If there’s a reason to buy Skeletal Avenger, it’s that you get to throw your skull at enemies. Even better, it’s essential to master a bit of the old head-chucking. Without it, you’re going to get dumped out of your fair share of dungeons. There are other things to do in Skeletal Avenger, but – pfft – they don’t hold a candle to it.
Skeletal Avenger is a hack-and-slash dungeon crawler. Usually, you see ‘roguelike’ added to that list of terms, but not here. While the dungeons are procedurally generated, they are also short and very much achievable. These are bitesize dungeons for you to play and complete.
You play a warrior who has a hazy memory of their death. Betrayed by a shadowy individual, you were buried alive in a coffin. You’ve awoken with a touch of amnesia and a complete lack of bodily tissue or organs. You are a skeleton, and you will be avenged.
A mysterious wizard has raised you from the dead, and he’s got some dungeons he’d like looting. He wafts some vague promises under your jawbone, saying that he’ll present you with the betrayer, but you have to do some killing first.
So in you go, trudging through dungeons that are three to six levels deep, on your own or in local co-op. Your aim is to gather bloodstones, guarded by the bosses on the last floor of each dungeon. Bloodstones are required to access the bigger dungeons, which – once they themselves are emptied out – will give you access to a whole new region, with four to unlock in total.
You have two attacks. The first is your basic or ‘primary’ attack, which is melee. You get to welly enemies in a manner that suits your currently equipped weapon, so you might be attacking at speed with daggers, or at some distance with a spear. The second is your head. There’s nowt better than stunning an enemy by chucking your noggin at them, then chaining it with some melee attacks. There is also a dash with the A button, which gets you out of plenty of fixes.
Combat is where Skeletal Avenger gets unstuck. There’s not much particularly wrong or buggy about the attacks, but they are extremely one-note. You are only ever attacking with melee, so there are no ranged builds to be making here. With a singular X attack, there is no scope for combos. You are pressing X repeatedly until an enemy dies, with the odd moment of dashing or head-throwing to alleviate the monotony. This is not a game with a particularly high skill-ceiling.
Your skull is a fantastic weapon, but Skeletal Avenger keeps finding ways to undermine it. It’s inaccurate, for one. You can be confident that you are aiming at an enemy, only for it to zip past and hit another one. Or it might just disappear into the aether. Without a targeting system, the head-combat becomes more hit-and-hope than you’d like.
Should you miss, too, then you’re in for the second frustration. The head doesn’t boomerang back to you: some wise designer thought it would be cool if it kept traveling until it hit something. Then it lies there, waiting for you to manually pick it up. But some arenas, particularly in the sprawling lava lakes of the second region, are wide open spaces, so your head might travel to the end of the level, or into a region that you need a key to access. Suddenly, you’re handicapped. Headicapped?
Even firing your head at close quarters isn’t satisfying: the head will often leapfrog behind you, meaning that you have to interrupt your combat-flow to retrieve it. It’s a game-long game of fetch and it grows extremely old, extremely quickly. So, while we love a bout of head-chucking, it comes with a long list of disclaimers.
What Skeletal Avenger does get right, though, is the stuff outside of combat. Perks appear regularly, allowing you your choice of two to apply to your character. Stacking on several of these feels great, as the perks synergise and cause pyrotechnics of fire, poison and lightning. Loot, too, is decent, with randomised benefits that make you question which to equip at a given time. Trinkets give you a single, huge benefit per dungeon, and you can buy upgrades for your character with the gold you accumulate in the dungeon. You can also find scrolls in the dungeon that represent a free upgrade. Being dumped out of a dungeon can feel fantastic, simply because you get to apply all manner of permanent upgrades.
We were less enamoured with the bloodstones. These represent your overall progress in Skeletal Avenger and block you from the milestone dungeons. But fail in a dungeon and Skeletal Avenger removes them from you. So, dying in a dungeon sends you backwards, as you lose the progress you made in a previous dungeon. In our books, it breaks a golden rule of RPGs: you should never go backwards in your progress. Doing so never felt good, and it meant that we got in a pattern of repeating dungeons for cash and upgrades when we were at zero bloodstones, before feeling that we were strong enough to finally do dungeons ‘properly’, to accumulate bloodstones. It’s probably not what the developers intended.
It’s another of Skeletal Avenger’s warts. To make progress, you’re going to need increasingly large piles of bloodstones, and you’ll probably need some tasty upgrades too. So you’re grinding, which exposes Skeletal Avenger’s repetitious gameplay that barely has a strategic bone in its body. It’s not hugely difficult, but it can’t support the grind.
Skeletal Avenger is by no means a bad dungeon crawler. It’s just a painfully generic one. It does however teach a valuable gaming lesson: no matter how strong your loot, perk or upgrade systems are, if they are layered on top of a bedrock of ‘meh’, the whole dungeon can still come toppling down. This is one to pick up in a sale if you’re a hack-and-slash fan and have somehow reached the bottom of your backlog.
You can buy Skeletal Avenger from the Xbox Store for Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S