Take our usual hand and let Polygon’s Winter Games package for 2021 guide you through the playground for winter games – what’s great, what’s not, and what exciting features await you in the games coming out in February and March.
Few people stopped listening to Nirvana when they first realized how much Nirvana sounded like Pixies, but Skul: The Hero Slayer may be damaged by the similarity with other popular games in recent years.
Skul is a 2D platformer with roguelite elements, so each race is randomized to some degree, and you will earn currency ̵
The protagonist’s head is just a skull – he is, after all, a skeleton – so he can replace his own noggin with a wide variety of other heads, each with its own range of powers, attacks and abilities. You can have up to two different heads to switch between in your inventory, although there is a chill that is activated each time you switch between them. You want to switch between them often as you learn the inside of each of the game’s areas.
Not only does a new head give you new ways to attack your enemies, but each one can also change the way you move, or your ability to act defensively. As if that’s not enough, your heads also make you do different things when you switch between them, which means that each skull’s attack and weaknesses matter, as well as how they work together.
SouthPAW Games announces Skul like having “70 different playable characters”, and that statement seems honest, although I have not yet seen each 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 shop in the game or an item. You will also be able to tell from the door design if you are about to take on a boss. While the upgrades are all random, these color-coded outputs give you at least some control over how you want to build your character, even if you never know what the options will be for each potential reward.
It may sound a bit messy. Other roguelite games offer similar ways to expand the load, and 2D side 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 done so well, and they work so seamlessly together. Originality in itself is an overrated trait; something that has been done before, but which is still done with this level of skill and care, tends to feel fresh, although you can draw a straight line from existing games to the design of Skul.
Then that’s how fucking good the match is felt throughout the game. Unlike in most platform players from the NES and SNES eras, and even most retro-action games today, the enemies are in Skul: the hero Slayer can not hurt you. You can actually walk right through them, and they can walk right through you. The only damage in both directions is an actual attack, which means that it is important to learn how to get through enemies and their attacks, as well as how to group the enemies together and interrupt your attacks.
Getting a large group of evils together in one place and cutting through them with the wolf’s skull is a joy. SouthPAW has apparently mastered the intricate skill of designing “game feel”, making every game feel thick, meaty and satisfying. Cutting and cutting myself through loads of enemies and learning to disrupt, block or avoid their own attacks, takes up enough brain power that it’s hard to think of anything else while playing, and puts me in a welcome state like the rest of today worries are crowded out of my head.
It helps, as the recently released Cyber Shadow, Skul is a study on how to make enemy attacks readable and easy to make if you follow along. The trick is to place the indicators for each attack in different places around the screen, and separate them so that the player learns to read the screen.
Some enemies take a straight forward shot that places a laser-thin red line on the screen while aiming before firing. Other enemies send roots through the ground below you, so that the ground lights up briefly before you are hit by the roots. Others may have exaggerated animations or flashing lights that tell you what to expect once you have learned what each indicator means. The end result is a game where you constantly have to scan almost the entire screen to make sure there is no mob planning anything while working with another group of enemies.
As impressive as these systems are in practice, SouthPAW is still not happy with the balance sheet, and has promised to continue SkulSteam page to continue the work of making each attack even easier to distinguish before it happens. If this 1.0 release, which takes the game out of early access, is already so good, I can not wait to see how the developers improve on what they already have here.
Skul: The Hero Slayer has some rough edges, but I even thought the uneven balance between the heads and power-ups was nice. Forgetting in an exaggerated build and kicking ass, and knowing that you could be back to almost nothing on your next attempt, was exciting. Having a good build almost made me feel it more was at stake, no less. If I did not get far enough in these races, I only had myself to blame.
It’s hard to even write that the music was repetitive, bordering on annoying, when so much else with the game is so good, but there are plenty of those mistakes to keep Skul: The Hero Slayer from standing next to this year’s absolute best game. I can forgive some cloying music, a clumsy translation and derived roots when the rest of the game is such a model of precision and iterative design.
I have no doubt about that Skul: The Hero Slayer will be further improved as work continues on it, but there is plenty of a good time at launch that it is easy to recommend. It almost feels like a coverband’s work so well that you can not wait to see what they can do when they make something really 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.