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Skul: The Hero Slayer - Review


I’ve always enjoyed seeing different perspectives in narratives. It allows writers to flesh out their world and show the audience the enemy, the antagonists, are more than they seem. That they are not the cartoonishly evil villains the protagonists paint them to be. It gives us depth and a tad bit more understanding as to why things are the way they are. A perfect example of this for a lot of gamers would probably be Halo 2 and the Arbiter’s journey. The Covenant are a vicious group of aliens who wage war against the human race hoping to claim ancient Forerunner tech. They are a religious group composed of multiple alien species, and when you play as the Arbiter you are probably thinking of all the terror you’ll wage against humans. No, that is not what happens. You play as an Elite punished by the Covenant for not fulfilling their quotas. They give you a chance to redeem yourself and send you off on missions to kill anyone they deem a traitor. The Arbiter with time realizes how terrible the Covenant are and figures out they plan to remove all the Elites from their ranks. This leads to the Arbiter rebelling against them and around Halo 3 his race of people ally themselves with the humans hoping to bring an end to the mad tyranny. 


Another great example is Daud’s tale from Dishonored which I recently finished prior to writing this review. Daud is the man who assassinated the empress. The empress for which you, Corvo, were blamed for killing. You swear vengeance against this murderer and all who betrayed you, but when you get to know Daud as a person you realize he deeply regrets what he did. He was hired by cruel people to overthrow the current ruler, and even though he didn’t want to, he needed the money to survive in the slums. He then goes on this personal journey to fill the void in his heart, and eventually in The Brigmore Witches he stops Emily from being taken again. In some way redeeming himself. It gives us sympathy to what could have been a plain sinister man. Alternate perspectives are good for storytelling, because it gets us to reconsider the world and how we view it. How about a game where you get to play as the villain? Not in the same sense of Undertale or Fallout: New Vegas where you can make choices that send you down a dark path. Nor games like Lisa or Spec Ops where the protagonist turns into a bad person by the end of the game. I mean a game where the villain is the hero. 


Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you Skul: The Hero Slayer. A side-scrolling action roguelike developed by a small independent South Korean studio named SouthPAW Games. Now I’ve reviewed quite a handful of roguelikes by now. Been getting back into the mood for them and my last two reviews were both side-scrolling roguelikes. Skul: The Hero Slayer was a game I dropped two years ago due to my fatigue for roguelikes, but I hopped back into it two weeks ago and glad I gave it another chance. Skul is one of the more underrated roguelikes I’ve played. It has a nice charm to it, but I will say this may not be a game everyone will enjoy. There’s a few weird design choices and the way the difficulty skyrockets near the end may lead to a couple of justified rage quits and abandonment. Yet, for what it is, I do really like this game. It’s fun, frenetic, and above all addicting which is exactly what you want for a repetition genre. Today we'll be talking about why I like Skul: The Hero Slayer and why it deserves your attention.


Story


Imagine if you will the stereotypical fantasy setting. There’s magic, elves, clerics, orcs, undead, wizards, witches, and much more. This fantasy world is teaming with color and quests to go on, but of course there are heroes. Individuals who spent years training to slay any and all evil daring to step into their way. Evil that wants to consume the earth for which we roam on, but that is not how this story goes. Skul takes place in a world where humans decided to wage war on all they see as unfit. They sent out a crusade to hunt down and imprison any monsters they find. If they choose to stand against them they are to be slain. This crusade is led by the First Hero, strongest amongst all heroes. His blade can smite anyone and after years of fighting the demon army he had finally captured their prince. Locked him away behind castle walls hoping no evil, no villainy, no monster can ever be born again. The crusade continues, but with it comes corruption. Blindness to what they were truly doing as what the humans strived for was genocide. The mass murder of beings who just wanted to live alongside us. Being who now lives in fear of dying the next morning. The ones we see as heroes have now become the antagonists of this fairytale. Hope seemed lost.


However, not all hope is lost. A weak skeleton manages to resurrect himself from the battlefield and press onward to where the demon prince may be hidden away. The skeleton is named Skul, and despite not being able to speak he is determined to bring peace back. He is guided back to the demon kingdom where a wise witch aids him on his quest. Allowing him to come back from death and grow stronger each time. He’ll be aided by an assortment of monsters and his fallen brethren shall provide him the powers they once wielded. Of fearsome knights, thieves, wolves, gladiators, and many more. It’s all up to Skul to save the demon world. Along the way you’ll get glimpses of what the world was like before the war. How humans and monsters lived alongside each other peacefully, and what led to the war. How the heroes’ light became blinding. 


