Skul: The Hero Slayer Early Access Impressions
Skul: The Hero Slayer is a roguelike game that has been in early access since February 2020 with intentions to launch by the end of the year. It’s developed by Korean developers SouthPAW Games, and it clearly shows in its numerous references and callbacks to other popular video games and movies.
Skul has all the hallmarks of a typical roguelike with randomly generated levels, permadeath and floods you with enemies and traps that punish you for having sloppy movement or playing too aggressively. What initially stood out to me was the high quality pixel art and how well the enemies and environments were crafted in the universe the developers wanted to create.
Wait, are we the baddies?
The game opens with a short scene in a Victorian style castle with baroque music playing in the background where the demon clan are quickly invaded by what looks to be the royal knight army. The castle is besieged and demolished with the only remains are the feint outline of skeleton bones among the ruins. That little skeleton wakes up in the forest, his name is ‘Skul’ and he is the main protagonist of the game. A lowly foot soldier with a few rare skills, Skul is the only hope to save the demon kingdom and rescue all his friends that have been taken prisoner.
Don’t give up, skellie!
So what makes Skul special compared to other heroes? Skul has the ability to decapitate and use his head as a throwable weapon which he can teleport to at any time. But the real standout gimmick is that he can also completely replace his head with other Skuls that will completely alter his skill set, stats and abilities as well as his appearance. In what is one of the most unique gameplay mechanics I’ve ever seen in a roguelike, Skul can become heroes from other movies or video games such as Kratos from God of War, the nameless from Dead Cells or even Johnny Blaze from Ghost Rider including his flaming motorcycle and all. These unique Skuls really make the game shine changing the game from what feels like a standard beat ’em up game with the default skill set into widely varying mechanics that can have major drawbacks if used incorrectly.
Balance is for suckers
Since the game is in early access, it tends to fall into many of the same issues of the game that it hails most of its inspiration from: Dead Cells. Dead Cells when it first launched in EA had major balance issues with enemy spawns, damage and enemy health pools. Skul falls into a similar pattern where in early stages, the RNG can be very frustrating to deal with due to how weak Skul is until he finally finds a unique Skul that can be game-changing. In one of my early runs, in the very first stage, I ran into probably 30 or so knights that kept spawning in and although I didn’t struggle, all I was doing was spamming the attack button because I literally had no other skills or items at this point. I also feel that Skuls and items spawns are very rare making the early game quite tedious due to how mediocre Skul is as a default character.
Bosses for days
As you progress through the game and rescue prisoners, the game tries to mitigate these issues by giving you permanent upgrades that you can buy using soul credits from killing enemies. Other rescued prisoners also give you basic Skuls and items to start a new run with to get through the early stages quicker.
There are three worlds at the time of writing this; each world will randomly spawn in one of the unique minibosses which are classed around very stereotypical RPG hero roles such as knight, mage, healer and others, flipping the script since you are the demon fighting the heroes of the game. The end of each world will have a set final boss that can be extremely punishing if you have the wrong loadout for the encounter.
One of my favourite aspects of this game is the fact that the environment can not only damage you but the enemies as well. Too many games punish you with environmental traps but enemies somehow are magically invincible to the same traps you get caught in. If there’s a spiked vine that will deal fall damage, you can thrust enemies onto it to instakill them which feels supremely rewarding as so little games are designed around using the environment to your advantage and moreso only serve to punish you.
All in all, Skul is a formidable Dead Cells clone with beautiful pixel art and one of the most unique gameplay mechanics found in Skul-swapping. The only caveat is that the balance feels wonky and that there is only three worlds at the moment. I hope to see the balance issues ironed out over early access just as Dead Cells did and I’m excited to see what the developer does with more unique Skuls in the future.
Skul: The Hero Slayer can be found on the Steam store here.