Skull and Bones Review: Born of Malicious Compliance

Written by Allen

March 4, 2024

 

Ever got a service that wasn’t quite up to what you thought it would be? Like, a restaurant that tries not to serve water hoping that you’d just buy one of their shakes. Or you went on a tour promising that you’d see a popular tourist attraction. Where you do get to see it from inside a van, but never actually get down to look at it. But you DID get to see it. Or maybe even you decided to just meet the bare minimum for a school project or something you’re supposed to pay for. I know I’m guilty of that on a few occasions. The term is “malicious compliance.” It’s when something is followed just to meet some rule or requirement without necessarily doing it in good faith. I mean, the delivery guy might have tossed what you ordered at your door or left it outside where it may have rained. But he did deliver your product. To the guy being on the receiving end of this kind of behavior is annoying, maybe even infuriating.

Furious is unfortunately my state of mind as I review Skull and Bones. While I do recognize that this is a product of the work of many developers who may have put genuine effort into trying to make a good game. I just don’t see it. I doubt that this was in production over a decade ago when it was announced. It’s also a real twist of the knife when you hear the news of how Yves Guillemot, the CEO of Ubisoft, defended the high price tag on the title by saying that this is beyond a Triple-A quality game, that is in fact, the first quadruple A title.

The “Quadruple A Game” experience made me wonder why there was any point in making a custom character when the options were so limited. Wandering on generic-looking islands with poor and laggy controls. And doing ship-to-ship combat that well-known F2P titles can do better. Trying to go through the campaign which was a tour of the several tasks you can do in the game. And finally, getting griefed by NPC enemies because of some world event in-game. At this point, I’ve had enough.

So with no further ado, let’s break down the broken down Skull and Bones.

 

Production (2 / 5)

 

I’m not going to sugar-coat it. The game’s graphics are below par. I can attribute this to the long development cycle that Skull and Bones had to go through. What I quickly turned my attention to were the character models, and they didn’t look like they could stand side-by-side with much better-looking PlayStation 5 titles, also I played this on the PS5. At the very least, the game was performing stably.

However, the visual info it tries to feed you is quite overwhelming. Along with how your character and the camera seem to lag while moving through areas. It kind of got me feeling some motion sickness until I acclimated to it.

The characters also act quite stiffly, like I was playing an old Diablo 2 game where they can’t move away from the position they’ve been set on. The reason why this is off-putting is pretty much everyone is just standing around. Standing behind counters, next to signs, or just out of the way. Sure there are decorative NPCs to make the atmosphere a bit more convincing, but as soon as you interact with the relevant ones, any semblance of that illusion is gone.

 

 

I also understand that I’m supposedly somewhere in the area of the Indian Ocean. But the designs of the settlements that you get to visit don’t give me any of that idea. It was really how people spoke. And I got that idea because of the one NPC lady who talks to you at the start of the game. Everywhere else characters seemed random and out of place, there wasn’t some consistency in the groupings or the settings. So to me, it lacked any real identity for me to pin it on, and it just came across to me as the product of some randomized character generator. Nothing stuck, the voice acting was almost always stiff, and the little color they tried to put in while dumping the exposition on me just bored me.

The story changes quite a bit when you’re out at sea, though. The ships don’t necessarily look amazing, but they’re at least convincing. How they bob about in the water along with the waves was a nice touch. Their movement where they would lean in a certain direction was a detail I appreciated. Water has a nice texture to it as well as behaving like how it would out at sea I’m glad they got right. The little cherry on top of the sailing experience was how the callouts would happen when you’re doing ship maneuvers, or how they would sing when you’re just peacefully gliding across the waters.

So in summary, the game was decent when I was aboard the ship, but instantly worse the moment I had to get off. I honestly dreaded having to report to Scurlock, which was where your initial quest chain would begin.

 

Mechanics (2.5 / 5)

 

I don’t know how to share the mechanics of this game without sounding cynical. But please do trust that I’m trying to give a concise and accurate description of how the game works.

Your ship will generally have 4-speed settings to go on. Fully stopped, slow, fast, and very fast. The fastest setting you can be on actually expands your crew’s stamina, which you can refill with either consumable items or just recover naturally by slowing down. Another thing that affects your speed though is the wind, which you can either sail toward or away from, and this of course affects how fast you can go. I didn’t go too far into the game to see if I could find a way to deal with this, but it’s always going to be there.

Your ship can be equipped with weapons on three sides, as well as some furniture within it. Furniture in this case can add new functions or buffs to the ship. The number of either weapons or furniture you can add depends on the class of ship you have. Where in this case, bigger is always better. Anyhow, you can aim at your targets and shoot, where what you fire with depends on what side of your ship is facing. Generally, more weapons on the sides.

 

 

Once weak enough, you can either board an opposing ship to raid it for bonus loot or just sink it and pick up the loot.

