Skull and Bones review – better late than never

Skull and Bones review – better late than never
Tom Bardwell Updated on by

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Ten years in the making, with as many of Ubisoft’s globe-straddling studios involved in its development if the title reel is anything to go by, Skull and Bones is finally here. It has all the ingredients to be a fantastic video game: a grittier take on the timeless appeal of pirates than, say, Sea of Thieves; a sprawling map of the Indian Ocean that extends from the Coast of Africa to the East Indies; an iteration on Assassin’s Creed Black Flag’s superb ship combat; and Ubisoft’s deep coffers to bring to life every palm tree, reef, and cannonball to life in splashy detail. But, outdated quest design, a repetitive loop that tests your patience, and a world that, despite its breadth, often feels lacking weigh down Skull and Bones like a rusty anchor bound to the sea floor.

It all starts with a showy encounter with the British Navy. Outnumbered, you end up shipwrecked on a sparse archipelago before boarding a dingy dhow and reaching Sainte-Anne, a pirate den where you’ll be roped into the machinations of the sharp-tongued Captain Scurlock. From there starts your journey to becoming a feared pirate kingpin. It’s the perfect premise for the rags-to-rich progression, a core pillar of Skull and Bones’ gameplay loop. Ubisoft has achieved something rather marvellous by fostering a sense of brimming anticipation when you’re first let loose into the open waters.

And, what a world they’ve conjured up. It feels enormous, and it is – over 600 km² of craggy coasts, choppy seas, and far-flung outposts begging to be explored. There’s a sense that a treacherous adventure awaits as you set off beyond the safe zone perimeter around Sainte-Anne, bump into rival faction ships duking it out at sea, peer at brewing storms in the distance, and navigate tight channels between land masses peppered with gorgeous vistas. Skull and Bones is, at times, a visually arresting game, and Ubisoft has done well in porting over its knack for compelling natural scenery.

Check out our review of Assassin's Creed III, featuring an exciting combination of historical events and action-packed gameplay.
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But despite its ray-traced gloss, Skull and Bones’ world is mainly explored through dull, repetitive contracts, glorified fetch-quests that barely evolve as you chew through Skull and Bones. They all stick to the tried-and-tested formula of booting the player off into the open world to track down a specific resource and ferrying it back to the quest giver. Nothing more, nothing less. It’s a cookie-cutter format applied across the game regardless of what faction you’re dealing with or where you are in the Indian Ocean. The slim variety of the first few opening contracts encompasses the rest of the game.

Fortunately, this dull, outdated quest design is bolstered by Skull and Bones’ explosive and always-enjoyable ship combat. Commanding a creaking hulk of planks and metal feels fantastic in the hands, and there’s a weight to every cannonball whistling through the hazy sea air. It’s slightly cumbersome due to the need to constantly manage your crew’s stamina via a metre at the bottom of the screen by regularly feeding them coconuts and cooked fish. But this is minor given the sheer thrill of taking on a fleet, outmatched and outgunned, only to come out on top. For all it has going for it, the ship combat has a curious quirk in the way it tackles difficulty. For the most part, combat encounters are either too easy or too difficult, with your ship level and Infamy rank dictating how you’ll fare. Either you absolutely obliterate enemy ships or become the target of that swift annihilation. There’s no middle ground, even when matched on level with enemy ships.

The deeper you get into Skull and Bones, the more minor irritants become major annoyances. The need to dock at a settlement or outpost to fast travel artificially inflates playthrough length as you spend a silly amount of time simply getting somewhere to fast-travel to deliver this or that commodity. Similarly, every fast travel jump costs silver. Then there’s the tedious inventory management, where you’ll be forced to bulk transfer planks, ores, coconuts, and whatnot to your warehouse to make room for the bounty you’ll amass during your next outing. Small unskippable animations and cutscenes when opening a chest or boarding an enemy vessel also grate in what is a game that demands an awful lot of your time to experience it fully.

A small group of people standing on a dimly lit staircase.
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Fairly early on, you’ll unlock access to the Helm, a secretive pirate society running the black market across the Indian Ocean. This opens up new quests with better rewards, including two new currencies that involve some heavy grinding. While in itself, multiple currencies are viable if managed well, when added to silver, monstrous tooth, and several others, you’ll find yourself lost for what costs what, ticking off a different set of criteria and contracts. It turns into a monstrous grind for virtual coins that, again, balloons the playtime, all for, in most cases, optional cosmetics.

However, the most disappointing is the on-foot portion of Skull and Bones. While an Assassin’s Creed game it is not, it’s difficult not to make the comparison, especially as it was inspired by Black Flag. Being unable to explore freely, penned in by invisible walls to trudge at a leisurely running pace through outpost layouts that, by the twelfth one, all seem identical, quickly becomes dull. Your pirate’s movement is unresponsive, stunted by a measurable delay between input and on-screen effect. You’ll get stuck on barrels and grow frustrated as you try to align your character just right to get the prompt to speak to an NPC. It feels as if what Ubisoft does best – the snappy freedom of open-world traversal and exploration – has been gutted from Skull and Bones, and it’s a lesser game for this omission. Not that we should have expected long stints of on-land action or even sword fights, but to at least have a responsive character is a reasonable expectation, given this is, after all, a Ubisoft game.

Assassin's Creed III, a popular game known for its thrilling gameplay and intriguing storyline, which has garnered a loyal fanbase worldwide.
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As tedious as it can be, there’s something compelling and innately fun about Skull and Bones. Much of that is down to how the progression system gently grants you access to better boats, better weapons, and, by extension, more-or-less safe passage through waters that previously felt too dangerous and inaccessible. A single cannon hit from a Broadsider that would have once sunk your ship soon feels like a scratch as you take on entire armadas and, mostly, live to tell the tale. Skull and Bones nails that power fantasy, and late-game ship combat is delightfully chaotic. It’s just a shame that Skull and Bones’ best bits are bastioned behind a grind for silver and the need to seek out blueprints for every upgrade.

With its merits weighed up, Skull and Bones is a perfectly playable game if you’re happy to stomach the grind and the odd annoyance. It doesn’t necessarily equate to what you’d expect from ten years of development, but there’s enough here to satisfy that itch if you’re after a solid pirating adventure. 

Reviewed on PC. Code provided by Ubisoft.

Skull and Bones review: three pirates overlooking a bay with anchored ships.


Skull and Bones is a solid pirating adventure that has its moment but is often weighed down by a sluggish grind and outdated quest design.
7 Ship combat Open world Pirates Sluggish grind Quest design