The humans of Caerleon have invaded the Demon King’s realm and are decimating his skeleton forces. Jump into the bones of Skul, a simple but remarkably adaptable skeleton warrior, to try and save his friends in this brand new action roguelike from Korean studio SouthPAW Games.
Skul: The Hero Slayer is available now on Steam.
NB: The game came out of Early Access and updated to v1.0 while I was reviewing it – I believe everything written pertains to the current build of the game, but if anything seems out of place, that’s why.
Story – What Makes a Hero?
The Demon King’s castle has been left in tatters after an alliance of humans stormed it and took its inhabitants prisoner. All, that is, but one lone skeleton. He might not seem like much, but the responsibility of saving his people from the menacing threat of the Imperial Army and the Hero of Caerleon falls squarely on his shoulders, and he’s not giving up any time soon. It’s up to Skul to force their armies back, fight off the heroes and adventurers who are queuing up to cause trouble using the power of the mysterious Black Quartz, and rescue your diabolical monarch from certain doom.
Skul provides a fun narrative backdrop for its roguelike gameplay, and it’s nice to see an innovative reversal of the traditional good-vs-evil story. While you do play from the ‘evil’ point of view, rather than being a joyfully sadistic approach to being the bad guy in the vein of Destroy All Humans or Dungeon Keeper, it does a good job of presenting the ‘good guys’ as pretty menacing on their own merits. The First Hero and his sidekicks run the gamut from lofty zealots to self-obsessed dunces to frighteningly cruel degenerates, and you really feel a sense throughout that if you don’t fight these guys off, it’s going to be curtains for you and your pals. That said, the writing isn’t afraid to be gently funny in places too, and there’s a quiet thread of silliness running through even with all the carnage.
A small quibble with the writing lies simply in the number of typos strewn throughout. Obviously a large amount of your time will be taken up with the action of the game rather than reading so it’s not a deal-breaker by any means, but even now I’m not entirely sure, for example, whether the evil human empire is supposed to be Caerleon or Carleon. Incidentally, I’ve chosen Caerleon for this review as it appears to be on most of the marketing material, but throughout the game it’s almost always (but not always) written as Carleon, so who knows? It’s a small point, but it did occasionally serve to take me out of the zone while playing.
Gameplay – Two Heads Are Better Than One
Skul is a roguelike, so expect to play through the same levels a lot, making incremental progress before dying and being sent back to the start, gradually unlocking helpful tools and upgrades back at your home base to make your subsequent journeys a little easier. As you journey out into enemy-filled lands you’ll come across a handful of friendly NPCs who will migrate back to the Demon King’s castle to help you out on your runs, like the Witch, a buxom sorceress with an affinity for cats who allows you to permanently increase stats like your physical and magical damage or your health, and the Fox Hunter, a grouchy vulpine head-vendor who gives you a free skull to start off your run with a little extra firepower.
By default, you have a melee attack, a dash, and a double jump, but the truly original – and fun – mechanic at play here is the ability to swap out Skul’s, well, skull, changing your look and granting new and fun abilities in the process. Personal favourites included the Rock Star, where Skul attacks by rocking out on his guitar, the Rider, which is a motorbike-riding, chain-wielding, flaming-headed nightmare who is definitely legally distinct from Marvel’s Ghost Rider, and the Grim Reaper, which is pretty much what it says on the can.
You can have two skulls in your possession at once and can swap between them at will, with a short cooldown. Also squirrelled away in your inventory are up to nine artifacts that grant a variety of passive bonuses, and a type of item called a ‘quintessence’ which provides an extra ability with which to wreak havoc. The abilities granted to you by your skulls and your quintessence also have cooldowns of varying lengths rather than something like an MP cost, encouraging you to use them while generally stopping them from becoming so overpowered and overused that the gameplay gets boring.
The game leans heavily into the idea of its procedurally-generated content. Levels are stitched together from a list of possible maps and screens, ensuring that you’ll never have quite the same journey twice, although there are certain constants along the way: you’ll always find a shop screen, for example, or fight an adventurer or one of the screen-filling bosses at roughly the same spot on each run. The abilities and bonuses you receive from your gear are also semi-randomised: while, for example, the Werewolf skull will always increase your move speed, it will pick an active ability at random from a pool of 3 or 4, so there’s always an element of chance at play.
It’s that luck component that is, in some ways, Skul’s weakness, though. The difficulty of the game can vary wildly depending simply on whether the random number generator is in your favour: if you get a powerful Rare or Legendary skull early on it can carry you through to the late game without much issue, but if you have the misfortune to get stuck with endless Spear or Sword skulls with a suboptimal ability you’re going to have a much more difficult time. Obviously the fickle whims of chance are nothing new to the roguelike genre, but compare with a game like Hades where each of the six possible weapons provides an equally valid way through the game even if you have a personal preference of one over the other. The developers suggest ‘choos[ing] combos that match your playing style’, but when there’s a clear tier system over which the player has no control, that arguably becomes an unviable way of playing the game. What if I like using the regular Caerleon Recruit skull but don’t want to make the game more difficult for myself? Skul, unfortunately, provides no compelling answer in its current form.
Another small but notable concern is that, even with the game coming out of Early Access and releasing into version 1.0, there’s no option to save and quit mid-run. If you need to leave the game, you have to abandon your current run which can be a little frustrating if you’ve made a lot of progress. This may well be patched in later though – the developers have seemingly been receptive to community input and are intent on continuing to add to the game, if their development roadmap is anything to go by.
Graphics and Audio – A Peck of Polished Pixels
Skul: The Hero Slayer follows in the footsteps of many indie games before it in showcasing a delightfully retro aesthetic with its pixel art and evocative sprites. Don’t let the old-school graphical style fool you though: a lot of thought and care has been put into making it look damn good, particularly in the animation department: extra frames and details in even simple motions like getting up off the floor or Skul’s idle animations make everything move smoothly and look lively (or, you know, undeadly – whatever).
The music, too, is a good listen. The title theme is appropriately powerful and dramatic while the Demon King’s castle features a haunting piano refrain that reminded me of the End of Time from Chrono Trigger. The opening levels provide a driving but upbeat vibe to get you settled into the game, in contrast to the heavy strings and tantalising orchestral percussion of later areas. The musical variety between zones is nice, and though it’s not quite interesting enough to avoid becoming a little samey after you load into the first world for the fifteenth time, it’s never actively grating on the senses.
Skul: The Hero Slayer was reviewed on PC with a Steam key provided by Neowiz.
You forgot about the bone chips that were added in the launch of the game that allow you to steadily upgrade skulls, granting them some bonuses to their damage and changing how their skills work, even adding an extra skill for the common skulls at tier three.
Hi Saber! That’s definitely a fair point, though I’d say that it doesn’t necessarily help the slightly wonky balance issues compared with if, say, you get a powerful rare skull right at the beginning of the game. It’s definitely fun to be wildly overpowered early on but it also seems odd to have two such wildly different gameplay experiences right from the get go, based solely on your luck with the RNG. Just my opinion though! It’s still a great game and I had a lot of fun with it.