There is no on-foot combat, meaning raiding the ship is just an alternate attack, where it has a different animation. And while there are weak points to hit, that’s about the height of the strategy. It deals more damage, but nothing like disabling another ship’s weapons, sails, or its ability to turn. You can see that this game is aimed towards fleets of ships fighting against each other, and you’re driving one of them. So aside from having a variety of weapons to diversify how the combat would look like, this is pretty much the combat.

The other side of the loop is just making use of the loot and money you found to upgrade or customize your ship, or just move up to a stronger one. I could see that the end-game of this is where you are controlling a large-class ship. Maybe with a fleet made with your friends, where you may be the kingpin of your own game. But I see nothing to ship combat.

 

Content (2 / 5)

 

Skull and Bones is a live service game, and for games of this kind, they are happy to introduce you to the in-game loop as quickly as possible. And that’s exactly what the campaign does. With some narrative to serve as window-dressing, you are tasked to go through the motions of the game loop as well as the other activities that can be added along the way.

You start with a raft, you fight and loot things at sea, and then you continue the quest until you’re introduced to the relevant crafters to get you to a bigger boat. You are then introduced to Scurlock, who is probably the most animated of the bunch, who gives you a reason to repeat the same tasks, but on a grander scale.

 

 

You do have the usual Ubisoft things that you see in their games, a world map with markers, a set of quests, some repeatable, some randomly generated. All of them point to your raiding, looting, and crafting loop one way or another.

While it does seem like I’m quickly dismissing most of this content, I’m going to have to point to what I said earlier. None of them stuck out or stuck at all. You can tell that many of these things were just put there so that they’d be there. Quite literally putting a hamster wheel in a cage, so that the hamster has something to run on. You don’t see a point in doing any of them except if you’re just powered by the Skinner Box that Skull and Bones represents. I don’t feel any attachment towards any of the characters you are introduced to. It feels like an arcade game but with much less character than what you might find when they were still a thing.

Perhaps one of the more interesting concepts they are playing around with are the world events that you can encounter while playing since you’re always online. That I’ll cover more in the next section.

 

Features (2 / 5)

 

Skull and Bones being the live service game that it is, requires you to always log in before you can play. The reason for this is so that you can freely encounter other random players in the world, ideally to give you a sense of the scale of what you’re involved with.

This materializes when you’re raiding a settlement, and a much stronger player comes in to help out, making the raid that much easier. Or when there are world events active, where the current one puts you up against opposing NPC ships that are just instantly aggressive to you. Considering how insanely powerful they are, it was handy to have some friendly players on my side to fend them off. But aside from that, I never really felt like interacting with any fellow players. You can factor in the idea that I’m trying to clear a review, but that’s what we have.

 

 

For other things, you can do outside the gameplay loop. You can customize how your avatar looks, how your crew looks, and how your ship looks. The ship cosmetics are probably the most thorough and interesting ones. The rest not so much, I wish I could customize the crew better. But I think we’re starting to see why they want to keep the gameplay simple and easier to process for multiplayer functionalities.

 

Conclusion

 

There are times that I find it disappointing that a game doesn’t quite live up to its expectations, or fails to deliver on the promises it sets out to do. Then there’s the disappointment that you get when you know they’re capable of better stuff. Look, even if they stated on the get-go that there wouldn’t be combat outside of ships shooting at each other, you’d expect there to be a reason that you make a character. At least, outside of giving it saleable cosmetics. Ubisoft was convinced to make Skull and Bones because of the success of Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag. To just forego what its predecessor had going for it just boggles my mind on why even bothered to do that. You can even look at Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla and see that they knew how to Viking raids on villages that were on the shore. They knew that they could do better, but didn’t

All these extra bells and whistles they added to the game could have all these interesting implementations, but they’re little more than busywork that you can do from a browser or a menu. They could have done these on a leaner, cheaper system. And I wouldn’t be so frustrated. This is what I meant about Skull and Bones being some sort of malicious compliance. It’s unironically a title that seems to be running through a bunch of checkboxes to make sure they have it there. But they never bothered to think if it was a good idea to keep it around. Then it finally releases but, as if against Ubisoft’s own will. The job is done but nobody’s happy about it.

Anything outside the ship’s movement and combat is just hard to put in a good light. Maybe there was a far more thorough build out there, at the bottom of the sea. But I’m just not going to those depths. 

So bottom line, can I recommend this to anyone? If you can power through the campaign because you just like the ship combat, which may or may not have F2P alternatives out there. Maybe this is a good fit for you, but I hope you only consider this when the game is at a much cheaper price tag. But hey, if there’s any light at the end of the tunnel, maybe a year or two from now, Skull and Bones can weather the storm, and maybe it can build features that can make a meaningful experience. But today, I evaluate the title in the way it has come to me, and right now it’s not that.

Skull and Bones is barely anything but, scoring a 2 / 5.

 

Available on the PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X|S, PC, and Luna

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