SKALD: Against the Black Priory


Review by · June 1, 2024

When I first booted SKALD: Against the Black Priory, I was confident I would enjoy it. 8-bit retro style is front and centre, with a blazing chip-tune soundtrack layered over a detailed, pixellated title card. The echoes of Commodore 64 games come thick and fast: Master of Magic, Ultima, The Magic Candle, and so on. The game touches on and surpasses these traditions, providing an intense, well-written RPG with deep exploration and combat systems. At times, the commitment to the retro aesthetic makes using the UI awkward, and there are a few technical hiccups that affect the experience. But overall, SKALD is a journey into retro RPG darkness worth taking and one likely to stay with you long after the credits roll.

The game opens in breathless fashion, with your avatar woken during an arduous ocean voyage. It soon transpires the ship is doomed, and after a well-structured flashback sequence, you find yourself marooned on the island of Idra, a region with a dark history in the annals of the Empire. From here, you are free to pursue the original quest: the search for an old family friend, Embla, who has journeyed to Idra for unknown reasons. There’s plenty of rich lore hidden throughout the setting, and although there’s no overworld map, the writing does a great job presenting the fading might of the calcified Empire alongside the downtrodden, earthy folk of Idra and their unimportant colony capital, Horryn. It helps that the game makes good use of colourful keywords in the text. Right-clicking a keyword provides a nice summary of extra information, and none are onerous or lead to frantically searching for a definition within their own definition.

The story of SKALD is well-developed and mature and takes a heavy turn towards the cosmic epic at the halfway stage. From a relatively traditional opening (shipwreck, find your items, find your party), it subverts expectations as it begins to explore the creeping darkness and sense of dread that permeates the island chain where Idra is situated. Although it relies heavily on dark lore and cosmic evil, the writing finds time to explore more human topics in a nuanced manner.

Screenshot of narrative card with old crone rocking a baby's cot.
Mother Katak seems like your regular old-crone type. Right?

The writing style leans heavily on Lovecraftian themes and descriptions balanced alongside the more traditional fantasy elements. The constant thrum of tension and the knowledge that things are bad and will likely get worse works well to drive the narrative forward. SKALD doesn’t shy away from the fact that horrible things happen to ordinary people and this supports its unique atmosphere. The characters who can join the party aid this impression. These characters are integrated into the story with realistic and logical reasoning and never become caricatures. They don’t (on the whole) join to be heroes and save the day; they just want to survive or find Embla and get the hell out.

The systems governing your characters’ attributes are meaty and tactical without being overwhelming. There aren’t so many exploration skills that you’ll neglect to use one, and there are enough magical and combat abilities to keep the turn-based combat segments varied and keep the power-creep balanced. By the end of the game, melee classes can make additional attacks or increase their chances of critical damage, while divine or magic classes can cast damaging spells with a greater area of effect or with a greater intensity. It’s all rooted in classic Dungeons & Dragons-based systems and is not difficult to make sense of and optimize. One area I did find unique was damage and protection. Armor and other protection provides a Soak value that reduces incoming damage by a random value between 0 and the armor’s upper value. Any damage taken is dealt to Vitality first, a larger pool of active health that depletes before the character’s Wounds. Your characters have a much lower threshold for Wounds, and losing these results in serious detriments to your attributes and abilities. It’s not a new system, but the Soak dynamic lends itself well to the tense combat and the general atmosphere of unease. Sometimes, a lucky hit from an enemy spells a disastrous end for a well-planned attack.

Combat is challenging with all this in place. Most foes hit hard even without their special attacks or magical aptitudes. Besides managing abilities and damage protection, terrain and stealth are also key elements in SKALD’s design. Knowing how to use terrain and environmental objects, such as a fountain basin, cave wall, or series of barrels, is important to control enemy pathfinding and prevent them from surrounding the party. To get the best terrain positioning, there’s an optional stealth system that provides a percentage chance of detection as you move around the map. It can make the difference when you sneak into a favorable position to bottleneck a difficult foe, or even when you can avoid foes altogether.

Screenshot of combat between the party and a crab creature on the coastline.
Even a single crab-thing can be deadly.

