Skull and Bones Review – Skin and Bones

Skull and Bones Review - Skin and Bones

Pirates are cool. In games, anyway. Real life pirates, not so much. There’s a weird lack of games in the pirate genre, but Skull and Bones is here to fix the problem, allegedly. It’s been 7 years since it was originally announced and according to reports, the game has changed directions multiple times since then. Even as the game opens, you’re reminded that the game has gone through myriad people as it shows a long list of studios involved with its creation before finally announcing that it’s a “Ubisoft Original”. The absolute chutzpah here is palpable. It actually reminds me of one of Grice’s Maxims of Conversation, blatantly overselling the ‘original’ tag in a way to oversell itself.

I’ve not played Black Flag so you’ll not see me make comparisons. This is less a pirate game, and more pirate-adjacent, depending on how you feel the defining characteristics of piracy are. There’s no sword-fighting, there’s no real island exploration and treasure-hunting is just going to a spot that’s pointed out for you and digging with your hands. There’s very little fantasy if you want to go down that route, and sea monsters are minimal. However, there’s plenty of ship-to-ship combat, and the ability to lay siege to towns if that’s your preference.

All of this being said, this is a gorgeous game. There were moments in this game when hammered by a storm and attacking a fleet of merchants whilst I was battered by the waves and wind that I was in awe. Taking in the sights from the crow’s nest reveals a surprising draw distance, something that’s actually needed when the seas are open and you’ll likely run into danger via privateers, other pirates or fleets you’ve irritated.

Skull and Bones
Skull and Bones

Focusing on only the ship is definitely a choice. Whilst you can choose a pet and customise both your crew’s outfits and your own, you’ll seldom see them. This feels quite a bit like The Division on the Sea. Weapons can be unlocked and slotted into various spots on the ship which increases its rank, and there are different ships to unlock and build that allow extra slots, or start at a higher rank. Because a ship’s rank is so important, all earlier ships end up being useless as they can’t make the maximum rank. Only around 4 of the 11 ships are end-game viable, which sucks. Ships also fall into classes in an almost faux-MMO system, where ships can be healers, tanks or DPS. This system is so dumb and out of place, it frankly makes me mad.

I did enjoy the story though, and whilst it didn’t set my heart on fire with passion, it’s passable enough that I didn’t skip (much of) it. The first main NPC, Scurlock, very much fits into the piratey trope and sets the scene nicely. Unfortunately, the endgame NPC has the pirates almost being a benevolent force of good, helping people out against the big scary encroaching country force, which feels almost hard against the historical understanding of how pirates worked.

Skull and Bones

The endgame though. Man, the endgame. I don’t know if they ran out of steam here, but it boils down to a few things; take on merchant convoys to earn silver, which is fine, do one of a few “boss missions”, which are uncommon and not insanely rewarding, or take on cities to turn them into idle currency generators. This one sucks the most. To earn any of the endgame unlocks, you need to do this too. The worst part is, you have to use silver to make the currency, and you have to pick up the currency from each city and take it back to your main base to actually ‘cash it in’. All the while, you’re getting attacked by random pirates that drop no rewards, and you can’t gather the pieces of eight from a city whilst you’re ‘in combat’. This means you’re constantly having to fight these annoying little gnats of ships so you can just continue. It’s a mobile-esque mechanic which is designed to keep bums on seats in the most boring way possible, but as I said it’s practically mandatory just to unlock the cool endgame stuff.

Speaking of boring mobile mechanics, while you don’t have to do it a lot, you need to gather materials sometimes. This means sailing up to trees, rocks, shrubs, or shipwrecks and pressing the gather button. This then starts a minigame of trying to hit the right spot to gather lots. It sucks a lot, and thankfully it can be turned off at the detriment of how many rewards are gathered, almost 70% less if you turn the minigame off.

Skull and Bones
Skull and Bones

Despite everything, I actually enjoyed quite a bit of my time with Skull and Bones. Sailing is fun, combat can be exciting and cinematic, and the scenery is great. Unfortunately, it’s bogged down by a truly awful endgame and it’s trying to cash cheques for my attention over other games that the amount of fun earned just doesn’t match. If this is given a lot more time and love this might be something interesting, but it’d need a lot of redesigning. After the first season, where people need to start paying to get the premium pass, or people have run out of Ubisoft+ subscriptions to try it out I don’t need this game surviving all too long.

Skull and Bones was reviewed on PS5 with code kindly supplied by Ubisoft Australia

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