The barrier to entry for high-level digital pugilism is bloody tough to break down. The jargon used to describe how these games are played and how they're discussed is like an alien language to most, especially those who stepped away from 2D scrapping when Tekken arrived. If you returned with chunky Chun Li and company in Street fighter IV, you've probably been left in a wilderness of cr.HKs, supercancels and chain links. It's a scary place to be.

Skullgirls is here to save these poor lost souls. Well, it's here to educate them at least. If you're serious about wanting to get your head around all this jargon and really understanding what makes fighting games tick - what really ¬makes them tick - then Skullgirls' fantastic tutorial should be mandatory. After a couple of easy lessons (how to move, how to, er, jump), it starts giving you detailed examples of the arts of chaining, punishing, mix-ups and command throws, all in plain and simple English, and all with tests that don't require the dexterity of Inspector Gadget to perform. Brilliant stuff.

It's needed too, because Skullgirls is not a fighting game for the faint of heart or the slow of mind. A quick jump into the single-player 'story' will show you why, as all but the fighter-literate will suffer a furious beatdown even on the easiest difficulty. This is a proper 2D fighter for proper 2D fighters, one where systems and timings rule all, and you'd better not even dream about bringing button mashing fingers to the party else you'll be turfed onto the street with a couple of black eyes and few missing teeth.

This hardcore sensibility is masked by Skullgirls' gloriously unique sense of style, which sees S+M, Art Deco, Hollywood's Golden Age and Tex Avery cartoons blended together into a kind of boob-fuelled hallucination. What may look like anime wank-fodder at first, though, is actually one of the most distinct and confident aesthetics any fighting game has managed in years. Quite where this idea came from is anyone's guess, but it's certainly striking.

Not that it matters, particularly, as Skullgirls is so fixated on the purity of 2D battle that they might as well all be stickmen fighting on graph paper. Each of its nine characters fits neatly into a genre archetype, so you've got Parasoul's awkward zoning, Painwheel's furious rushdown and Cerebella's up-close-and-personal grappling attack. Not that you'd know without some serious time investment, as Skullgirls mystifyingly doesn't include move lists for its characters in-game, meaning you have to go to the official website and download a PDF just so you can work out how to chuck a fireball. Such a curious oversight, especially given the quality of the tutorial.

When you do get a few specials under your belt, though, the quality starts to shine. It's might not have the razzamatazz of Marvel vs. Capcom or the legacy of Street Fighter IV, but Skullgirls is still a blast to play. Most of the action revolves around long combo chains, giving it a Killer Instinct vibe at times, and landing a 30+ hitter on a prone opponent is as satisfying as it is taxing on your violence hand.

Cleverly, Skullgirls is a tag game too, but only if you want it to be. You can choose to bring three weakened combatants into the field, or cut it down to two beefier battlers. If you're feeling particularly confident, you can just choose one super-powered lady with which to do harm. It's surprisingly well-balanced, too, considering the inconsistencies this could throw up, and helps make online fisticuffs nice and varied (which itself is GGPO powered and largely lag-free).

Skullgirls is not a game for everyone. It's a great stepping stone if you're looking to really improve on your overall fighting game skills, and it's a meticulously well-made effort in its own right. Just like the dominatrixes flaunting and frolicking about on the screen, though, it's just a little too weird and demanding to fall in love with.

Version Tested: Xbox 360