In Skul: The Hero Slayer, SouthPAW Game’s new 2D side-scrolling rogue-lite, you play as the titular skeleton character on a journey to save monsterkind from the humans that have been remorselessly attacking them and ultimately rescue the Demon King. To do this, you must travel through a variety of levels taking down plenty of human and other types of enemies, freeing bosses from the spells they’ve been put under, and using your head.
By using your head I do mean it literally since Skul’s head can be swapped, with different heads having a variety of abilities (note: while these heads are called skulls in-game, they’ll be referred to as heads from here on out to avoid confusion with the main characters name). These abilities include different attacks and special moves, stat enhancements, and more. Skul’s standard head is fine, especially once you’ve upgraded your stats a bit, but different heads are more well-suited for other situations, so it’s best to try them all and see what fits your playstyle best. Combat includes jumping and dashing, a basic attack, different special attacks and abilities depending on the head you have, and additional abilities from the power-ups. You’ll be using the basic attack the most, as the other abilities require cooldown before they can be used again, although this can be reduced depending on what you have equipped.
Between sections of a level, there are usually either one or two doors that will let you go to the next section. It’s not yet clear to me what every door means but it seems that doors with treasure around them lead to a section where you get more money, and the door with ruins and purple flames around it takes you to what I can best describe as the shopping area. There are a few other types of doors, but the differences aren’t quite as obvious to me, besides the boss doors which have no enemies in their area.
Between some sections of a level, you’ll usually find some mini-bosses that can lead to pretty awesome and intense fights that are reminiscent of the slick anime battles from Naruto, which enhanced the excitement for me. The different heads you acquire during your journey vary in their utility and some are more appropriate than others depending on which miniboss you’re facing. For example, if you’re facing a boss that stays in the air a lot, you’ll likely be better suited with a head that has a dash attack or an attack that’s far-reaching.
Heads can be upgraded by Arachne (pictured above) for a number of bones between levels, which you collect by destroying the heads you find that you know you aren’t going to use. Depending on which head it is, the upgrade can cost between 15 and 100 bones, and some can’t be upgraded, so it’s best to choose wisely whenever possible. You also unlock the ability to start a run with a random head after you rescue a specific character, and having access to this can help you get through the earlier areas relatively fast so that multiple runs don’t feel quite as tedious. Bones are lost after each death, so it’s always a good choice to destroy any unused heads you find.
As previously mentioned, characters can be rescued, which is done by defeating the surrounding enemies and then breaking their cages. You can choose to ignore them, but rescuing them is usually more beneficial as it can unlock some bonuses in the castle hub, or restore health or give an extra stat boost for that run. Imagine you’re low on health and you know that your run could end in the next area, these characters can provide you with just the boost you need to help you through that next area.
Between each run, stats can be upgraded by giving the witch in the castle the darkstones you’ve collected from defeating enemies. You always keep the darkstones from each run until you spend them, so you can accumulate a pretty big number of them over time if you aren’t always trying to spend them between runs. These permanent upgrades can increase your attack damage, reduce cooldown time, and more. Depending on what types of heads are your favorite to use, you’ll likely want to upgrade the corresponding stats first (boosted magic attack for heads that use it, boosted physical attack for other heads, etc.). It can take a while to get to a point where you feel confident with your stats as the upgrades come in small but slightly increasing (and increasingly expensive) increments, but it’s worth the investment when you feel so close to being able to finish a level.
Gold is also accumulated throughout each level by defeating enemies and finding treasure, and can be spent in the shopping area found between certain sections of each area. In this area you can purchase an item that restores your health, swap for a different head or power-up, and even buy other enhancements if you have enough money. You can also refresh the item shop in the right corner if you don’t like any of the items offered. Gold is also lost after each death, so it can be better to spend while you can. Sometimes it seems like items are too expensive, but as long as you defeat a lot of enemies and seek out the doors with treasure around them, you should at least be able to restore some health and pick up one item from the shop. Some heads also boost the amount of gold you gain, so I’d recommend those if you’re trying to get as much as you can from the shop.
For those having a difficult time, there is a rookie mode that can be toggled on. All it does is reduce incoming damage by 50 percent, but luckily does not feel like it sacrifices the challenge of the game to do so. It just helps levels be a little more manageable, although for less experienced players it may not be enough. While I understand why you have to face the boss every time, I feel that there should at least be a more story-oriented mode so players don’t have to worry quite as much about facing the big boss of each level over and over again and could choose so if they wanted to.
While Skul has a solid foundation and satisfying mechanics, it doesn’t feel like it does anything new or unique to help it stand out, as players being able to remove and/or swap out their head has been done before in games such as Headsnatchers, Helheim Hassle, Decap Attack, and NeverDead among others It might be a great pick for anyone who maybe doesn’t mind it not breaking any new ground, but those looking for something new and a little different may be disappointed. What Skul does manage to do better in this case is it manages to have a much larger variety of different types of heads to use, so you don’t have to be repeatedly using the same heads and as previously mentioned, can use whichever heads you think suit your gameplay style best — at the times when those types of heads are available of course. The one mechanic I would add is being able to have several heads at a time and swap between them — possibly at a cost of some kind, as to not become too cheap of a mechanic — so it could be easier to adapt to different situations without losing your head.
The detailed retro art style is solid and while it’s not particularly exciting to me, it still has its charm. The music is also decent, with epic tracks for boss fights and chill piano music for the castle hub; the soundtrack usually fits each situation well.
Overall, while Skul may be frustrating for some, the satisfying gameplay loop will keep players going for a longer time than they may expect. And though it does take a bit to get in the groove and become accustomed to the systems at play, the simple combat and ability to upgrade between runs is what helps it manage to still feel satisfying.. It’s definitely a decent game to try if you enjoy 2D side scrolling rogue-lites.
Skul: The Hero Slayer is currently available on PC via Steam.
A code was provided by the publisher.