The best thing I can say about a game is when it can hold my attention for longer than a week. This is both because a lot of games I want to play these days are few and far between and because of my ADHD brain essentially making it so that my sense of object permanence is next to non-existent (I really should go see a psychiatrist one of these days). So imagine my surprise that a small little Roguelike by the name of Skul The Hero Slayer has kept me super engaged for the last two weeks. While I still haven’t gotten my first full clear of it yet, I’ve played enough of it that it stands out as one of my favorites of the year alongside Cyber Shadow.
In an inversion of your standard fantasy story, you play as the titular Skul, the smallest member of the Demon King’s Skeleton Army, who must wade through the forces of the Human nation of Carleon to rescue the Demon King and his inner circle from the hands of the powerful First Hero following him and his group of adventurers breaking a peace treaty between the two powers. As far as stories in Roguelikes go, it’s not Hades (then again, what is?), but it gets the job done. I like the narrative setup for the same reason I liked it in the first two Overlord games, in that the traditional heroes and humans are set up as the obstacles to be overcome, with the traditionally “evil” characters being framed in a somewhat positive light, my favorites among them being the Witch who spews cat puns whenever she is a cat and a Death Knight that hates fighting but loves knitting and interior design, to the point where he serves as the NPC you talk to spruce up the Demon King’s castle.
The main gameplay is that of an action platformer inspired by Dead Cells. You make your way through five different locales with increasing levels of difficulty. It starts simple enough with low-level knights and ents to give you a feel for the builds you’ll be starting and eventually taking on elite soldiers and alchemical experiments, the latter of which all explode when you kill them. All of this seems daunting as hell for a tiny bone child, but that’s where the Skull system comes into play.
The main conceit of Skul The Hero Slayer is the ability to carry two different heads with you at once that give you completely new abilities and play styles. These range from the mundane, such as taking the forms of undead Carleton soldiers, shield bearers and pikemen; the more specialized, like Thieves, barbarians, Samurai, and greatsword wielding warriors; to the completely ridiculous and awesome, with stuff like: a Gambler who uses Russian Roulette, loaded dice, and slot machines to fight, a Ghost Rider Expy, complete with chains and a spectral bike, a goddamn undead werewolf to cleave through enemies with blistering speed and power, the Predator who spins to win across the battlefield wielding a pair of giant cleavers, and my two favorites: the Beheaded One (the player character) from Dead Cells in a really cute cameo and the goddamn Grim Reaper, who uses various means of hellfire, shadow magic, and a massive scythe to cleave enemies asunder. And these are just the ones I can list off the top of my head. The system has so much versatility with how you can approach combat with just the two skull setup and that’s before we take items that augment your stats into account. This leads to the best way I can describe the game as being “Dead Head Fred meets Dead Cells’’ and the first half of that is a deep cut reference I wasn’t expecting to make in this, the year of our Lord Luigi, 2021. But here we are.
The 32 Skulls in the game currently all have their unique strengths and weaknesses and how you get through runs is all about mixing and matching two of them in unique combos to give you cool things to do. And then there’s also the use of Quintessence to add passive and active bonuses to Skul as you fight through the various hordes of enemies and while they do add a nice extra layer of mechanical futzery to play around with. At the end of the day, while Skul The Hero Slayer won’t change your life, it’s still a fun roguelike that took the groundwork set by its contemporaries and uses it to set up a bone-shakingly good time. I recommend it if you want a new Roguelike to play after getting the true ending to Hades and want to embrace your inner Spooky Scary Skeleton.