Oh my goodness! I’m so excited about SKALD! After spending a good few hours with this free prologue to a retro-styled RPG adventure, when the “Thank you for playing” screen popped up, I let out a long, plaintiff, “Noooooooooooooo!” I want more! I need more! I’m just so thrilled about this game.
I grabbed it off of the infinite scroll that is Steam’s new releases because a screenshot reminded me of classic Ultima games. I’ve wanted to replay those of late, but found them to be completely unapproachable in 2021 – so someone making something new in that style seemed very appealing. But it’s not accurate to directly compare SKALD to Ultima – it’s something else, it’s own thing.
Certainly it’s a top-down pixel-graphics RPG, in which you control an ever-growing party of fantasy archetypes, complete with a deeply involved storyline, flashbacks, turn-based battles, and all sorts of statistics rolling away in the background. But its emphasis on narrative is much greater here, set in what is unavoidably a Lovecraft-inspired tale, yet thankfully with its own twists.
After you’re shipwrecked near a remote island, on a quest to rescue a missing daughter, you discover a fishing-driven community that has gone to hell. Madness has invaded the minds of the locals, and they’ve all turned on each other, while the local fauna has become corrupted and murderous. Yet this is also replete with more classic fantasy tropes, letting you play as a Cleric, Mage, Rogue or Warrior, arming yourself with swords, hammers, bows and the like, and teaming up with companions who can complement your skills. It’s a splendid combination, and thankfully, while lifting liberally from the repellant old arse’s work, doesn’t lazily just use Lovecraft’s placenames and characters.
You gradually reveal the overall map, and more local maps, as you explore, finding enemies, abandoned buildings to loot, and many characters who’ll ask for help, or even offer to join you. There’s just so much freedom here, and the choices you make seem to have a real impact, even in this beta build. I got so invested! The whole experience of playing was underscored, for me, with the fear of knowing it would end pretty soon. In fact, it lasted much, much longer than I was expecting (much more than the two hours the Steam page suggests, although I’m sure it could be charged through that quickly if someone played it like a twit), and even after reaching the end of the available narrative, it’s possible to go back and keep exploring the rest of the available island.
There are a good few typos throughout, but the writing is splendid, interesting, and often shlockily entertaining. I especially enjoyed being told about “the pallid flesh and entrails of the corpse” that “whipp[ed] out of the wound in a mass of squirming, eyeless worms.” Combat is turn-based, based on hidden dicerolls on various stats, and lets you use special abilities and skills (although right now the method for executing these is a little too fiddly, buried in menus).
Oh, and this is all the work of one person! Absolutely bonkers. (I’d love to find out who, currently he’s going by the developer name “Scape-IT”.) The 8-bit style contains some fantastic art, deeply evocative of those late-80s RPGs that feel like the soundtrack to my pre-teen childhood, but incredibly subtly modernised to be richer, more detailed. It presents itself as if it has only keyboard controls, with all options selected with letters or numbers, but any can be clicked with the mouse instead – even movement has an unfanfared mouse option that lets you draw a path should you wish, although I was very happy with WASD. Through all this, it has none of the factors that make returning to Ultima games so impenetrable, yet evokes the same happiness in my soul.
I absolutely cannot wait for more of this. Absolutely get this free build right away, even if there’s currently not a plan to have saves carry over (I really hope this changes!). There’s enough you could do differently on a second run through that you won’t mind. Ooh, I’m just so delighted by this!