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Skald Against the Black Priory review - a modern take on retro RPGs

Strong worldbuilding and unique visuals prop up an imbalanced combat system in Raw Fury and High North Studios' retro-infused RPG.

Skald review: four heroes from skald fighting fish monsters in the game's key art.

Our Verdict

Skald: Against the Black Priory captures the spirit of your favorite old-school RPGs while serving up deep side quests and memorable lore, but its combat and progression systems eventually run into trouble and its overarching narrative never quite takes off.

Attempting to play the forefathers of the RPG genre in 2024 requires patience steeped in a hefty amount of nostalgia. From the days of Ultima and the first Baldur’s Gate, the genre has developed quality-of-life features that have made it difficult to turn back the clock by two or more decades. So when a game like Skald: Against the Black Priory promises that retro RPG feel with enough modern concessions to make it fun to play, I jump at the chance to get my hands on it.

Skald of course begins with a character creator, complete with nine classes, several backgrounds, a whack of attributes, and skill points to spend on feats. I value variety, so I opted for the melee and magic hybrid Battlemagos class. I then threw all my attribute points into the Lore and Diplomacy skills to learn more about the game’s world while convincing its people not to murder me and my party.

Skald review: dialogue choices in a conversation with a witch.

The central story follows your quest to find Embla, the daughter of a noble house, following her disappearance in the Outer Isles. While venturing to her last known location, your pixelated avatar ends up shipwrecked without even a rusty sword to their name, sending you hunting for supplies and allies. Before long, you’ll assemble a cast of companions as you take on an insidious curse that has overrun the islands.

While Skald’s overarching story left me a bit cold, its lore certainly satiated the ever-hungry fantasy nerd that has lurked within me since I first read The Hobbit over two decades ago. I couldn’t wait to find out what Eldritch monstrosity was driving regular fishermen mad enough to murder their families and friends, and a handful of deep, well-done side quests – no simple fetch quests here – kept me invested. In one of these quests, I delved deep into underwater caves beneath a lighthouse to find an evil blade calling out to those above. In another, I helped a seemingly peaceful town prepare for a festival that then went terribly wrong. There’s a sense of mystery to every quest that I’ve sorely missed in most modern RPGs.

Skald review: choices during a quest beneath a lighthouse.

Skald depicts all this adventuring via striking visuals pulled from the role-playing games of the ’80s, complete with a setting to warp the screen as if you’re playing on a CRT television. At first, I found it a little difficult to read mountains of pixelated text and to navigate the dense world in this style, but my eyes eventually adjusted and I grew to appreciate the attention to detail in every square inch of the game. Skald successfully builds upon what the RPGs of yesteryear looked like to create something unique. This is especially true of the gorgeous artwork seen during dialogue sequences that depict the decrepit witches I parlayed with or the gorgeous mountain ranges I explored.

My adventure to the Black Priory ran for around 20 hours. Unfortunately, some cracks started to form in the turn-based RPG combat at around the halfway mark. Skald presents you with plenty of enemies to face off against in random overworld encounters or within dungeons, triggering a grid-based battle. The shipwreck introduction helps initially: with nothing but rags, a rusty shortsword, and a single companion, each bout against giant crab monsters and bloodthirsty wolves requires a lot of careful positioning and clever use of skills on normal difficulty.

Skald review: combat with cultists in a castle.

However, combat became a chore once I collected a full party of six along with a horde of magical trinkets, especially as I found most new abilities – from casting debuffs to defensive strikes – paled in comparison to simply whaling on one enemy at a time with the strongest possible attacks. This made me lose interest in level-ups because the latest skills rarely felt impactful, even when I bumped the difficulty up to hard. There are plenty of difficulty settings to fiddle with for those with the patience for it, but I never found a comfy balance before the credits rolled.

Despite this, if developer High North Studios goes on to make a Skald sequel set beyond the Outer Isles, I’ll be there to play on day one. There’s nothing quite like the feel of old-school RPGs, and Skald presents a great, modern alternative full of clever side quests and intriguing lore, even if the overarching narrative and combat can’t quite keep up.