Skullgirls 2nd Encore is finally available on PS Vita and PS TV, and while the following phrase has become all but too common with new releases on the Vita platform, it’s “much better late than never”.Not that there haven’t been justifiable reasons for the delay; following the title’s original release on PlayStation Network and Xbox Live in 2012, subsequent updates and releases were held back by unforeseen litigation against one of the game’s publishers which froze much of the its funding, and its digital distribution was temporarily halted by a parting of ways with its other original publisher, Konami, after the Japanese company failed to promptly patch the game on console.  In other words, developer Lab Zero Games’ labour of fighting game love has been through what can only be called post-release hell, and it’s only through the wonders of crowdfunding and the heroic stepping-in of new publishers Marvelous and Cyberfront that Skullgirls even made it to a first encore, the second even more so.  It’s an underdog tale that makes you want to root for the game before you’ve even played it.

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Thankfully, if you are a fan of old-school, Capcom arcade-style fighters then you’ll find plenty to like about 2nd Encore without needing to know anything of its development.  2nd Encore’s gameplay is closely modeled after that of Marvel vs. Capcom 2 (MvC2), while retaining the classic six-button configuration of the Street Fighter games, which grant players Light, Medium and Heavy variations of both punches and kicks.  To say 2nd Encore’s mechanics borrow heavily from those games would be an understatement; practically everything—from basic to advanced movements like blocking, mid-air-jumping, dashing and special moves such as uppercuts and fireballs—is directly lifted from “The World Warrior” playbook. Likewise, MvC2 standards like forming a team of up to three fighters and the ability to tag one or more of them in to take a fighter’s place or set up a devastating combo attack are also in full effect.  To be frank, 2nd Encore wears its Capcom plagiarism like a badge of honour, only bothering to invent new names for only a handful of the game’s signature elements, like the “Dramatic Tension Meter” (read “Super Meter”), the Drama Gauge (a “Combo Breaker Gauge”) and Blockbuster Attacks (read Super Moves).

While 2nd Encore’s gameplay will prove to be a known quality for experienced fighting game enthusiasts, the game’s visual style is where it truly stands out on its own, for better or worse.  On one hand, the game boasts a refreshing, anime-meets-Disney-meets-Art-Deco art style and impressive character animations; the latter highly reminiscent of the disturbingly beautiful characters from Capcom’s Darkstalkers fighting game series.  On the other hand, the game is a prime example of what happens when most North American artists try to mimic Japanese manga or anime; they go overboard.  Visually, there’s too much excess and “fan service”.  As the title “Skullgirls” suggests, most of the game’s cast are female, and not only do Lab Zero’s designs predictably pander to well-worn anime tropes like the “busty schoolgirl”, the “sexy nun” and the “oversexed S&M nurse”, but they overdo the panty-shots and cleavage spilling over tight clothing to the point that it’s irritating, if not offensive.  Also, the game’s dark tones, “stabby” violence and its penchant for macabre twists on these tropes heighten the creep factor to an uncomfortable level.  Ms. Fortune, for example, is an immortal, dismembered cat-girl whose body often separates into chunks while fighting, and Double is a demon inhabiting the body of a nun who starts every fight by turning her body inside-out into a sinewy, malformed mess.  A more fundamental problem however is that character sprites shrink and balloon in size depending on what move they’re performing because the overall scale isn’t consistent, which makes it hard to read and grow accustomed to character moves on screen.  Big Band, the largest male character in the game, is by far the worst offender, sucking up most of the screen real estate whenever he performs an attack and pummelling players to death before they can even figure out what is actually happening.  But, clearly there are a lot of fans that love the style of Skullgirls so I suppose it’s an acquired taste.  At least the jazz-infused soundtrack headlined by composer Michiru Yamane (of Castlevania fame) is catchy enough to keep old-school gamers’ ears engaged, and the new, fully-voiced stories accompanying each fighter are well-drawn and genuinely entertaining (though some might gross you out; Eliza the Egyptian priestess’s campaign is an especially skin-peelin’ good time).

Another positive thing that caught me off guard is the depth of 2nd Encore’s surprisingly robust Training Mode, which does a very good job of explaining the essentials and teaching the combos and special moves of each character.  This is usually a shallow, throw-away mode in other fighters, but players that wisely invest the time to complete the various sections of Training Mode won’t simply emerge as better Skullgirls players but as better fighting game players in general too.

Lamentably, 2nd Encore‘s deep technical focus makes it a less-than-ideal fit for the Vita platform, at least in this reviewer’s opinion.  At the end of the day, 2nd Encore is an old-school, 6-button fighter rooted in the tradition of Street Fighter and as such its button layout is at its most precise and reliable when the game is played in that fashion.  Lab Zero has done an admirable job compensating for the Vita’s more “compromised” button setup by allowing programmable macros for both the front screen and shoulder buttons, but if you’re a purist that’s already accustomed to playing Skullgirls or other fighting games on a stick or fightpad, you’ll likely find the controls on the Vita frustrating.  PS TV-owning purists will also be dismayed to learn that the PS4 version’s much celebrated support for third-party PS3 sticks does not apply to the PS TV version, so if your sole means of playing 2nd Encore is on a PS TV, a DualShock 3 or DualShock 4 are the only control options that will be available for you and your couch buddy.

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As such, Skullgirls 2nd Encore is a much easier purchase to recommend to a PS Vita or PS TV owner who already owns Skullgirls Encore on PS3 or owns a PS4, thanks to cross-buy.  Anyone who purchases the PS4 or PS Vita/PS TV version gets the other version for free, and as they are both cross-play-compatible with the PS3 version, any player in the Skullgirls community can potentially challenge any other player, regardless of their Sony platform, using his or her preferred control method.  But anyone serious about jumping into Skullgirls and actually getting good at it will need to face a harsh reality.  With the PS3 and PS4 versions of Skullgirls having been out on those platforms for over two years and nearly one year respectively, pro-players that have had a huge head start are currently stalking the online lobbies looking for fresh meat to infinite-combo into oblivion.  So if you’re going to learn how to play Skullgirls from scratch, you’d best do it on your PS4 with a stick or fightpad and save the Vita version for that boring commute on public transit or that extra-long lineup at the bank.  Stiff online competition aside however, if you own both a Vita and a PS4, you can’t really go wrong picking up this game.