Afterpatch Review: Skul: The Hero Slayer
By: Fernando Da Costa
Developer: SouthPaw Games
Available on: PC, Mac, Linux, Playstation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch
SKUL HAS A SKULL! - Introduction
Here we are again, dipping our toes back into the genre well. If it isn’t dry, though, then I don’t see the issue doing that. Rogue-lite titles are a dime a dozen these days, with my second most played on Nintendo Switch being the damn remarkable Dead Cells. Racking up an astonishing 270+ hour playtime, to say that I’m obsessed is underselling that addiction. I fell in love with the progression system, variety of weapons, and overall design. Since then, I’ve become more and more of a fan of these titles, always seeking out my next shot of dopamine - enter Skul: The Hero Slayer. It was released a few weeks ago, and several positive perspectives have flooded in since then. People love the tiny skeleton you play as. Now, that’s well and good, of course, but what matters is gameplay. So, let’s get down to the bones of the experience.
NOT MUCH FLESH! - Writing
There’s no doubt that the literary aspect was going to be weak. It’s inconsequential mainly because the real meat and potatoes lie firmly in the gameplay. Still, I’d be remiss, not to mention the attempts at cohesive storytelling - predictable as they may be. Flourishes are sporadically sprinkled throughout, mainly in the cutscenes that play during act transitions - the style of which is cartoony. That’s the key aesthetic, so it’s a shame that the inherent quirkiness doesn’t exude from the NPCs. It’s quite the opposite as every single one is bland. Again, it’s what one can expect from most Roguelites, but the reason I bring it up is this; the game tries to harness sarcastic humour in a brief exchange. In that short moment, there was life infused into this hotchpotch of code. Utilizing it would have added that extra dimension to the overall session.
GRAB MY HEAD! - Gameplay
I’ve had the privilege to review several heavy hitters in the genre, and one constant always remains - my reflexes suck. Skul: The Hero Slayer has no shame reminding me of this either. It tests reaction time and the ability to multitask. In that regard, the engagement was excellent and never had me bored. Despite the inherent repetition of levels, I always wanted one more run. It’s both exciting and fun - two things you want from any Roguelite. That said, the road forward is relatively linear; the only branching path is due to a couple of doors at the end of each section. These are adorned in various decorations that depict the prize found behind each one. For instance, chests indicate an item, while skulls mean, well, a new skull, and nothing is money. This facet introduces a bit of strategy, coaxing you to choose wisely for the fight ahead.
Naturally, those items have bonuses like increasing physical or magical prowess, enhancing hit points, reducing damage, and so much more. They also come with a pair of inscriptions attached. By stacking pairs of these, a secondary effect is slotted into whatever is already in place. I can’t understate the care that went into ensuring a robust customization system. There are so many possible combinations to toy with and test. Since items are randomly found during the run, that also ideally forces players to adapt, keeping the intrigue high. It’s incredibly joyous trying to put together an ideal build for a given situation. I was continually neck-deep in devising an efficient method of making my enemies melt, keeping the session from ever getting stale. Money is used to buy additional goodies within the hub shop that pops up after a certain quantity of rooms.
As a skeleton, Skul can interchange his head with one acquired during the journey. Doing so then triggers a body transformation. That flimsy, boney appearance is no longer that, taking on many different forms. It may become a polearm-wielding monkey monk, the classic archer, or a shield-bearing murderer. There are many possibilities, and each one has a distinct fighting style - slow, fast, ranged or not. It adds a further layer of strategy by changing the approach to combat. Each form also has an evolutionary line. See, by investing bones collected by dismantling unwanted heads, not only does strength see a boost, but new avenues for character build open up. Let me reiterate: character building has a handful of intricacies to sink your teeth into. Newer skills mean those previously thought perfect builds are now in need of changing to, again, unleash their full potential.
