No Bones To Pick
HIGH The Rider skull.
LOW The “normal” difficulty is ludicrously harsh.
WTF Anything to do with the plot.
The roguelike genre is going to be living in the shadow of Hades for some time, and I’m already resisting the urge to hold every developer to the almost unreasonable standard that Supermassive set last year. In the case of Skul: The Hero Slayer, however, the comparison is a compliment.
The structural similarities are so visible that had this been released a couple of years later, I’d cite Hades as a naked influence. Since they were developed concurrently, however, the simple truth is that Southpaw Games has a comparable understanding of how to keep roguelikes fresh and exciting over hours and hours of inherent repetition.
On its face, despite a great soundtrack and some extraordinary pixel art, there’s little remarkable about Skul. It’s a side-scrolling action-platformer in which players must clear a room of all enemies, collect the reward, move on to the next chamber and repeat. There’s a jump button, an attack button and a dodge, and that’s about all there is to Skul’s basic combat, but those simple foundations are what allow Skul’s signature gimmick to flourish.
The hero, a skeleton, can swap his head out for any others that he finds along a run, and each one transforms him into an entirely new creature. The result is a roguelike with dozens of playable characters.
These skulls start out as simple weapon swaps, with Skul trading his default bone club for something like a spear or a knife, but soon the transformations become more fanciful. Gunslingers and magic casters are thrown into the mix. Pop culture staples get obvious stand-ins, like a flaming biker who attacks by swinging chains and, yeah, is definitely Ghost Rider. The demon Yaksha is in there somewhere, as is the protagonist from Dead Cells. It’s wild stuff.
The variety is through the roof, and while players will obviously develop favorites – I was partial to the rapid slash attacks of the werewolf skull myself – the joy is in being forced to adapt to the characters we’re less comfortable with when the drops aren’t favorable. Each form has its own attributes and special attacks, and the fact that we can only hold two skulls at any given time presents difficult choices. Sometimes the random number generation goes our way, but even when it doesn’t, it can lead to brilliant moments of discovery.
Navigation through each run is much like it is in Hades as the door to each chamber hints at the type of reward it’ll offer – either gold, a new skull, or a piece of equipment – so when players are presented with multiple options, they can prioritize the goodies they’re looking for. Equipment, in particular, is an interesting wrinkle.
Most of them offer stock-standard buffs like an attack boost or an increase to the amount of money earned. But they also carry elemental properties that give Skul passive bonuses. An item with one point in “volcano,” for example, will cause fireballs to burst out of my character every 35 seconds. The effects also stack, so equipping more items with the volcano attribute will lower the recharge time to 30, 20 and then a mere five seconds.
Players can equip up to nine items at once, and since they all house multiple elemental properties, Skul will have transformed into a veritable whirlwind of death by the end of a run. Enemies are getting poisoned and burned, lightning is striking every few seconds, and little familiars are buzzing around my character’s head, firing lasers and magical spells at anything that moves. The slow ramp-up from feeble skeleton child to maelstrom of destruction is a sight to behold, and it’s aided by the considerable amount of environmental destruction unfolding during the game’s most chaotic moments.
I haven’t mentioned Skul‘s story, and that’s because I honestly don’t even know what it’s about. While such a narrative vacuum is not out of place in roguelikes, Southpaw very clearly tried to implement a well-realized political conflict into their fantasy universe, but it comes up too infrequently.
Recent titles like Hades and Going Under have demonstrated that it’s possible to weave substantial narratives into the rinse-and-repeat structure of a roguelike, but only by making it a constant fixture. Skul’s major plot dumps only happen when the player reaches a new biome for the first time, and there can often be hours between these moments. It’s an easy problem to ignore, but it’s a shame to see so much obvious effort go to waste like that.
A bigger issue – albeit one that’s easier to fix – is that Skul is sadistic on its default difficulty. Players earn experience points they can spend on permanent stat upgrades between runs, but even a fully-upgraded skill tree isn’t a perfect failsafe against the unbalanced nonsense that Skul begins throwing at its players from the third biome onward.
Thankfully, rectifying this is a simple matter of switching to the easier difficulty, which halves enemy damage, but of course it’s called “rookie mode,” and toggling it triggers a message about how, oh, you’re a beginner, are you? While that’s fine, because we made our game so that newbies like you can enjoy it too! You loser! It’s a small thing, but developers need to stop putting that demeaning crap in their games.
The horrors of the last year have given me a new appreciation for the type of entertainment that allows me to fall into a predictable routine, and roguelikes are the perfect venue. In the past, too many developers have assumed that the simple inclusion of procedurally-generated levels is enough to keep run-based games interesting, but the increased regularity of quality titles like Skul leaves me confident that studios are learning, and that the roguelike renaissance isn’t going away anytime soon.
Disclosures: This game is developed by Southpaw Games and published by Neowiz.It is currently available on PC. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the PC. Approximately 18 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed. There are no multiplayer modes.
Parents: As of press time, this game has not been rated by the ESRB. There are some very mild and infrequent blood effects, but it’s otherwise just a lot of harmless cartoon violence.
Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: The dialogue is almost entirely text-based and offers subtitles for the few fully-voiced cutscenes (which everyone who doesn’t speak Korean will need anyway). Audio cues never play an important role, and I played much of the game with the sound off and had no trouble. It’s fully accessible.
Remappable Controls: Yes, this game offers fully remappable controls.