fact that you can view hit boxes and the hit stun of each attack in training mode more than makes up for their absence.

First impressions are important. So I know how easy it could be to pass Skullgirls off as gimmicky anime fighter due to the over-the-top fanservice, but fighting fans should suspend their judgement and give the game a shot. It’s one of the most solid fighters to come out in the past few years. Even with its small roster, Skullgirls is an absolute steal for 15 bucks and feels far more complete than some full $60 retail games.

Competitive players will be more than pleased with Skullgirls’ gameplay system, and it teaches beginner players things about the genre they wouldn’t have learned otherwise without attending tournaments or digging through pages of forum posts. The learning curve is perfect as it isn’t inaccessible to newer players, but it also doesn’t feel dumbed down and avoids alienating experts.

Bigger developers should take notes, as Skullgirls is an incredible value. The game is doing the entire genre a favor by acting as a blueprint for what should be expected from developers when releasing a fighting game. There is no excuse now for wonky button configs, lackluster tutorial modes, or sub-par netplay. If a PSN/XBL downloadable title can knock it out of the park on all fronts there is no reason these features shouldnt be standard in other fighting games moving forward.

Skullgirls isn’t perfect but with more characters on the way and many of the issues mentioned above being addressed via DLC, in time I’m confident this will be one of the most attractive fighters on the market.

By Neidel Crisan

inFamous: Festival of Blood is a Quirky Little Standalone Halloween Special

A universal problem with canon — whether for a video game, a television series, a saga in either graphic or prose novel form — is that it takes commitment and following to fully enjoy. A property with a deep canon rewards those who have followed from the beginning and can pick up on all the jokes, references, “previously ons”, and so forth. But if you haven’t been actively following said property, then such a thing might appear daunting; which leads to, “nah, I didn’t play the others, so I’ll skip this one.” One solution that other media has provided is the standalone special: a frivolous holiday themed adventure that requires little knowledge and has no bearing on the story. Think Star Wars: Holiday Special or It’s The Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown. inFamous: Festival of Blood presents itself as a video game equivalent of such.

Festival of Blood has no particular time or place — it simply chronicles a tall tale told from faithful sidekick Zeke to a prospective woman at a bar. In an attempt to snare her, Zeke goes off about Pyre Night, a local festival in New Marais, and Cole MacGrath’s solitary crappy night celebrating it. That is, how Cole gets bitten by Bloody Mary, a local vampire queen, and spends the whole night trying to figure out how to break free from turning into her vampire thrall.

With the positioning of being a mostly fake tale in the first place, one can safely play this standalone download without worrying about spoiling anything — not even the power set. Cole gains some vampire-specific abilities here — namely the ability to turn into a swarm of bats for true flight within the level and a vampiric vision to detect secrets and fellow vampires in hiding — and a select array of traditionally “evil” powers such as tripwire rockets and multiple grenades. The core infamous games have emphasized player choice, but for this side-adventure, the vampire premise means that Cole plays all-evil-all-the-time.

The restriction to playing as an evil Cole, rather than a Cole whose karma you shape, also somewhat applies to this download as a whole. Rather than give you the entire real estate of inFamous 2 to play in, you’re confined to the opening district of New Marais — districts such as Flood Town or the Bayou are locked away. Additionally, there aren’t side missions in the traditional sense: every traditional mission advances the plot, and finishing the story unlocks a suite of User-Generated-Content missions. Rather than collect a bajillion blast shards, Cole can collect a smaller amount of Canopic Jars to increase his blood supply (which regulates some of the new vampire-specific powers). “Mary’s Teachings” serve as the audio-diary type of collectible rather than Dead Drops.

Besides the vampire/Halloween-themed aesthetics, the enemies have been changed around. Cole will tackle grody Nosferatu-looking vampires who sport shotguns or shurikens; some fast-moving shrieking vampires packing uzis along with maneuverability; and hidden Firstborn vampires who, when revealed, resemble Man-Bat-on-steroids. Players familiar with the inFamous games will appreciate how these foes move and fight significantly different than in either previous game.

On my first playthrough, it takes a little over two hours from start to finish to see the story’s conclusion. And I ultimately feel the same way as if I had watched a Halloween special or bought a Halloween-themed oneshot. It’s an entertaining, but inconsequential two hours — it would have been nice for some way to have Festival of Blood talk with vanilla inFamous 2. Maybe add a toggle to add the vampiric foes to the core game so that we can check out vampires in the other regions, or how it would feel to stake a vampire after using freezing powers from the core game. Then again, maybe that’s just not technically feasible — though it’s the first thing I notice after the story’s conclusion. I probably also have Capcom’s Dead Rising 2: Case Zero in my mind, since that was a similarly priced standalone download that affected the core game it was attached to.

