Developed by Korean-based SouthPAW Games, Skul: The Hero Slayer is a 2D roguelike platformer action game. Skul reverses the fantasy trope of the virtuous human hero against the evil hordes of undead. Skul must save the Demons from the human invaders from Caerleon!

The Basic Movements

I was curious to try the roguelike genre. The tutorial introduces Skul‘s more arcade-like (but awkward) keybindings. Instead of the traditional WASD, the player uses the arrow keys to move. The three main buttons are Z (Dash), X (Attack), and C (Jump). Pressing C twice does a double-jump.v The primary ability for Skul is to throw his skull with A (which he can transport to with S).

Skul frees the Witch during the tutorial.

Skul frees the Witch after she is captured by Caerleon soldiers, and she becomes your most valuable ally.

The Undertaking Would Be Beyond Measure Laborious and Troublesome

Departing the Demon King’s Castle, we enter the Forest of Harmony 1-1: The Deep Woods. Killing all the enemies unlocks the door to the next map. The game cycles pre-generated maps similarly to the infamous Dragon’s Lair. Some pathways are hidden, so be sure to check “walls” to maneuver around enemies or reach piles of gold.

An example of an enemy level in Skul: The Hero Slayer

Skul (seen here equipped with the “Minotaur” skull) must slay all enemies in this area before unlocking the door to advance to the next area.

Enemies are quite varied. Caerleon archers shoot crossbows, while Caerleon brutes rush in close. Living trees can sprout thorns, puff clouds of toxic pollen, etc. Like Dragon’s Lair, combat is *hard*! Skul only heals with whatever you can find. The colored flames next to the doors hint at what the next map contains. A orange flame means another normal map with enemies. A green flame means a new skull is available. Skulls give Skul new powers and abilities (i.e. new classes). Interestingly, an ability activates every time Skul swaps to a different skull.

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Though The Dead Might Live Again, They Could Also Die Again

It wasn’t long before I suffered my first death: my rough introduction to the roguelike genre. You will die…A LOT. Even though you did everything right. Just accept that. Being killed (“shattered”) results in a stat page that shows how you have done so far.

The Shattered menu that appears whenever Skul dies.

Whenever Skul dies, he respawns back at the Castle. But not before the game shows how well you did on that run.

But here’s the catch: enemies get XP for defeating monsters. Meaning that every time you are killed, your enemies get tougher! When you die, you respawn at the Castle with your default skull. Before going, you can use Dark Quartz you obtained to boost your Traits and to improve Skul’s speed, attack, and health. Traits persist after death. Either buy what you want now or save up for more expensive Traits later. A door with blue flames leads to The Shelter. Skul can purchase items at this shop from the Chef (restore HP), the Collector (boost attack, gold collection, etc.), or the Dwarf (special ability items called “Quintessence”). The Headless occasionally offers a random new skull in exchange of one of Skul’s. A door with red flames leads to a Rookie Hero. My first Rookie Hero was a Level 3 adventurer named Clegane. Armed with his giant mace and his battle-cry (“Leeroy…Jenkins!”), I was pummeled.

Remember enemies gain XP from defeating you? Yup: the Rookie Heroes I fought slowly went up in level.

Skul faces off against a Rookie Hero.

The deceptively-named *Rookie* Heroes are some of the deadliest enemies in Skul: The Hero Slayer.

Die, Die Again, Repeat

After about an hour of this, I wanted to give up. However, I persisted and kept boosting my Traits. Finally, two hours in (on *Rookie Mode*, starting max HP at 200 instead of 100), I finally defeated my first Rookie Hero. Continuing on, 1-2: Caerleon Border was smoother because I bought “Emergency Bomb” at The Shelter. Now whenever Skul double-jumps, he drops a bomb below. I shortly discovered a new “Ninja” skull, which could *triple-jump*…dropping *two* bombs. At this point, I realized Skul is hard, but fair. Yes, it takes a while to figure out skull abilities, and you won’t always find your favorite (my favorite is the brutish Minotaur). However, once you learn a skull’s abilities, you can plan accordingly to deal some truly lethal combos. It is embarrassingly easy to defeat my second Rookie Hero (a *Level 19* archer) with my “Death from Above” strategy. So the process repeats throughout 1-3: Caerleon Gate. The level ends in a giant door with purple flames.

This door leads to a level boss…Yggdrassil: The Elder Ent. A gigantic tree monster with *HUGE* HP! (eight or nine times that of a Rookie Hero). With a few brutal swipes of lumbering hands, Skul is shattered…and back at the Castle…

The first boss of the game is Yggdrassil: the Elder Ent.

If you thought that Rookie Heroes were tough, then you are not prepared for the level bosses!

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Conclusion

After five or six hours of gameplay, and two more tries against Yggdrassil, I am still on Level 1. My wrists hurt from all the button-mashing, but oddly, I’m not as frustrated anymore. Playing with a controller (even on PC) might be easier to navigating Skul‘s controls and preventing sore wrists. Roguelike games require both skill and luck. Because skulls and items are random, players need to dynamically change their play-styles in response. Admittedly, there is a fun challenge to that adaptability. Character designs are fun, especially for Skul’s variations. Skul can be anything from a dagger-throwing harlequin to a flaming skull “Rider” (complete with chains and motorcycle). Skul can feel repetitive, but compared to similar action games like Metroid or Dark Souls, the retro pixel-graphic style of Skul is much more colorful and its animations are smoother. The art design is the sole reason you don’t get sick of the same pre-generated maps.

However, I must point out the imbalance in gameplay. Rewards are so incremental that they’re barely noticeable: HP increasing by 5, attack power increasing by 2%, etc. Also, I understand this is a roguelike game, not an RPG. However, the story never delves much deeper than the premise of “monsters are good and humans are bad”. I’m not really invested in the character traits or dialogue of those I meet. Fortunately, Skul is still in Early Access, so there is still time for SouthPAW to refine gameplay balance. Perhaps with difficulty settings? Also, some voice-over for dialogue would be nice. Considering Skul‘s low price-tag on Steam ($17.99), I think I actually got more than my money’s worth. The HUD and controls are simple enough for most gamers. The pain and frustration of dying is undeniable, but Skul keeps enough variety in skulls and items to keep it interesting.

I’m not saying this game is for everyone. Skul is challenging, but you’ll either learn to love the challenge or set the game aside.

We rate Skul: The Hero Slayer at 3.5 out of 5.

Skul is available now on PC through Steam Early Access. Console versions are planned for the full release.

A copy of Skul: The Hero Slayer was provided to Geek Girl Authority for this review.

 

Tyler Boyce
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