Skul: The Hero Slayer released out of Early Access to some tough competition. It’s a golden age for action-based roguelikes. Since 2011’s The Binding of Issac, players have been enamored with these punishing titles where death is permanent, character growth is slow but consistent, and beating the game happens in one good run with no save points. More recently, Dead Cells and Hadesboth shifted the landscape. Dead Cells’ fluid combat, wide weapon selection, and great pixel graphics turned heads for the toughened. Hades swept in a new wave of fans last year with captivating animated graphics, evolving narrative, and difficulty/accessibility settings that made the game approachable for a wider player base.
Those things said: wow, does Skul shine.
Slay those heroes in style
Skul: The Hero Slayer is developed by Korean studio SouthPAW Games and published by Neowiz. The game places you in control of Skul, a tiny skeleton tasked with beating back the oncoming hordes of humans. With the Demon King captured and the powerful Senators locked away across the realm, Skul starts off with nothing but a bone to club enemies with. Luckily, Skul’s also got a special ability: he can replace his own head with another skeleton’s. Swapping heads gives Skul a completely new body with new powers, weapons, and movements. With an arsenal of two swappable skulls, a magic orb for special abilities, and up to nine passive equipment items, Skul’s customization is a highlight of the game.
Like many roguelikes, chance can play a role in a successful run. Some skulls will fit your playstyle more than others, and skulls range in rarity (and power) from Common to Legendary. Discovering new skulls can be one of the best parts of the game because they’re more than just new weapons to uncover. Skul packs a ton of references and fun into its skulls, making some off-the-wall and hilarious, while others wield awe-inspiring power (here’s looking at you, Grim Reaper).
That doesn’t even account for Unique skulls, which range from the Predator (from the movie franchise) to an electric-guitar wielding Rock Star that can summon a full rock band. Still, even given the wide gap in styles, each skull feels balanced. Regardless of power, a Legendary skull isn’t an automatic trip to the end boss. There’s still plenty of skill required even when luck is on your side.
Some Skul-scratching complexity
Skul: The Hero Slayer definitely leans more towards Hades than Dead Cells (the Headless from Dead Cells is actually a skull in the game, even). This means you won’t find adaptable difficulty, just tough encounters that take some persistence to fight through. On top of that, the game’s item system is COMPLEX. The game doesn’t give you much tutorial to learn how it works, but each item can play a key role in your run.
Each skull comes with a standard attack, up to two special abilities, and a special attack activated when you swap that skull in. Magic orbs have a passive ability and an active skill. Each piece of equipment has a passive ability as well as two bonus passives that become stronger with matching equipment. Most skulls can also be upgraded along the way as well with bones (currency gained from sacrificing extra skulls). If that sounds like a lot to take in…well, it is. But like many good roguelikes, it’s the combination of quick reflexes with thoughtful item choices that takes you far.
That said, for players looking for a Hades-quality story, you’ll need to look elsewhere. Cutscenes in Skul: The Hero Slayer are generally sentimental, with the witch that serves as Skul’s guide recounting his history with the Demon King and such. It’s certainly more story than Dead Cells, but narrative beats are only triggered by clearing bosses. For folks moving over from Hades and its rich pantheon of non-combat characters, this could be a sharp change. I wish that I had more story-based moments to attach me to the game’s world, but I keep coming back since it’s so fun anyway.
Skul sets a high bar for 2021
The world of Caerleon is alive with vivid, detailed pixel art. The soundtrack energizes, with plenty of instrumental tunes that I’d be happy to listen to outside the game. And, certainly like a game where your character can throw his own head at baddies, it doesn’t take itself too seriously. When you die, a message displays on the screen saying “The enemy gained EXP from this.” Mini-bosses play on gaming tropes by yelling names of their attacks and chugging health potions mid-battle. I’d love to see more story beats between the characters, but I understand that most players are going to come to Skul for the combat. Those players likely won’t be disappointed.
Skul: The Hero Slayer is yet another example of a game using its Early Access period to craft a great game with the help of player feedback and some seriously development magic. Though I’d still love more narrative to carry me through the tough times, the variety in combat and stellar design left me way too thrilled. I’m looking forward to slaying many more heroes to come.
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