The past two years have seen gaming reach peak roguelike saturation. Last year alone saw Spelunky 2 and Hades both release to rave reviews, with the latter pulling in a whole wealth of new players to the genre thanks to its lenient learning curve and classy presentation. Skul: The Hero Slayer isn’t quite equal to Supergiant’s mythical grecian romp, but it is an incredibly solid stab at the genre with enough wrinkles to the formula to keep things fresh for old and new players alike.
The game’s setup is a simple twist on a familiar narrative: you play as Skul, a small skeleton boy who is battling his way through the shining knights of Carleon to free the Demon King from his incarceration by the First Hero. It’s as in-depth as it needs to be, and has the added bonus of swapping the expected enemies for knights and defenders instead of skeletons and monsters – at least at first.
Skul himself is a fragile little fellow, but he can throw his skull at enemies and teleport to where it lands. In order to adventure through the lands of Harmonia successfully, Skul discovers he is able to replace his skull with the skull of something else, whether it’s a gargoyle, a werewolf, a ranger, or even a cowboy hat wearing gambler.
Each of these skull swaps is from one of three classes: Balanced, Speed, and Power. Each skull provides you with one or two new abilities to use, each on a cooldown, and as you are able to have two equipped, you can swap between them to trigger special effects. They are in turn powered by Physical and Magic damage stats, which are in turn buffed by various items.
If it sounds complicated… it’s because it is. I can imagine players with a penchant for working out optimal damage values will love to delve into the item and skull system. Through play, you can find and purchase items, which do all sorts of things from raising attack speed, damage, minion summoning, and gold earning capabilities. Finally you can also pick up a quintessence, an item that triggers a super attack or timed buff.
This all blends together into a heady mix of managing skill cooldown and item builds, which is layered over lightning fast, lethal combat. It’s no surprise that one of the Hero Slayer’s available skulls is the Prisoner from Dead Cells, because Motion Twin’s hyper-kinetic and incredibly tactile take on the roguelike is Skul’s closest touchstone.
Every impact has the same sticky feel that accompanies blows in Dead Cells, and Skul will have you mowing down crowds of enemies in a way that makes every attack feel satisfying. You’ll fight the hordes in creative ways: dashing with an icy skull to freeze a group of enemies before swapping to a bomb carrying skull to blow them all up, triggering a bunch of enemy seeking orbs to take out tougher foes. The frenetic pace can feel a bit too much at times, and enemies don’t give any quarter. Damage comes thick and fast, and enemies lean towards having a little too much health at times.
As you play through the levels you are able to choose between your next reward, either an item, skull, or gold. Skulls can be broken down into bones, which can then be invested in your other skulls to upgrade them. Upgrades see your lively little pixel art avatar develop each time: over the course of a playthrough a swordsman skulls goes from wearing a drab little hood and rusty sword, to wielding a legendary blade whilst decked out in ornate armour.
Skills develop this way too, with the aforementioned swordsman going from a few paltry swipes, to a skill that triggers tens of phantom slashes to strike all enemies affected by his sword’s bleed debuff. The layering of these skills and skull swapping shenanigans can swamp the screen in chaos, with legendary skulls adding even more effects to the mix.
All of the skulls have wonderful skills that come from a pool per skull,and the inventiveness is above and beyond what you’d expect – there are nods to Metal Slug and Ghost Rider here, and skulls like the Samurai, Ninja and Challenger could even support a whole game on their own with their smartly tuned skills. The combos enabled by items and swapping skulls begin to feel decadent in their complexity.
SouthPAW games have managed to get a huge number of sprites and effects working on screen without even a second of slowdown during play. Despite its frenetic nature, everything feels crunchy, responsive and well considered except for the aforementioned enemy health pools, which are the one consistent bugbear.
It really cannot be understated how aesthetically pleasing the game’s 16-bit art style is. Levels are ornate, with expert parallax effects and a sense of character that drips from every pixel. The handful of bosses the game throws at you are animated wonderfully and have bags of character, and some of them are truly epic in scale. The music is also incredibly catchy and well produced, with melodies that will bury themselves in your head for hours at a time.
As with many recent roguelikes, the ultimate downside to the game is the investment required to make progress. Skul isn’t easy and the price for permanent upgrades – bought with dark quartz at the start of a run – are a bit too steep. As you progress further through the game, you’ll unlock new helpers at the start that can boost a new run with a couple of free skulls or items. Pathing also becomes a little predictable when it becomes obvious that chasing skulls to crush them for run-lasting upgrades is the best option, especially with the tiers of upgrades being quite pricey.
For those put off by how punishing it is, a rookie mode can be toggled on to halve damage, but doesn’t stop the game from being a stiff challenge towards the end. There are some with difficulty spikes with the multi-phase boss fights that have a plethora of over the top, screen filling attacks that require perfect timing to dodge, which can feel a bit much when health refills are infrequent.