Gameplay


The game is mainly focused around combat and character progression throughout runs, but just before you start every run you are given the ability to upgrade and receive a few items. The kind witch assisting you on your adventure can take Dark Quartz you accumulate during runs and use it to upgrade your stats. Attack power, maximum health, critical rate, magic damage, and later on you gain some special perks. Take some random gear and off you go. You land down and are given two doors to choose from. Doors function much like the doors in Hades or pathways like in Slay The Spire. They represent what kind of reward you get once you clear out the combat encounter lying within them. Simple gold doors mean you’ll get gold to spend, and the treasure doors mean you’ll get a relic. You can hold up to nine relics and they can do one of few things. Increase physical or magical attack damage. Increase attack speed or skill regeneration. Give you special ailments like poison or wounds which can be applied to foes. Even exotic stuff like small projectiles being fired every time you dash, or freezing does every time you get hit. Rarer relics will oftentimes have better perks or higher stat increases, so it’s best to pick out what fits your playstyle best. 


Then you have the skull doors. The green pathways that reward you with different skulls to use. These are basically the different classes and you can carry two at all times. There’s 3 categories of skulls. Balance which is your all rounded category. Speed which focuses around dealing light amounts of damage in quick succession. Then there is power which deals heavy damage, but has low attack speed. If you get a skull you don’t want or doesn’t fit the strategy you have you can always scrap it for bones. This is a currency that can be spent at a specific NPC to strengthen the skulls you are currently wielding. Improving their attack damage, and opening up new skills. The strategy I like to do best is have one speed skull and one power skull. Have one for cutting down multiple enemies with ease and have one for singular stronger foes. Do my best to increase my stats balanced during runs and increase attack speed so that I can kill enemies faster or so that my power skull doesn’t take as long to kill things. During your journey you’ll run into shops to buy relics and heal up, and eventually you’ll run into bosses. There’s the midway bosses which are lesser heroes hired by the First Hero, and the overall area boss. These guys have complex moves and meaty heel bars. If you don’t play carefully they can kill you within seconds. Learn their attack patterns, know when to strike, and surely you should be able to bring them down. They may drop some loot and in the case of area bosses relics only they will give.


During your runs you'll get these special relics known as quintessence. These can summon strong demons to aid you during combat. Great for when you want to clear up some space or get the edge on a foe. Sometimes you’ll get these challenge rooms where you can pick up a very rare skull or relic but must do something difficult like a tough platforming challenge sneak around a small area without being caught. These challenges are risky but can pay back well enough. Other than that, there’s nothing else I can really say about Skul: The Hero Slayer. It’s an action focused game, but it handles its combat loop well enough that what more could you want. Hopefully, you can slay the heroes in your path, find the demon prince, and bring him back to safety.


Thoughts


Skul: The Hero Slayer is a very fun action roguelike with good enough variety and depth to make each run feel fresh and exciting. Full disclosure before we move further into the review. I did not beat this game before writing. I want to clarify this before I state some of my criticisms, but a majority of the time I try to finish games before I cover them. Have the full experience before I deliver a proper analogy of a game. Even if I don’t finish a game before I review it, I try to finish it up shortly after posting the review. My Brutal Orchestra review and Elden Ring essay being 2 great examples as I beat the final bosses a day after posting. However, I personally feel like I’ve put enough time into Skul: The Hero Slayer to see everything the game had to offer me. That is what I have to say, so let’s move onto the rest of the review. The one thing I like the most about Skul is the amount of skulls and builds on offer. It’s one of the game’s main selling points and they nail this really well. You can slice through your foes with ease. A werewolf who can apply bleed and moves faster compared to most classes. A genie who has an assortment of magic and attacks with a bigass scimitar. A root monster who beats down foes, a mage, a motorcycle rider, mummy, suicide bomber, and you can even play as the prisoner from Dead Cells. In fact, this game feels heavily influenced by Dead Cells’ design. Combat is fast, frenetic, and it’s a joy to cut down several foes with ease. Progression through runs feel satisfying as you accumulate better relics to max out your stats, and Skul rewards players for choosing what is best cause if not you will get demolished quickly. It is a game that pushes you and I like it.


