Skald: Against The Black Priory review: the best of 80s RPG design without the baggage

I regret not covering Skald Colon Against The Black Priory when its developer told us about it 2019. I’d get to be so smug now.

Skald is terrific. I’ve tried to come up with a clever angle on its journey, but they all wind up saying the same thing: For all its retro stylings (right down to party portraits taking up an unnecessary quarter of the screen at all times), it’s an accessible, charming treat, and the best modernisation of 80s RPGs that I’ve ever played.

While Ultima seems its clearest influence, Skald mostly eschews its philosophical high camp, and gives us a shipwrecking on an archipelago beset by madness-inducing horror. It’s an excellent vibe; obvious enough that you know what you’re getting into, but slow-burn enough to make the reveals rewarding, and lends the setting and tone a little more depth than the usual “Dark Lord is evil shock”.

A party engages in combat in Skald: Against The Black Priory.

The overworld map in Skald: Against The Black Priory.

Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Raw Fury

A wizard raises a barrier to protect themselves against a monstrosity in Skald: Against The Black Priory.
Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Raw Fury

It is, of course, the Lovecraftian thing (as in, “driven mad by mind-altering knowledge and alien horrors beyond human comprehension”, rather than, say, “there’s an Italian”), manifesting as corrupted wildlife, sinister fish cults, crowds erupting in orgiastic violence, and all manner of scenes where things are clearly, clearly not right here but let’s see how this plays out. Skald drops you right into a familiar but well realised world without beating you over the head with (ugh) “lore” or culture you can loosely infer by context.

Beyond a plot-relevant childhood, you’ve a lot of options in character creation, levelling up the various preset party members you’ll meet, and/or hiring custom characters to round out your toolset. You can tell newcomers to shove off, and stash anyone at camp while reshuffling the party. It adds a lot of replay value, even if the overall plot can mostly only go one way.

A straightforward d20 system dictates combat, with rolls to hit vs dodge, damage rolls vs “soak”, and a big emphasis on positioning thanks to flanking bonuses, limited combat space, and a lack of ability to pass through friendlies. A D&D-ish action economy makes extra attack feats very powerful, but so too are roguey passive skills like free disengage (freely stepping out of melee range, which otherwise ends a turn) and swapping places. Unfortunately I found magic a tad lacklustre, with my healer never touching eight out of ten of her spells, and my fancy fire mage mostly relegated to Lore Nerd duty. My rangers got a spammable “mark target” skill that buffed the whole party, plus cheap healing that rendered the cleric/paladin even more benchable. But the combat MVP was “guy with massive hammer who hates nails”. His entire move set was “hit it” and “hit it again” and he never failed me.

But! I had a tonne of fun with all of them. Levelling gives you points to unlock class-based feats that are arranged in multiple separate chains. Some are open to several classes, giving a lot of room to differentiate characters, and choose your own level of specialisation vs flexibility. There’s no default, mandatory class lineup either, so there’s a lot of replay value, helped by a heap of magic items for those with sharp eyes, high Diplomacy, or a willingness to liberate them from their shoply oppressors (at the cost of increased “suspicion”, raising future prices). Look, if you stock a Hat Of Thievery what do you think is going to happen?

A character says,
Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Raw Fury

I could probably talk about Skald’s systems for a second whole review, especially the meal prep. You can cook food by combining ingredients for specific meals to heal everyone when you camp out, which also asks you to set everyone to a simple task a bit like in Darklands (whose two-bar HP system Skald also borrows, and improves). Food is so plentiful it was soon irrelevant beyond half my carrying capacity comprising omelettes and soup, and craftable potions became similarly abundant, but both, plus most random encounters, can be disabled through a customisable difficulty system. At medium difficulty friends and enemies get one automatic reroll for everything, preventing that tedious “retro” thing of watching everyone fail to hit each other for half a battle. Odds can be tipped either way, and I can see room for all manner of self-imposed challenges.

You can take all this description as enthusiastic. Please do, while I frown through a list of bugs and annoyances: Information screens sometimes drop to about three frames per second (as did one battle). Nuisances like being unable to split or sell partial stacks are part of why I hoarded so much food (and having two identical magic items is worthless as they don’t stack and won’t separate), characters occasionally become uselessly stuck targeting one enemy but refuse to attack them. There’s a tendency for clicks to sometimes just not register, and no order confirmation system so misclicks can be punishing (and it’s sometimes unclear where a spell is targeted). You can’t leave the levelling screen to check a character’s stats, and I had to bin an entire mage because a bug skipped past his spell selection menu. Fixable, sure, especially the handful of trivial oversights that are symptomatic of a tiny development team, and perhaps even by release. But still a pest.

Choosing ranger feats in Skald: Against The Black Priory.

Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Raw Fury

These are all the kinds of annoyances that can characterise a game, or turn it into a “with caveats” recommendation, but in Skald’s case they’re utterly overwhelmed by its charm, from the bobbing when you walk to the excellently crunchy combat sounds, the minimal animation contrasted with the gorgeously coloured scene illustrations. There are quests that definitely seem like a bad idea, and items that don’t appear mechanically cursed (in a Planescape-style, unremovable way), but nonetheless seem like I will regret handling them. Overhear me browsing aloud: “Helmet of Awareness? Ooh. Profane Necklace of Awar… wait, what.”. There’s even a guy you can sell quest items to, and mundane tools like shovels and picks or a jester’s hat that you can actively use/wear, but don’t do anything… except they definitely do, somewhere. It’s not the biggest of RPGs but it teems with the possibility of secrets and consequences.

That they might be bigger in my imagination speaks to Skald’s greatest success: I’m super into it. It’s crunchy but friendly, playfully secretive, and familiar in many ways but nonetheless refreshing. I lost half a day to “fact checking and screenshots” for sheer desire to keep playing, and a few minor issues aside, my only real problem is that there’s only one of it.

This review is based on a review build of the game provided by the developer.

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