What happens after the "good guys" win? Once the heroes are triumphant, the demon kings have been vanquished, and the land is restored, what then? Maybe some folks don't want the demon kings to be vanquished. Maybe there are still some grunts left in the kings' evil skeleton armies that would rather see them take their thrones once more. Such is the case in Skul: The Hero Slayer, which casts you as the lone skeleton survivor of a supposedly heroic demon purge. Adventurers, in conjunction with the Imperial Army, have laid waste to your king's castle and taken him hostage. You, the titular Skul, must sally forth to save him.
To do so, you must journey through Imperial lands, battle soldiers and hostile wildlife, and discover ways to grow stronger. Skul: The Hero Slayer is a roguelite platformer, so each run is different. Levels are randomly generated, as are enemy layouts and some bosses. Unlike many roguelites, however, Skul places a fairly strong emphasis on narrative. As you progress through areas, cutscenes will play detailing the backstory of the world and how the characters you've met so far fit into it. Skul has been on Early Access for some time, but it's now consumed enough calcium to find its way to a full release. How will this little skeleton's journey stack up against some fierce competition?
Skul: The Hero Slayer Doesn't Have Its Head Screwed On
The most important quality for a roguelite to possess is that "one more try" feeling. When you've just fallen to a particularly nasty combination of enemies or traps, a roguelite needs to make you want to get up and try again. Happily, Skul has that "one more try" feeling in spades. At its core, it's an action RPG-platformer hybrid. Each map asks you to clear out a certain number of enemies using the tools and buffs at your disposal before you move on to the boss of that area. The platforming is fairly rudimentary, and while it's perfectly functional, it's not the star of the show.
Skul: The Hero Slayer has that "one more try" feeling in spades.
Combat, too, is reasonably straightforward. It's a hack-and-slash style affair in which you'll mostly be mashing the attack button and occasionally throwing out a special move. What differentiates Skul from its competitors is its on-the-fly class-switching mechanic. Being a skeleton, the titular Skul is able to throw away his standard head, swapping it for all manner of creative and intriguing alternatives including jesters, werewolves, and gargoyles. Each new head grants Skul new powers. You might be able to glide or fly with one head, while another can quickly dash backward or attack from a distance.
Combat In Skul Is Satisfying, But Sometimes A Chore
It's this central head-swapping mechanic that makes each run such a joy. You never quite know what you're going to get, so finding new heads feels like an exciting experience. How will the skeleton pike-wielder change your experience? Can you make it through that tricky trap section using the mummy head, which is invulnerable to traps? Discovering what heads do and how they can help you against Skul's myriad boss encounters is a consistent joy. You can have two heads equipped at any time, and you don't need to keep Skul's default head, so you can keep experimenting until you find a combination that works for you.
With so much variety, it's inevitable that some heads won't cut it, and that's the case. Some of Skul's "classes" just aren't strong combat options against tougher enemies, meaning that some runs feel doomed almost from the start. In addition, some enemies in Skul are really quite shockingly damage-resistant, leading to prolonged encounters that feel more lengthy than challenging. This is especially true of bosses. While the boss encounters themselves are well-designed, they can feel like marathons, and I sometimes made mistakes more out of frustration than tension. Still, the combat itself is fun and engaging enough that trying again never felt like a big ask.
Skeletal Structure In Skul: The Hero Slayer
Unfortunately, while the core combat in Skul: The Hero Slayer is a joy, the same can't quite be said for the ancillary structure. Outside of combat, Skul is a fairly typical roguelite platformer. The platforming challenges in each stage aren't particularly satisfying or compelling. Platforming mostly exists as a way to reposition yourself for combat. Thankfully, fighting is enough fun that it never feels stale, and new enemy types are introduced from zone to zone. If, however, you're looking for more than a simple hack-and-slash game, Skul won't provide the same platforming joys as, say, Dead Cells or Rogue Legacy.
Good roguelites also offer compelling experiences during downtime. Supergiant Games' Hades is an excellent example of this. Between runs, you can unwind by chatting to Greek mythological figures, and they'd always have something new to say. Skul can't quite compete on this front. The castle that acts as your staging ground isn't a very interesting place. There are a couple of characters hanging around, and you can sometimes chat to them for more narrative details, but you'll want to dive into your next run as quickly as you can. In a way, this is a good thing, as Skul is keeping as little between you and the core combat as possible.
There's also a skill tree that boosts Skul's stats in exchange for a currency you maintain between runs. It doesn't offer any interesting variations on skills, choosing instead to hew to the somewhat disappointing statistical approach. You can increase your max HP by incremental percentages, for example, or add a little more attack power each time. It's hard to feel like Skul is getting significantly more powerful between approaches. Even so, this is a better implementation than the skill tree in something like Bite the Bullet, where it felt completely ancillary and pointless.
Skul: The Hero Slayer's World Is Beautiful
Thankfully, there's a gorgeous world in Skul: The Hero Slayer to pick up some of the gameplay slack. The pixel art is well-pitched, and while it does clash somewhat with the clean user interface, Skul is a joy to look at. The characters are well-realized and well-written, too. It's gratifying to see writing that doesn't fall back on the increasingly tired pop culture references. There are one or two that made me wince, but for the most part, the humor and warmth in Skul's dialogue come from good old-fashioned strong writing. As befits a game turning the old good-evil dichotomy on its head, Skul's characters feel well-rounded, even though they're not given much screen time.
The humor and warmth in Skul's dialogue comes from good old-fashioned strong writing.
The narrative in Skul: The Hero Slayer is also surprisingly compelling and thoughtful. Between boss fights and certain stages, you'll unlock more of the backstory. It's a shame Skul relies quite heavily on non-interactive cutscenes to deliver its story, but it's an engaging enough tale. The story serves as a strong motivator when Skul's platforming starts to feel a little rote or its combat gets slightly repetitive. Given how hard it is for a roguelite to incorporate a strong narrative, Skul should be commended for having the ambition to try, and for pulling it off with admirable aplomb.
Skul: The Hero Slayer | Final Thoughts
Despite a lackluster skill tree and a rather thin wraparound structure, Skul: The Hero Slayer delivers in spades. It's a crunchy, satisfying roguelite platformer with great combat variety and some excellent boss encounters. Some enemies may feel too much like bullet sponges, and there isn't much here besides swapping heads and stacking buffs to find the optimal combination. That central gameplay loop is cathartic and satisfying enough to make up for this, though, so if you're a roguelite platformer fan, make no bones about it: Skul: The Hero Slayer is pretty great.
TechRaptor reviewed Skul: The Hero Slayer on PC via Steam using a code provided by the publisher.
- Excellent, Varied Combat
- Engaging Story
- Simple, Addictive Gameplay Loop
- Great Class Variety
- Bullet Sponge Enemies
- Some Heads Feel Weak
- Boring Skill Tree