In today’s gaming landscape, it’s challenging to craft a catchy new rogue-lite. In the past two years alone, we’ve seen so many strong new additions like Hades and Curse of the Dead Gods, where classics like Spelunky and The Binding of Isaac still join in. Skul: The Hero Slayer gives it a try and manages to grab attention without being too original.
You’ve actually seen it all: time and again you fight your way through a procedurally generated world, where you get stronger by picking up power-ups and making each run a unique build. You make your way through a set number of areas, encountering mini bosses, rest areas and an intense boss fight at the end. When you die, you lose all your weapons, items, and money, but return to the beginning and get to keep the Dark Quartz. With these purple stones you unlock permanent improvements such as more health, an increased chance of critical hits and faster cooldowns for example. The formula is faithful, does little unique, but is so well worked out and fast that ‘ok, one more time’ was more common than was sensible for my sleep.
But before we delve further into that, let’s take a look at the one thing where Skul: The Hero Slayer makes itself quite unique and that is in its presentation. We follow the titular Skul, the cute little skeleton with a purple cape and a bone weapon, from a 2D side view in a delightful retro pixel art style. Every enemy and our Skul himself are beautifully animated and the environments are very well behaved in this style – complete with destructible background elements. The whole thing is aided by sound effects that make an attack really palpable and a nice soundtrack that will definitely be on my YouTube lists. Where Skul sets itself apart is in the mechanics that make it variable. Our hero can also use his skull as a weapon and throw it and then teleport back to that location with a special move. Where it gets really interesting is when you find other skulls and can use them. Each skull comes with its own abilities and can have a huge impact on your approach: it may even be more of a class system than just changing your attack.
Too many skulls
For example, there are skulls that turn Skul into a shield bearer, but where some skulls can only defend with this, this can also be done differently. For example, I had a very successful run with Skul who used his shield as a charge attack and thus remained protected from attacks. Others give a bow and arrow, while others use a long spear. Side effects are also included, such as a dash that can also do damage or poison enemies for ten seconds with each attack. It doesn’t stop there, because with items you can influence these stats, such as with an item that increases attack speed or gives you extra HP. It gets more interesting when you buy new items during your run and have to manage this in a limited number of slots. You’ll find things like familiars that fly along and do damage, items that give you a chance at random fireballs or increase your damage the more enemies are around you. The good news about this is that the pool is very, very extensive and I was still discovering new things after dozens of hours.
Finally, there are what the game calls Quintessence; basically this is an extra ability or attack under a button that you can only have one of. Nice examples of this are a miner that I could summon for a good cut with his pickaxe on my opponents for serious damage. As a bonus, there was a chance this one would summon a rock with gold pieces and I walked in. But also more straight forward damage dealers like Medusa who stunned in addition to damage and a Hydra who spewed poison on groups of enemies. As you will understand by now, all these elements interact and every run is actually completely different. What I liked is how the game gives you options: At the end you usually find a choice of two doors. Sometimes it’s a door that leads to more money, other times it’s a door that leads to a skull or an item. It is up to you to determine where your priority lies. Do you need money to buy a one-time healing and better items or do you want to gamble on an item that you may not like at all. If that is the case, it is also possible to destroy items for bones that also have their purpose later, if sometimes destroying is really destroying.
Out of hand
After bumping my head a few times against the minibosses, mostly people with magical powers, I hit my first big boss and that knife cuts both ways. Because the cute style might disguise it, but Skul: The Hero Slayer is a tough challenge! You understand the first one, but every boss has several phases in which they perform new patterns and are also provided with a new life bar. Especially in the last two areas this really gets out of hand and you need an excellent build, luck and skill to get through this. It gets easier along the way of course because of the permanent upgrades, but also because you get a random skull and item every time to start with. Still, I had seen the opening in the Deep Woods with its four different enemies at one point. You cannot run away and switch off the PlayStation 4, because interim saving is not included. Something which is of course a great pity because it makes the game less accessible and possibly prompts you to give up. If you don’t, there’s a lot of beauty to be found in Skul – even if you’ve seen it all before.
As a rogue-lite, Skul: The Hero Slayer borrows a lot from other games, but does it very well. It has its own face with cute hero, nice pixel art and fun gameplay gimmick in skull swapping. The latter also means that there is a lot of variety possible with skulls, items and quintessences and therefore you are always drawn to try again. Skul can be quite a challenge though and I screamed in my living room when a boss turned out to have STILL a life bar and new phase after a long battle. All in all, there are certainly things to criticize about Skul and it doesn’t do much that we haven’t seen in other games, but developer SouthPAW Games still makes an attractive, addictive rogue-lite.