Skul: The Hero Slayer Review
This metaphor might be a little on the nose, but Skul: The Hero Slayer brings a fresh new face to the now overflowing rogue-lite genre by literally giving you lots of faces. Like the bizarre offspring of Dead Cells and The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask that it is, this undead adventure combines fast-paced 2D platforming and combat with the ceaselessly amusing ability to swap your hero’s skull, and with it your playstyle, at will. And while it undoubtedly shares DNA with Dead Cells (so much so, in fact, that The Prisoner is actually a playable cameo character) Skul is by no means a copycat, rivaling its inspiration in the quality of its chaotic combat while standing out with plenty of interesting new ideas.
As with all rogue-lite games, the key to getting better is in both learning the areas, enemy types, and bosses you might face in any given randomized run, as well as permanently upgrading your character’s base stats and gaining perks that make you a bit stronger with each attempt. But where Skul truly shines is in how its head-swapping manages to keep its grind sustainably fun even after dozens of hours of failure. The push of a button transforms your meek little skeleton adventurer into an entirely new monster and imbues you with that head’s powers, like a slightly morbid, body-snatching Kirby.
There’s a fantastic variety of heads to find and choose from, including floating gargoyles, rampaging meat monsters, and adorable ents that are basically a pixelated Groot. Each of the 30+ options that you can potentially equip come with their own speed, attack range, and abilities that give them a distinct playstyle – and since you can carry two at a time, you’re able to instantaneously change between them for maximum effect.
[poilib element=”quoteBox” parameters=”excerpt=Rapidly%20swapping%20between%20your%20two%20heads%20and%20their%20skills%20is%20essential.”]In fact, rapidly swapping between your two equipped heads and using their skills synergistically is essential. For example, you might want to play as one of the many slow but powerful melee classes like the Predator to brute force your way through combat, but you will likely need a fast-moving skull in your second slot to switch to when you get caught in a tight spot and need to make a quick exit. Some skulls aren’t even usable without a second skull to rely upon, like the Bomber skull, whose sole purpose is to self-destruct as quickly and devastatingly as possible, forcing you into your alternate skull form.
Some of these options are powerful as soon as you find them, while others are weaker and need to be upgraded during your run until they reach their final, most powerful form, which means that you can either grind your way to greatness slowly as you progress or just get damn lucky and find an amazing skull that has you scrambling to adjust your entire build around it. This is fantastic because it means you’re not always at the mercy of getting that lucky loot drop; you can control your own destiny by building a more common skull up over the course of your run to make it every bit as viable in the endgame. That said, it’s still always a great feeling when something amazing does drop into your lap to instantly make you a badass, especially since you can keep your favorite parts of your previous build around in that second skull slot anyway.
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Critically, every single character is not only genuinely fun to play, but feels totally viable in the endgame. In games like this I usually search for a build that fits my playstyle and then stick with it as much as possible, but in Skul I found myself willing and able to play with just about anybody, no matter how wildly different they were, and have a great time. During one successful run I used a magic-casting sorcerer to rain down hellfire upon my enemies, and the next I upgraded a soldier skull to be the ultimate undead general with the ability to summon a dozen friendly underlings at a time. The diversity of styles is extremely impressive.
[poilib element=”quoteBox” parameters=”excerpt=Skul%20is%2C%20as%20you%E2%80%99d%20expect%20%E2%80%93%20nay%2C%20demand%20%E2%80%93%20downright%20difficult.”]But each playthrough is not just defined by the heads you choose – the variety of random items you collect as you go is much deeper than that. Some are as simple as increasing your magic damage or movement speed, but others might even define your entire build, like the fairy followers that become more powerful the more you manage to collect, to the point where you can summon a demigod ally if you’re able to gather all five in a single playthrough.
Even boons like that won’t make it easy, because Skul is, as you’d expect – nay, demand – from a game of this type, downright difficult. As someone who’s seen the endings of games like Dead Cells, Hades, and Darkest Dungeon, it took me over 20 hours of attempts to defeat the final boss and get my first clear (a successful run taking about an hour). There are five distinct areas to fight your way through, each with a unique roster of mobs, environmental hazards, awesome retro soundtracks, and a big boss battle lying in wait to knock your block off at the end. But with a solid build and no small amount of practice, making it to the credits is an attainable and enjoyable reward that salves the burn of dozens of failed runs.
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There are enormous differences between each of the five areas, and the first time you make it to a new one some of the enemies and mechanics may seem insurmountable or downright cheap. The castle’s Head Servant comes to mind: she constantly summons an army of lesser servants to hit you with brooms and throw plates at you before running away like a coward. However, as with lots of procedurally generated games, each area follows a fairly predictable formula where you can begin to recognize the patterns and room layouts after a while. The beginning area is filled with woodland creatures, weak knights, and simplistic platforming that makes for a relatively safe space to level up your character and start strategizing a build, while a laboratory-themed area further along is filled with devastating magic-users and absolutely overflowing with deadly traps – oh, and almost every enemy explodes when you kill them.
[poilib element=”quoteBox” parameters=”excerpt=The%20fairly%20straightforward%20bosses%20are%20one%20of%20the%20weaker%20elements%20of%20Skul.”]The fairly straightforward bosses at the end of each area are one of the weaker elements of Skul, since they lack the same level of variety as the levels they oversee. Once you’ve beaten a boss once or twice, you’ve seen all that you’ll ever see from them and they begin to feel like chores necessary to advance to the next area rather than intimidating gatekeepers. There aren’t any of the variations sometimes found in roguelike games, which seems like an odd oversight for one that nails nearly everything else about the genre.
Thankfully, regardless of what you’re facing off against, the responsiveness of the controls (on both keyboard and controller) is top-notch, allowing you to make satisfying split-second decisions, leap away from danger, and take the fight to your enemies with utmost precision. The platforming itself never approaches anything difficult, but when you’re surrounded by dozens of violent cultists the buttery-smooth controls certainly come in handy.
Adding to the difficulty a bit is that, fresh out of early access, Skul suffers from some slight but regular frame rate stuttering, which sometimes makes the audio pop in and out as well. Even on my high-end PC (which has a 2080ti GPU and Ryzen 9 CPU) this issue was pretty common. It certainly wasn’t bad enough to affect my enjoyment or completely ruin my runs, but I do blame it for a few hits I took when the stuttering was especially poorly timed.
[poilib element=”quoteBox” parameters=”excerpt=Skul%E2%80%99s%20retro%20world%20of%20skeletons%20and%20knights%20is%20absolutely%20dripping%20with%20charm.”]Speaking of poor timing, last year Hades raised the bar for storytelling in rogue-lite action games to godly levels, which makes Skul’s look a bit dimmer by comparison. While it is a heartfelt story, its tale of the age-old conflict between the Demon Kingdom and the evil Nation of Men is not particularly well told. The translation from its original Korean dialogue into English is fairly poor at times, and the brief snippets of conversation that take place after each boss battle come off stiff and a bit awkward – which isn’t helped by the fact that the twists and turns of the story are about as predictable as they come. That said, there are some compelling characters that shine through, like the shape-shifting witch who helps you along your journey and (my personal favorite) a cowardly death knight who loves knitting and interior design.
Even where the story stumbles, Skul’s retro world of skeletons and knights is absolutely dripping with charm, from its beautiful, pixelated art style to its role reversal in which the demons are the good guys and humans are monsters to be slain. Slashing, hopping, and exploding my way through each area again and again only managed to endear me more and more to the world and its characters, not counting the few aggravating enemies like those castle servants that made me want to pull out my teeth with carpenters’ tools.