Fast-paced pixel beat-em-up is headed to Nintendo Switch. Probably.
The Souls-like genre has never held much appeal for me. But if you wrap it up into a beautiful and responsive pixel-graphic game like Skul: The Hero Slayer, even the repetition of a hundred gruesome deaths can become enjoyable. Like, really enjoyable!
Skul: The Hero Slayer is not what it looks like. And it’s not what I expected. What appears to be (and what other, more confused review sites are labling as) a pixel-based roguelike Metroidvania is actually a Souls-like beat-em-up. Who would have thought?
To be totally frank with you, neither genre is one I typically play or enjoy. For me, Souls games and beat-em-ups both tend to feel repetitive and button-mashy. Skul: The Hero Slayer adds a couple of missing elements to the mix and has created a game that has the intensity of a beat-em-up with the precision of a platformer and the depth of an RPG. Well done.
It’s no secret that pixel platformers get preferential treatment on this website. It’s nothing personal, just that the owner of the site (me) has a particular soft spot for retro-style platformers. So when I requested a review key for Skul, I was expecting exactly that: A platformer.
And while there are some elements of platforming, Skul’s gameplay is based much more heavily around keeping your enemies from overwhelming the protagonist and deftly jumping and sliding to position Skul for the most efficient hits. You know… like a beat-em-up.
But that’s not to say Skul is a traditional, arcade-style beater. You won’t be picking up clubs or knives. Instead, you pick up skulls. Gross.
As you might expect, skulls are a common theme in the game. The protagonist (Skul) is just a skeleton, after all. He has the ability to switch out his default skull for a variety of alternate skulls he finds throughout the game.
The skulls are imbued with the skills and abilities of their original owners. Equipping a new skull will give you a new weapon set, new moves and in some cases radically change Skul’s appearance. You can hold up to 2 at a time, and switching between them can unleash special attacks.
For example, the Spear skull equips Skul with a dashing charge that deals extra damage and moves him through enemies to help him maintain an effective position.
The Jester skull lets Skul throw daggers that tag enemies. Every third tag results in an explosion that deals extra damage as well as splash damage. The Jester also has a special attack that throws a multitude of daggers from the air, damaging enemies in a wide swath on the ground.
Skulls are divided by their types—such as Power or Speed—and certain items you can find in the game will enhance skulls of a certain type, or give enhancements for the number of skulls you have, and other subtleties.
The strategy in choosing skulls and the luck in finding ones that work for your play style (they are randomly selected in each playthrough) adds a surprising layer of depth to the game.
Die, die again
Like any self-respecting Souls-like game, Skul follows the pattern of:
- Play till you die
- Go back to the base and upgrade your skills
- Get a little further every time
I hated this pattern of play in Dark Souls. That’s a personal opinion, of course. And not an especially popular one. But there are some big honkin’ differences between how the play pattern is implemented in Skul: The Hero Slayer vs. Dark Souls.
Colorful pixel graphics notwithstanding, Skul is much more in-your-face in its style of combat. There is a lot of button mashing, but the controls are as slick as any traditional platformer. The ability to jump and dash and be generally agile on the battlefield are every bit as important as choosing the right skull and upgrading the right stats.
You’ll find yourself taking out enemies by the dozen. And killing one group may very well trigger a next group to teleport onto the screen and pile on. It’s very satisfying.
The action is incredibly fast-paced and strongly relies on your own ability to manage a crowd and take advantage of a constantly-changing field that is often completely flooded with enemies, with both melee and ranged attacks.
Plus, you’re forced to work with whatever skulls you find along the way, whether they’re your favorite or not. This often means changing your pace of play, or changing your style of combat and being able to adapt in a dynamic game.
As you’re mowing down swarms of enemies, you’ll collect “dark quartz” which works as XP when you revisit the Witch’s castle (Skul’s base) and pay the Witch to unlock and upgrade your traits. The traits are mostly typical HP, ATK and DEF upgrades, but there are a few more creative ones.
You also meet and rescue NPCs throughout the game and they will appear in the Witch’s castle to offer Skul more bonuses like free skulls and powerups.
Random maps. Of course.
And of course every game is different. The game stitches levels together from a selection of pre-rendered maps. Because you start at level one every time, it is entirely reasonable that you might get tired of looking at the stage 1 maps. Gorgeous though they are.
You’ll also encounter random minibosses. I’ve seen four or five so far, and they are fairly tough. Of course, they get easier as you continue to level up.
After a few minibosses, you get to face a level boss. So far I’ve only beaten the first boss, a massive tree that takes up more than the entire screen. It took several attempts (over about 5 hours of gameplay) to finally beat him. And even then, I’m pretty sure it only happened because I had the Reaper skull (which is totally overpowered, but more on that in a bit).
Beyond Early Access: Skul on Switch and more?
As of this writing, the game is only available on Steam Early Access. However, while the devs work on perfecting the balance and difficulty, they are also planning console releases to follow Steam’s full release.
They haven’t released official details, but they are targeting a release of Skul: The Hero Slayer on Nintendo Switch and possibly Playstation 4 and XBox.
Don’t get me wrong, though. Even though it’s still being balanced and fine-tuned, Skul is already very playable and fun. If I didn’t know it was in Early Access, it would be easy to assume it was totally completed. It’s challenging, pretty, and thoroughly enjoyable.