As this is a preview of an Early Access build on Steam the opinions stated are solely based on version 2.2.2. Bear in mind that as Skul: The Hero Slayer’s planned release date is January 2021, and based on the latest patch notes by Southpaw Games, version 2.2.2 sounds like it’s close to the final build.
Skul: The Hero Slayer places you in the boots of the villain and pits you against the game’s heroes, except because you’re seeing everything from the perspective of a death-defying skeleton the heroes all come across as tyrannical psychopaths drunk on bloodlust, and it brings up age-old philosophical questions about morality and the eternal struggle of good vs evil. Actually, those questions are never part of the bare-bones narrative because Skul: The Hero Slayer is a fun 2D side-scrolling hack’n’slashing roguelite and not an essay on humanity’s existentiality.
As the smallest and only surviving member of the Skeleton Guard, the Witch tasks Skul with rescuing the Demon King and his Senators from the clutches of Mankind, who kidnapped the Demon King after they stormed his castle. Various monsters from across the land have been imprisoned in cages, so to get a good shot at saving the Demon King you’ll have to set the monsters free first. However, there are entire armies standing in your way. Most are human, some of them magical, but worst of all are the treacherous monsters that are fighting on Mankind’s behalf.
Skul: The Hero Slayer has three core pillars: the central game mechanic of swapping skulls, the epic confrontations with Adventurers, and the way to unlock vendors.
Besides hack’n’slashing your way through hordes of enemies with a skeletal leg bone, Skul’s secondary attack is being able to toss his head at enemies to inflict massive damage. The clever (and oftentimes experimental) twist is Skul can switch skulls to unlock new weapons and attacks. This is Skul: The Hero Slayer’s central game mechanic and it’s surprising how advantageous a particular skull can be, depending on the situation of course. As this is a roguelite the skulls are randomly generated so you can never guarantee a solid run but the benefit of being resurrected ad infinitum gives you plenty of opportunities to test out skulls to see which one best suit you. My advice is to be brave and to test as many as you can and eventually you’ll find your sweet spot.
So far I’ve been a ninja, the Genie from Aladdin, Kratos from God of War and Nicolas Cage from Ghost Rider. The ninja skull has been my favourite as you become light-footed, quick, and get to dual-wield two blades; the genie skull lets you teleport long distances and features Robin Williams-inspired animations; the Ghost Rider skull lets you ride a motorcycle and deals massive fire damage. As you can imagine, there are loads of skulls to discover and I’m sure Southpaw Games will add even more for Skul: The Hero Slayer’s full release.
Before you encounter a boss you’ll have to face off against mini-bosses called Adventurers. These are the heroes you would normally control but in Skul: The Hero Slayer you slay the heroes instead, obviously. Adventurers are randomly generated and can be brutal arseholes depending on if you’ve got a good head on your shoulders, otherwise you’re going to get your block knocked off. Adventurers also have the annoying perk of stopping mid-fight to restore their HP. In any other game it would be a godsend but watching a hero glug potions in Skul: The Hero Slayer is like rubbing salt in Skul’s decomposing wound.
You might start off Skul’s mission alone but you can break trapped monsters from their cages and by liberating them from their shackles they will return to the Demon King’s delipidated throne room where they become shop vendors. So the next time you die and get resurrected you can now pick up some extra gear and, more importantly, an extra skull before you even leave the castle! So far I’ve only managed to rescue two monsters but there are obvious placeholders in the throne room that hint that more creatures can be saved.
When you die the ‘Game Over’ screen tells you the enemy that killed you gained EXP. At first I thought this meant that type of enemy would be stronger on your next playthrough but I tested this and it didn’t seem to do anything, so it must be a nod to how the protagonists gain experience in typical RPGs. I think this would be an awesome buff (or debuff, I suppose) to add to Skul: The Hero Slayer though. It would add depth and difficulty to your next attempt to rescue the Demon King. The only unbalanced problem I can see happening is that if the same enemy keeps killing you (say, a boss for instance) then you’re going to continuously struggle to annihilate that particular enemy every time.
My only complaint is how you’re forced to begin from the start every time. Having to go through the same levels and bosses every time, only to meet Death’s door in the same place you died last time is going to become tedious quickly, especially for impatient players like myself. There’s no checkpointing or being able to teleport to different chapters/locales. Skul does have upgrade trees so eventually you should be able to speedrun through the initial stages once you’re OP enough but that’s cheesing the experience a bit.
Other than that though it’s a cool game with replayability, a wicked sense of humour and a cast of charming characters. Even the logo is outrageously cute!
Thank you to Southpaw Games and Neowiz. Previewed on Steam.