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


I regret not mentioning Skald Colon Against The Black Priory when its creator told us about it in 2019. I would be so ecstatic right now.

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Skald is great. I tried to come up with a clever angle on his journey, but in the end everyone was saying the same thing: despite all his retro stylings (right down to the party portraits that always took up an unnecessary quarter of the screen), it’s an accessible, charming treat, and the best modernization of RPGs with 80’s game I’ve ever played.

While Ultima seems to have the clearest impact, Skald mostly avoids its philosophical camp and gives us a shipwreck on an archipelago plagued by madness-inducing horror. It’s a perfect atmosphere; Obvious enough that you know what you’re getting into, but ponderous enough that the reveals are satisfying, and it gives the setting and tone a little more depth than the usual “Dark Lord is a Bad Shock” experience.

World map in Skald: Against The Black Priory.

Image source: Rock Paper Shotgun/Raw Fury

A wizard erects a barrier to protect himself from a monster in Skald: Against The Black Priory.
Image source: Rock Paper Shotgun/Raw Fury

This is, of course, a Lovecraftian affliction (as in “madness from mind-altering knowledge and alien horrors beyond human comprehension” rather than, say, “there is an Italian”), manifesting as corrupt nature, sinister fish cults, crowds erupting in orgiastic violence, and all manner of scenes where everything is clear, Clearly not here, but let’s see how this plays out. Skald drops you straight into a familiar but well-realized world, without bothering you with (ugh) “lore” or culture that you can loosely infer from context.

Beyond the story-driven childhood, you have plenty of options in terms of character creation, leveling up the various pre-made party members you encounter, and/or hiring custom characters to round out your toolkit. You can tell modern arrivals to push back and hide everyone in camp while you shuffle your team. This adds a lot of replay value, even if the overall plot can only go one way.

A uncomplicated d20 system dictates combat, with rolls to hit versus dodging, rolls for damage rather than “seeping through,” and a hefty emphasis on positioning thanks to flanking bonuses, restricted combat space, and the inability to traverse alliances. The D&D-style action economy makes extra attack feats very powerful, but also unfair passive abilities like free retreat (freely moving out of melee range, which otherwise ends the turn) and switching places. Unfortunately, the magic seemed a tad tender to me, as my healer never touched eight of her ten spells, and my fancy firebender was mostly relegated to Lore Nerd duties. My rangers got a spamable “target marking” ability that buffed the entire team, as well as inexpensive healing that made the priest/paladin even more killable. But the MVP of the fight was “a guy with a huge hammer who hates nails.” His entire moveset consisted of “hit” and “hit again” and he never let me down.

But! I had a great time with all of them. Leveling up provides points to unlock class feats, which are arranged in multiple separate chains. Some are open to multiple classes, giving you plenty of room to diversify your characters and choose your own level of specialization versus flexibility. There’s also no default, mandatory class composition, so there’s a lot of replay value, aided by plenty of magical items for those with keen eyesight, high diplomacy, or a desire to liberate them from their shop tormentors (at the cost of increased “suspicion”, driving up future prices). Listen, if you get Hat Of Thievery, what do you think will happen?

The character says:
Image source: Rock Paper Shotgun/Raw Fury

I could probably talk about the Skald systems in a second review, especially meal prep. You can cook food by combining ingredients for specific meals to heal everyone while you’re camping, which also involves assigning everyone a uncomplicated task, a bit like Darklands (whose HP Skald’s two-bar system also borrows and improves upon). Food is so plentiful that it soon became irrelevant beyond half of my carrying capacity, which included omelettes and soup, and potions to craft became equally plentiful, but both, as well as most random encounters, can be turned off via a configurable difficulty system. On medium difficulty, friends and enemies get one auto-reroll for everything, which prevents the uninteresting “retro” situation of watching no one hit each other for half the battle. The odds can be tilted either way, and I see room for all kinds of self-imposed challenges.

You can take this entire description as enthusiastic. Do this while I frown and go through the list of bugs and annoyances: info screens sometimes drop to about three frames per second (similar to one battle). Nuisances like the inability to split or sell partial charges are part of the reason I accumulated so much food (and having two identical magic items is worthless because they don’t stack and split), characters sometimes get uselessly stuck aiming at one enemy but refuse to attack them. The tendency is that clicks sometimes just don’t register and there is no order confirmation system, so erroneous clicks can be punishable (and sometimes it’s not clear where the spell is directed). You can’t leave the level-up screen to check character stats, and I had to trash an entire mage because a bug bypassed his spell selection menu. Sure it can be fixed, especially a few negligible oversights that are typical of a tiny development team, and perhaps even at release. But still a pest.

A selection of guard exploits in Skald: Against The Black Priory.

Image source: Rock Paper Shotgun/Raw Fury

These are all kinds of annoyances that could characterize a game or turn it into a “with reservations” recommendation, but in Skald’s case they are completely overwhelmed by its charm, from the bouncing as you walk to the perfectly crunchy combat sounds, minimal animation contrasted with beautifully colorful scene illustrations. There are quests that definitely seem like a bad idea and items that don’t appear mechanically cursed (Planescape-style, unremovable), but still, it looks like I’ll regret dealing with them. Listen to me scroll through aloud: “Helmet of Consciousness? Oh. The Profane Necklace of Avar…wait, what.” There’s even a guy you can sell mission-related items to, and mundane tools like shovels and pickaxes or a jester’s hat that you can actively exploit/wear, but you don’t do anything… except they definitely do it, somewhere. It’s not the greatest RPG game, but it holds many secrets and consequences.

The fact that they can be bigger in my imagination is proof of Skald’s greatest success: I like it very much. It’s crunchy yet genial, playfully mysterious and familiar in so many ways, yet refreshing. I wasted half a day on “fact checking and screenshots” just to want to keep playing, and aside from a few minor issues, my only real problem is that there’s only one.

This review is based on the test version of the game provided by the developer.

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