When someone hears Roguelite, their mind tends to go to procedural generation. Well, Skul: The Hero Slayer sustains that idea but does so with a twist. Instead of haphazardly constructing a level, it picks from a selection of predetermined designs. In other words, with each play-through, the game cycles overall viable options, making sure successive runs aren’t identical, though still somewhat similar. Yes, there’s a limited amount to choose from, so it does, eventually, repeat, but this may sound strange; I loved that. See, Skul: The Hero Slayer isn’t shy when it comes to bombarding you with enemies. I ended up dying frequently but also learning. In death, I could familiarize myself with spawn points and strategize accordingly. It helped to mitigate frustration slightly. The difficulty curve, however, brought along its recipe of rage.
Straight up, those damn humans are bloody powerful and pack a serious punch - on the normal difficulty, anyway. See, the sweet embrace of the grim reaper tends to come swiftly with it. For anyone that, like me, has the reactionary time of a slug, maybe pick rookie mode. Once I did, my game session was no longer stressful. By switching, the damage inflicted is halved, meaning survivability was easier to come by. The margin for error was also way more forgiving. That’s vital because, despite every enemy's distinct attack pattern, their motions are swift, meaning death is inevitable. In that sense, combat is built around the notion of trial and error, and until one can telegraph strikes, expect game-overs. While this holds for both difficulties, the more accessible mode gives you more opportunity to accustom yourself to patterns on the fly.
MY BONES ARE SHAKING! - Presentation/Performance
Visually, Skul: The Hero Slayer uses beautiful pixel art. It’s perfectly nostalgic, reminding me of the 16-bit days of the SNES era - my childhood. Animations are, for the most part, fluent. It won’t be until our skeleton friend gets bombarded by soldiers that we see some struggles spring up. Frames drop quite steeply as the image stutters. It’s never unplayable, and, thanks to quick battles, it stabilizes at a fair pace. This issue is isolated to whenever there’s a lot of action or explosions on-screen. Otherwise, it’s smooth sailing onwards. The environments themselves are superbly detailed, with a notable one being the castle interior. Sprites are wonderfully drawn, making the meticulous passion poured into every pixel noticeable. Everything has a crisp look, amplified by an OLED screen. The designs of bosses, too, are well-done, though, in terms of originality, generic.
SMOOTH PRESSES! - Accessibility
There are some quality-of-life features set to enrich the experience, but nothing substantial. The first is auto-save, and it usually kicks in whenever you’re in a new area. So, if, like me, you mistakenly quit out of the game or let the battery drain dry, there are no losing whole runs. Instead, only that particular room you were traversing needs to be redone. If crashes are a worry, I suffered zero throughout my several-hour session. It’s unlikely to lose progress, but human error does occur, making it nice to have a safety net. Then, there’s having the capability to remap buttons. The default prompts are, bluntly put, unintuitive, and quickly executing strikes got tiresome. Being able to switch strikes over to the triggers changed everything for the better. Fast-paced murder was back on the menu, helping my addiction flourish once more.
AND THE BONEY VERDICT IS…
While Skul: The Hero Slayer isn’t winning awards for literacy, it’ll pick up a few for gameplay. There is, of course, a caveat since, because of my slow reflexes, the rookie mode was the way to go. Shifting over to the much easier difficulty balanced the game in such a way that it was manageable. Some sub-boss battles, especially, are egregiously hard without that bit of padding, if you will. My other complaint is that the game mocks you with a permanent baby icon as if you’re a weakling for succumbing to it. While that irks me, there’s nothing functionally wrong with the mechanics. Being on easy mode won’t take from the rewards earned - it’s still the same title, but friendlier. Not capitalizing on that singular instance of sarcastic humour does feel like a missed opportunity, but it’s evident what the focus here was, and their goal was nailed.
With acceptable performance, addicting gameplay, a decent soundtrack but inaccessibility in the normal difficulty, I do recommend it. Skul: The Hero Slayer is fun waiting to be had and gets a 7.
Many thanks to Team Critical Hit for providing the code on behalf of SouthPaw Games for this review.