The aesthetics of SKALD are wonderful. Every structure and texture, every colour and portrait design is steeped in reverence for top-down, home computer RPGs of the ’80s and early ’90s. Woodlands are vibrant and lush by day and dark and brooding at night. Structure design and interiors are similarly detailed, with bright, cluttered bookcases and cupboards mixing with the gruesome viscera of murdered civilians. Characters and creatures are also strikingly detailed, with colour used to great effect to differentiate and define them. Reavers look suitably crazed and manic, while the appearance of Deep Ones and other such monstrosities reinforce their increased threat with larger pixel counts and creepy animations. Armor sets and robes add little visual flourishes to the whole affair, as do smaller environmental touches like swarms of bees in the field. When the game switches into narrative story scenes, these static cards are illustrated with painstakingly detailed half-screen images, all remarkably accurate in presenting the scripted details.

If there’s some criticism, it’s that the detailed pixellation can make it difficult to make out individuals in larger battles, especially when enemies surround the party. Some other elements, such as potions and food items, can also be difficult to locate because of their small size, but the handy right-click tool tip does alleviate this. The lack of local area maps can be frustrating, especially in the twisting mine areas or the large town of Horryn, but this again adds to the old-school feel and expectations.

SKALD’s sound design throughout is as luscious as the graphics. It’s a breath of fresh air to play an RPG that doesn’t offer the usual orchestral solutions, but doubles down on the retrowave and synth elements that made 8-bit recordings so special. It has familiar melodies and chord changes, for sure, but by utilizing a more limited digital soundscape to present these, SKALD’s overall atmosphere gets lifted several notches.

Screenshot of an underground hideaway full of people, luxurious cushions and traders.
Be honest, you could have sworn this game is in your dad’s loft, right?

Besides the decent-sized campaign, there’s a wide range of side missions that occur naturally as the story develops and the player explores. Some of these have multiple solutions, and there are puzzle and combat varieties to suit different tastes. As a welcome QoL feature, the developers have created a set of excellent dynamic difficulty approaches so you can tailor the game to your desired hardcore or retro level.

It’s maybe trite to say, but SKALD feels like a labor of love for High North Studios and Raw Fury. The commitment to tone and aesthetic and the lights-down-low story all echo strongly with nostalgia. The game has developed greatly since its original incarnation, and the developer has been proactive in ironing out technical issues: the upcoming change log for the main game release is already tempting me for a fresh playthrough. As things stand, a few areas need addressing from a technical standpoint. The large settlement of Horryn, for example, suffers from quite obvious stutter and slowdown in combats and in inventory selection, to the point where combat is very cumbersome and not fun. There are also typos that need addressing and some errors in ability information. The devs are aware of all these issues, and I’m confident the full-release version will be a polished product.

SKALD is one of those games that brings a smile to your face when you’re playing it despite the dark and mature content. The design evokes fond memories but also adds enough modern sensibilities and systems to make playing comfortable and approachable. The graphics and sound take root in your psyche and you are drawn to the title in much the same way the main character is drawn into the island’s mysteries. It’s not perfect; the frustrations with the combat and technical bugs preclude that, but it’s still a wonderful reminder that sometimes the old ways are best. Just like the Great Old Ones promise.


Tone and aesthetics are a powerful nostalgia trip, dark and mature story and atmosphere, solid combat and exploration systems, lots of customization options for character and game experience.


UI can become cluttered with pixel sprites, some technical glitches need addressing, lack of mapping may be frustrating for some.

Bottom Line

Bask in the heady nostalgia of an '80s retro RPG with strong systems and a dark, mature narrative.

Overall Score 89
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Mark Roddison

Mark Roddison

Hi, I'm Mark! I've spent most of my life in the education sector, but away from this world I like nothing more than to slip into a good fantasy or sci-fi setting, be it a good book film, TV series, game, or tabletop option! If it is a game, you won't find me too far from the turn-based games. From Final Fantasy, to Shadow Hearts, to Baldurs Gate, to the Trails series, all have me hooked. When not indulging in cerebral turn-based nirvanas, I enjoy soccer, fitness, and music where I tutor keyboard and guitar professionally, as well as having an unhealthy obsession for progressive metal as well as some 80s synthwave. I nearly forgot I also have a lovely wife and little boy who also make great co-players! :-p