Skull and Bones review for PC, PS5, Xbox Series X

Platform: PC
Also on: Xbox Series X, PS5
Publisher: Ubisoft
Developer: Ubisoft
Medium: Digital/Disc
Players: 1+
Online: Yes

It’s an interesting bit of timing that this month we’re seeing the release of both Suicide Squad: Kill the Justice League and Skull & Bones. Both, after all, were stuck in development hell for years, with Suicide Squad bouncing around Warner Bros. in various forms for the better part of a decade, and Skull & Bones getting its start as a spin-off from 2013’s Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag. And both suffered from the opposite of hype, with Suicide Squad essentially earning people’s ire for not being another Arkham game, and Skull & Bones seeming like an ongoing definition of the sunk cost fallacy as the world moved on from ACIV several times over. And just like Suicide Squad: Kill the Justice League received an awfully chilly critical reception (even if I personally loved it, and reviews from players are much more positive), while it’s early, it’s looking awfully likely that Skull & Bones will meet the same fate.

Perhaps the strangest parallel between the two, however, is that they have awfully similar gameplay. This may sound strange, since on the surface you’d think an open-world superhero game would have little in common with a pirate game about sailing the seas, but the reality is, both owe a huge debt of gratitude to looter shooters. Much like Suicide Squad could be best described as “sail here, shoot everything, grab the rewards, repeat,” Skull & Bones’ gameplay loop is “sail the sea, fire your cannons, grab the loot, repeat.”

Of course, the key difference between the two is that you can see why Suicide Squad’s development took so long, given the voice acting and the visuals and some of the boss battles. I have no idea how or why Skull & Bones was stuck in development for as long as it was.

To be fair, I’ll admit that I know pretty much nothing about how development actually works, so maybe I’m wildly underestimating something here. But there’s really not much in Skull & Bones that feels like it couldn’t have been created a decade ago when ACIV first came out.

That’s especially true in terms of visuals. While Skull & Bones looks nice, there’s nothing I’d describe as stunning or groundbreaking. You spend most of your time sailing the sea, and I can’t say there were any moments where I had to stop and be in awe of how nice the water looked. Likewise, when you’re on land and getting your next quest, none of the pirates you encounter look insanely lifelike. In fact, I’d say that the characters here don’t seem like a huge step up from how they looked in ACIV – it’s certainly not on par with anything we saw in Assassin’s Creed: Mirage just a few months ago.

As for the gameplay, there’s really not much here. When I wrote a few paragraphs ago that the gameplay loop was “sail here, shoot everything, grab the rewards, repeat”, I wasn’t dumbing it down. The basic structure of Skull & Bones is that you go to a pirate outpost, someone gives you a fetch quest, you sail to the spot they tell you to go, you fire away with your cannons and loot the sinking enemies, and you go back to the person who gave you the quest to return with the loot and get your next quest. Just repeat that for endless hours, and you’ve got the game in a nutshell.

In other words, while Skull & Bones sells itself as a definitive pirate game, you’re really only getting one aspect of one part of the pirate life. There’s no carousing on land. There’s no exploring the many islands you come across on foot. There’s not even any engaging in swashbuckling at sea and jumping into battle, swords drawn. You sail and you fire your cannons and…well, that’s it.

Again, in the name of fairness, I’ll note that sailing and firing your cannons can be awfully fun. The game starts off with you controlling a powerful pirate ship and blasting away at your pitiful enemies, sending their ships to the bottom of the ocean in flaming wrecks. Skull & Bones may then follow the usual trope of enfeebling your character and making you work your way back up from the bottom, but even in that weakened state, it’s always fun to get an enemy in your sights and fire away as you try.

But it’s still just one thing over and over and over and over. Skull & Bones may do that one thing very well, and it may try and hide that with the allure of promising you bigger and better cannons and ships the more quest you do, but really, what you’re doing in the first hour of the game is largely what you’ll be doing in the tenth, and twentieth, and thirtieth.

I’ll also note that it’s here that the online-only nature of the game adds a comedic element to the proceedings. I could tell which other players had started playing at roughly the same time as me, because I’d see them all running and sailing about in the same general direction as I was going to carry out their next quest. I’d stand by the blacksmith, waiting to get my next orders, and I’d see another pirate doing the same thing, then I’d set sail to my next destination and I’d see the other pirate again, this time on sea.

Mind you, I could see how this could also create a fun community around Skull & Bones. At one point early on, I found myself in a long line of player boats sailing in the same direction, and the game just kept populating the area with more and more enemy ships for all of us to attack and finish our quests. We inadvertently created an armada and a giant sea battle, which was neat to see – and even if it wasn’t my fight, once I finished off my enemies I made sure to fire a few shots at a different enemy ship engaged in a battle with another player, just to lend a hand. Even for someone who doesn’t usually play co-op, like me, it was a neat moment, and I could easily imagine the game gaining a following among a core group of people who want to sail the seas and get into naval battles together like that.

So for a niche audience, Skull & Bones may be a GOTY contender. But for everyone else, it’s hard to imagine the appeal. Skull & Bones is a grind-heavy game with not a lot of payoff, unless your idea of payoff is being asked to grind some more. You’d think that a game that spent 11 years in development would have more than just one idea repeated ad nauseam, but the evidence here suggests that’s really all there is.

Ubisoft provided us with a Skull & Bones PC code for review purposes.

Score: 6.5

Skull and Bones - Standard Edition, PlayStation 5

Price: $65.00

16 used & new available from $27.99

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