For those hoping that this continues or moves the inFamous 2 story somewhat, know in advance that this is a random side story that starts-and-ends on its own. If anything, this seems to be a great way to see how inFamous 2 plays and feels by only spending 10 bucks rather than the full 60. It’s a cheap entry point into some of infamous 2′s core mechanics without committing to a full price open world. Though, it ultimately finds itself in a quirky spot between the earlier-mentioned Case Zero and the content-rich Undead Nightmare for Red Dead Redemption. But while little standalone side stories can introduce lasting elements, like Boba Fett showing up in the Star Wars Holiday Special, those looking for something that actually extends the core game might want to hold off on this Halloween tall tale.

By Thierry Nguyen

Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing PS3/360 Review

With Super Mario Kart, Nintendo proved that game mascots can still be in great games outside their “regular jobs.” Since then, Mario’s now-friendly rival, Sonic, has tried to keep up (pun not intended). The bog-standard Sonic Drift series on Game Gear and the well-liked, but still baffling, on-foot racer Sonic R were far from grasping the potential of a great Sonic racing game (and who knows what they were going for with Sonic Riders). How can a character known for speed not properly harness it? Well, in their latest attempt, Sega has decided to throw the blue needlemouse back onto the track with a host of friends from other Sega universes; Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing is a racing game that’s the best any of its characters have been in yet, but it serves more as a gift to Sega fans than to all-ages kart racing players.

It is quite a gift, though. There’s Sonic, of course, and Tails, Knuckles, Amy… and Big the Cat, who’s somewhere on the short list of Most Hated Sonic Characters. But outside of that group, there’s the other “All-Stars” like Super Monkey Ball’s Aiai, Billy Hatcher, Amigo, Jet Set Radio’s Beat, and even more relatively obscure characters available for purcahse with earned “Sega Miles”: Ulala, Jacky, and Akira from Virtua Fighter; shallow, Shenmue protagonist Ryo Hazuki; Fantasy Zone’s sentient ship Opa-Opa; and many more surprising appearances. (Just no anthropomorphic Daytona car.) It’s a great, varied roster that pretty much confirms developer Sumo Digital as the best professional Sega fan around.

Click the image above to check out all Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing screens.

However, it’s a safe bet that many players (young and old) will probably go straight for Sonic or any of his other immediate friends, and wonder who the hell Billy Hatcher is (which is what happened to every single person that saw me playing the game as him — hey, he’s a good starter character). Sega scholars will love the characters and myriad other references to the company’s best games, but a wider audience won’t give two shakes.

To its credit, All-Stars Racing couldn’t be simpler to play: You have the buttons/triggers for accelerating, braking (more like an instant drift), and just one extra button for activating power-ups. Unsurprisingly, like Mario Kart, drift boosting becomes an integral part of gunning for first place; you just angle your car long enough to activate a secondary boost that pushes you a little farther ahead of the pack. Players who absolutely need to win will be drifting almost the entire time they’re on the track, so mastering it is essential, especially if you’re competing online. The only weird thing about the mechanic is that it’s hard to tell when the boost is active and you can let go of the trigger — a faint, high-pitched “pew” can be heard and your exhaust turns to a tiny blue flame. But neither are very obvious among the rest of the game’s noise and flash, not to mention that some characters get their boost earlier than others.

The game’s course design is as equally brilliant as the character selection, with lots of color and detail (yes, even in the Wii version) that’s super faithful to the characters and games they represent (with the added bonus of notable music tracks from those games). They can be a little too faithful, though, especially in the case of the Monkey Ball tracks, which feature lots of hairpin curves and other track variations to keep you on your toes.

Multiplayer is a critical part of any kart racer, and All-Stars fills the gap, but doesn’t do a lot with it. Beyond regular races, the “battle” modes are the standard toss-items-and-hit-your-opponent variety; they can quickly devolve into unorganized chaos, or at worst, just not go anywhere for a while. Take the King of the Hill mode: clever on paper, but in practice, it’s often a game of chasing your opponents into a corner or staying in the protected zone for all of a second. Granted, Mario Kart’s multiplayer games aren’t wholly dependent on skill, either, and it would be largely passable in All-Stars, if only they didn’t all take place on the same set of stages. The areas seem designed to be as neutral and accommodating to all the modes as possible but, in fact, hardly fit perfectly at all. Some actual time to design custom stages for the separate modes would have made the multiplayer portion of the game seem like less of an afterthought.

Click the image above to check out all Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing screens.

All-Stars Racing is also held back by an inconsistent framerate that hampers the game’s feeling of speed (not to mention the appreciation of some of the nicer-looking tracks). It’s especially odd coming from Sumo, who have created multiple arcade-perfect versions of OutRun 2 and know their way around racing games in general. The spotty framerate doesn’t make the game horribly unplayable, but discerning players will easily write off the whole thing because of it.

Though it has some hiccups, unexciting party modes, and a questionable difficulty curve, All-Stars Racing is a respectable effort that makes a good kart racer at its core (and is at least much more cohesive than Sega Superstars Tennis). But, again, it’s storied Sega fans that will get the most out of the game — because, really, who else is going to recognize or care about racing as the cartoon lovers from the Japan-only House of the Dead EX?