A majority of the relics you get during runs are quite useful. I was kind of afraid there was gonna be a problem like relics having perks that are just too useless or too obscure. I was wrong and thank god I was because having these simple relics with stats increases or bonus attacks makes the progression a lot easier. The pixelwork is another highlight of Skul as it’s brimming with all sorts of colors and neat little animations. Is it the best pixel animation I’ve ever seen? Honestly, no. Some animations look a bit stiff and enemies seem to transition from one attack pose to the next really quickly. It makes telegraphing certain moves difficult, but that isn’t to say the combat does not feel impactful. Your attacks have weight and slamming them down on foes is satisfying. I like the design of each creature and boss fights especially are highlights of this game. These big opposing goliaths who seem unstoppable until you prove them wrong. I like how even if you get an item you don’t want you can trade it for something else or scrap it for currency you can use. The music is great, not memorable, but enough to keep you energized and pushing forward. The story is also pretty good. It can be absent most of the time, but it’s nice being able to chat to NPCs every so often or be given cutscenes explaining what is actually going on. How things came to be and how the heroes of became the corrupt d-bags they are. 


Skul: The Hero Slayer is great and its core gameplay loop has kept me coming back for hours on end. However, there are some problems. A good handful of problems, and this is why I said Skul might not be a game for everyone. Yet again, not every video game is for everyone. My first little nitpick with Skul has to deal with the difficulty. The first few two areas I say are fine. They’re a bit challenging during the opening hours, but eventually you level yourself up enough and know how to get past the bosses. You accumulate some good gear, make an overpowered build, and you feel like a god for a while. Then the game takes a massive turn and all of a sudden the game gets really crazy. Enemies are thrown at you in bigger numbers. There are attacks which cover the whole screen. Bosses also seem to throw more crap at you at once, and it feels like there was a point where the developers didn’t know how to balance everything out. They most likely saw how easily overpowered you can become if you know what to do and thought the best way to counterbalance this was just to flood the screen with problems. However, this creates an issue of not being able to see what is going on. The game is already frenetic enough, and what you do not want is the player to button mash their way to victory and hope they somehow succeed. 


The fourth area in particular is cruel and the main reason why I haven't finished Skul quite yet. It is a bit similar to the final area in Hades in that when you are hit by certain attacks a debuff gets applied to your character. However, unlike Hades where it’s made clear what attacks will apply this debuff and there are always fountains in each room to cure it, Skul doesn’t do that. Instead the attacks that apply the debuff are random and only certain rooms will have a fountain to cure it. Also this debuff is a damage amplifier for enemies, so it can stack up and somehow enemies can wipe out your entire health bar if you make a few mistakes. It’s an area that makes you ask if the developers playtested it before shipping the game out. These difficulty spikes are made worse with how long runs can be in Skul. Runs can last up to more than fifty minutes even though there are only four areas as I’m aware of. Fifty minutes worth of button mashing, accumulating a whole list of upgrades, and most likely upgrading one skull to the max only to be met with quick death. I turned on the rookie mode early in the game and even then this last section of the game is just grueling. I feel like they could’ve fixed this problem if they allowed players to skip maybe the first area after a handful of attempts. By this point you’ve leveled up your basic stats to the highest points and you now figured out the first boss’s attack pattern. By then this first area had gotten repetitive and the run feels like it truly begins once you step foot into area two. 


I also don’t understand why you can only level up your core stats ten times. I get you wanted to balance those out too, but that feels like a really low threshold. I don’t get why the fox NPC who gives you a skull at the start of each run has to give one random one, and if you want another you have to spend a small amount of Dark Quartz. Not bad, but I prefer having the game just give me three skulls to choose from. Much like weapon selection Dead Cells or the heir system in Rogue Legacy. Speaking of Dead Cells, this game tries to do secrets and exploration at times but it’s not built around it. Areas are quite simple and linear, and it’s hard to tell if a surface is a secret or not. In fact, I only encountered one secret during one run and it was to the enemy bobbing in and out of it. That secret held piles of gold which I already had a ton of, so staying on the alert for secrets feels a bit pointless. Skul: The Hero Slayer can be rough at times, but trust me it is a good game. There’s a reason why I stuck with it for the past few weeks and pumped in almost fifteen hours of playtime during my breaks. It’s fun, it’s addicting, and the premise was decent enough for me to want to see where it went. I may not know how it ends, but it’s good to be intrigued by it rather than lose interest and give up two hours in. If you want a challenging roguelike with fun combat and a fun setting, then I recommend checking this one out. In the end I am going to have to give Skul: The Hero Slayer an 8.5/10 for being pretty good. 



This critique was written by the single man at Review on. Stay tuned for more content and feel free to check more reviews out over at my site!

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