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Skul goes to battle against a living, angry tree Image: SouthPAW Games/Neowiz

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Skul: The Hero Slayer has few new ideas, but plenty of great moments

Comfort food for a cold winter

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Few people stopped listening to Nirvana once they realized how much Nirvana sounded like the Pixies, but Skul: The Hero Slayer may be hurt by its passing resemblance to other popular games of the past few years.

Skul is a 2D platformer with roguelite elements, so each run is randomized to an extent, and you’ll earn currency — in this case, “dark quartz” — that will allow you to buy permanent upgrades to your character between attempts. The twist is that you’re a small skeleton soldier, and the “heroes” are the ones you’re after. That role reversal is pretty weak in practice, especially since the story is delivered in English that feels roughly translated, but luckily, SouthPAW Games is perfectly fluent in the language of game design.

The protagonist’s head is just a skull — he is a skeleton, after all — so he can swap his own noggin out with a wide variety of other heads, each of which comes with its own array of powers, attacks, and abilities. You can keep up to two different heads to switch between in your inventory, although there’s a cooldown that’s activated each time you swap between them. You’ll want to swap between them often as you learn the ins and outs of each of the game’s areas.

It’s not just that a new head gives you new ways to attack your enemies, but that each one may also change how you move, or your ability to act defensively. As if that’s not enough, the heads also cause you to do different things as you swap between them, meaning that each skulls’ attacks and weaknesses matter, as well as how they work together.

SouthPAW Games advertises Skul as having “70 different playable characters,” and that claim seems honest, although I have yet to see every head myself. As in Hades, different doors at the end of each area lead to different rewards, so you can choose whether you want a new skull, more gold for the in-game shop, or an item. You’ll also be able to tell from the door’s design whether you’re about to take on a boss. While the upgrades are all randomized, these color-coded exits give you at least some control over how you want to build up your character, even if you never know what the options will be for each potential reward.

That may all sound a little rote. Other roguelite games offer similar ways to build out your loadout, and 2D side-scrolling games with cute, retro-styled characters mixed with modern mechanics are almost their own genre at this point. But in playing Skul: The Hero Slayer, I never cared that I had seen so many of these individual ideas before, because each one is executed so well, and they work together so seamlessly. Originality by itself is an overrated trait; something that has been done before but is still executed with this level of skill and care tends to feel fresh, even if you can draw a straight line from existing games to the design of Skul.

Skul wears a horned skull while going into battle Image: SouthPAW Games/Neowiz

Then there’s how damn good the combat feels throughout the game. Unlike in most platformers from the NES and SNES eras, and even most retro action games of today, the enemies in Skul: The Hero Slayer can’t hurt you. You can walk right through them, in fact, and they can walk right through you. The only thing that does damage in either direction is an actual attack, which means it’s crucial to learn how to dash through enemies and their attacks, as well as how to group the enemies together and interrupt their attacks with yours.

Getting a big group of baddies together in one place and slashing through them with the wolf skull is a delight. SouthPAW has seemingly mastered the intricate skill of designing “game feel,” making each battle feel thick, meaty, and satisfying. Slicing and dicing my way through crowds of enemies and learning how to disrupt, block, or avoid their own attacks takes up enough brain power that it’s hard to think of anything else while playing, putting me in a welcome state of flow as the rest of the day’s worries are crowded out of my head.

It helps that, like the recently released Cyber Shadow, Skul is a study in how to make enemy attacks legible and easy to make out if you’re paying attention. The trick is to place the indicators for each attack in different places around the screen, and differentiate them from each other so the player learns how to read the screen.

Some enemies charge up a straight-ahead shot that places a laser-thin red line on the screen as they aim before firing. Other enemies send roots through the ground under you, causing that ground to glow briefly before you get hit with the roots. Others may have exaggerated animations or flashing lights that let you know what to expect, once you’ve learned what each indicator means. The end result is a game in which you have to be constantly scanning nearly the entirety of the screen to make sure there isn’t a mob planning something while you’re working on another group of enemies.

As impressive as these systems are in practice, SouthPAW still isn’t happy with the balance, and has promised on Skul’s Steam page to continue working on making each attack even easier to differentiate before it happens. If this 1.0 release, taking the game out of early access, is already this good, I can’t wait to see how the developers improve on what they already have here.

Skul: The Hero Slayer has a few rough edges, but I even found the uneven balance of the heads and power-ups to be enjoyable. Lucking into an over-powered build and kicking ass, knowing you could be back to next to nothing on your next attempt, was thrilling. Having a great build almost made me feel like more was at stake, not less. If I didn’t make it far enough on those runs, I had only myself to blame.

It’s hard to even write that the music was repetitive, bordering on annoying, when so much other stuff with the game is this good, but there are enough flaws of that kind to keep Skul: The Hero Slayer from standing next to the absolute best games of the year. I can forgive some cloying music, a clumsy translation, and derivative roots when the rest of the game is such a model of precision and iterative design.

I have no doubt that Skul: The Hero Slayer will be improved even further as work continues on it, but it’s enough of a good time at launch that it’s easy to recommend. It feels almost like the work of a cover band so good that you can’t wait to see what they can do when they create something truly original.

Skul: The Hero Slayer is out now for PC, Mac, and Linux, with a release on Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One coming in 2021.

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