Well, I do.

The Banjo Factor

Owners of the Xbox 360 version of All-Stars Racing get immediate access to Rare’s Banjo and Kazooie as guest characters (really though, it’s just Banjo; Kazooie only shows up during special animations). While they’re a nice extra, don’t consider it a huge boon for the Xbox faithful. For being a bonus racer, there’s nothing advantageous about playing as Banjo — his stats are arguably below average, including some undesirable handling. You’re better off continuing to save Sega Miles for the character you really want to play as.

By Ray Barnholt

Dungeon Siege 3 Review

One of the reasons I always enjoyed the Dungeon Siege series is because long, drawn-out plot explanations aren’t necessary when beating the crap out of people and collecting loot. That, or I have distorted and fond memories of Dungeon Siege 2: walking up to my character’s destroyed farm, and immediately being told to pick up a weapon and kill anything that attacks me. Beat up a bunch of people? Sure, I can do that. Combat has always been the best part of these games for me. This time around, an overarching storyline gets half-heartily forced down your throat.

Dungeon Siege 3 borrows the conversation-driven storytelling approach from Mass Effect, without having as much of an influence on what occurs. Sure, there are moments where you can choose what sort of response is merited, or what action to take on, say, a prisoner of war, but these options are limited. To be frank, the fruition of your choices aren’t made apparent until the very end of the game — and with lifeless storyboard cut-scenes no less. Because of this strange disconnect (from realizing the impact of your decisions until the end), the story seems easily dismissable.

Initially, I did my best to pay close attention to the storyline. Yet the first hour or two makes this task a bit grueling; my main gripe is with how much time it takes to fill you in on what’s going on. The cut-scenes are long and dull; they throw so many awkward names at you; and it’s particularly challenging when you’re with a co-op partner and are waiting for the dry presentation to end. Of course, this issue gets mitigated with the cut-scene skip option. Other factors that help a bit include plenty of scattered book segments to pick up and read that provide additional morsels on what’s going on around you (somethingI enjoyed in Dungeon Siege 2); and how lore gets s collected and can be read at any time in the menu screen when I had confusion.

Luckily, the pace eventually picks up with the offering of side-quests and interesting boss battles that actually hook me. For the sake of getting myself into more combat situations (not for story elements), I play every single side-quest I came across — which then gets me addicted to leveling up Katarina (one of four playable characters, and the typical ranged character while the other fulfill similar magic and melee roles) and discovering how useful each of her abilities is. It’s not until my encounter with a Lescanzi witch that I start to warm up to taking dialogue choices seriously. Another interesting layer is how Dungeon Siege 3 gives players a chance to perform “deeds.” Based on the decisions made in discussions with other characters, the game then awards you with additional stamina, agility, and so forth. In the case of the witch, I give her ownership of a manor — which results in a boost to my will stat.

Strangely though, my most boring experience of the campaign happens during online co-op. I start a new campaign with a friend, and Dungeon Siege 3 surprisingly doesn’t accommodate appropriately for that. The tutorial screens never appear unless you are playing alone. I initially had no idea how large of an oversight this is until I have my co-op partner drop out of my game. It’s a shame too, because I believe the first few hours I loathed would have been spared of irritation if this wasn’t the case. For instance, when my friend and I first level up, we feel lost on how to upgrade our character’s abilities. Which result in us making a lot of careless decisions — unlocking skills with little thought. Also, I realize later rather than sooner how to utilize all of Katarina’s combative talents, once I make it through all of the tutorial screens alone.

Click the image above to check out all Dungeon Siege 3 screens.

The most meaningful piece of advice I can give you (from personal experience) is to choose your co-op partner wisely. An hour’s worth of discovered loot and acquired gold was put to waste in less than a minute when my cheeky coworker Jose visited a shop — I learned the hard way that your teammate can sell the items you don’t have equipped at any time. Oh, and money is shared with the whole party as well; I only noticed this when I tried to equip a new midriff-revealing corset for Katarina — I witnessed every item disappear suddenly.

If Jose wasn’t playing with me online, I could have punched him. On the upside, it’s easy to have friends drop in and out at any time — so I quickly told him to get the hell out. From there on out, I continued on alone. Initially, I worried that I would have a hard time getting through each quest without help, but the game compensates via a lot of save points. On top of that convenience, my A.I. party member needed revival only a handful of times during my entire playthrough.

Obsidian’s attempt at adding story elements fails to impress this time — which stands out even more due to how plenty of other RPGs (especially Obsidian’s) pull off a much better narrative. At most, the combat remains as fun as ever, and I enjoy playing the campaign as Katarina — seeing how quickly she drained health bars with her guns becomes a satisfying experience. It’s just unfortunate, though, that other factors such as the not-very-engaging story or the awkward co-op mechanics mar the “kill whatever that moves” experience of previous games.

By Tina Palacios