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Reviews

Skull and Bones isn’t the treasure I set sail for, but it’s still got some gold

Call of Booty: Black Flag 2

Skull and Bones

Pushing aside the jokes and memes surrounding its troubled, lengthy development, Ubisoft’s Skull and Bones is really not that bad.

While far from perfect, the pirate “boat RPG” isn’t the disaster many thought it would be; in fact, once you get into its deep ship upgrading system, it can even become compelling. But overall, Skull and Bones is an exceedingly average game and a throwback to an era when AA, less-than-perfect titles were far more common — and no, it’s not a “quadruple A” video game like Ubisoft’s CEO claimed in an interview.

On that note, I understand why many are disappointed with Skull and Bones. It’s been viewed by many as a pirate-focused spiritual successor to Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag‘s open-ended exploration and ship combat, but that, unfortunately, is not what the final version of the game offers. To be fair to Ubisoft, the developer never directly said Skull and Bones’ goal was to be “Black Flag 2,” but given the pirate Assassin’s Creed title’s popularity and how it was shown at E3 over the years, that expectation is more than understandable.

With that out of the way, let’s look at all of Skull and Bones‘ issues (and there are a lot of them).

“The disparity between Skull and Bones looking great and then suddenly resembling an Xbox 360 title is so jarring it truly feels like a video game that was stuck in development hell for years (which it was).”

First, there’s no combat outside your ship, and on-foot sections are confined to settlements and towns where you purchase items, take/complete missions, or go on often frustratingly aimless hunts for buried treasure. Making matters worse, the transition to these off-the-boat sections isn’t seamless like in Black Flag. Instead, you sail to a location and are greeted with a loading screen when you enter/exit settlements, making the experience feel very last-gen and a step back from what Black Flag offered 11 years ago.

Speaking of being dated, Skull and Bones’ visuals are very mixed. At times, the game looks stunning. For example, when sailing through a blistering storm, the crashing waves, lightning, and even my sea-weary ship look great and are decidedly current-gen. On the other hand, settlements and nearly all environments are drab, and character models are disappointing with lifeless eyes, especially your own pirate (I really like the ample customization options for your character, though). The disparity between Skull and Bones looking great and then suddenly resembling an Xbox 360 title is so jarring it truly feels like a video game that was stuck in development hell for years (which it was).

There’s also not a story worth caring about in Ubisoft’s pirate title, which is disappointing given my fondness for the tales surrounding ‘The Golden Age of Piracy,’ but also understandable given this is a live service game (more on that later). In summary, you’re an outcast pirate in East Africa and Southeast Asia trying to become infamous. You meet pirate captains like surly John Spurlock and the fearsome Admiral Rahma, alongside other minor characters that offer you missions, but none leave a lasting impression. After spending roughly 25 hours with Skull and Bones so far, I’d best describe its narrative as entirely forgettable.

It’s important to note that Skull and Bones is a live service title. That’s not to say it can’t be played alone, but it’s easier and more fun with friends, especially when taking down tougher, higher-level foes and while sailing long distances, which can become monotonous and cumbersome rather quickly as you fight to manage your ship’s stamina gage (I find myself fast-travelling whenever possible). I’ve primarily played solo and have had a decent time uncovering trade routes, smuggling goods and taking down enemies in PvE combat. On a more positive note, there’s an interesting “Sim Pirate” late-game system that allows you to take over settlements and utilize them to produce income for you. This is tied to Skull and Bones’ PvP activities, like ‘Legendary Heists,’ which task you with destroying a convoy and then fighting over the spoils. I haven’t spent much time with these activities yet, but they’re interesting and for me, added a much-needed dose of variety to Skull and Bones gameplay just when the game started to feel stale.

Skull and Bones Screenshot

Customizing and building your ship quickly becomes very compelling and more rewarding than I expected.

Then there’s the ship combat, an area where Skull and Bones truly shines and the only reason to play the game at all. As a self-professed fan of sailboats, this is where the game feels like a dream come true for me to some extent. Whether buying new ships, upgrading your current vessel’s defence or crafting specialized weapons, every change you make to your vessel feels meaningful and fundamentally changes how you approach combat. You’ll need to change your build for certain missions.

For example, if you’re stuck on a Raid, maybe it’s time to up your defence and equip longer-range canons, while a quick and nimble boat equipped with rockets (to its benefit, not everything in Skull and Bones is historically accurate) can be more useful in smaller-scale warfare. I quickly realized that maneuverability and speed are important to avoiding volleys of cannon fire. That said, the resource-gathering required to craft upgrades and weapons can become frustrating, especially with more difficult-to-find materials.

In essence, Skull and Bones is a lot like a traditional RPG, but the main character is a boat instead of a spikey-haired protagonist with fire-casting abilities. While I’m not sure how much longer I’ll stick with the live service title, this formula clicked with me despite Skull and Bones’ several issues, and I’ve had a lot of fun with the game over the past few weeks. Still, it really feels like a $40-50 video rather than a full-priced $89.99 title. A lower price tag would go a long way towards making Skull and Bones‘ shortcomings easier to swallow (it’s already dropped in price considerably in the U.K., and I can see the same thing happening in Canada and the U.S. soon).

Above all, the key question at hand is whether I’d recommend Skull and Bones despite its problems. The easier answer is a resounding “no,” unless you’re as into boats and pirates as I am. There’s a fun game in there, especially if you plan to play with friends, but it doesn’t feel like a full-priced experience — just wait for the price drop.

Skull and Bones

To be very clear, the game does not look this good (this is a screenshot provided by Ubisoft). Image credit: Ubisoft

Skull and Bones is available now on Xbox Series X/S, PlayStation 5 for $89.99 and PC in the Ubisoft Store and Epic Games Store for $79.99.

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Header image credit: Ubisoft

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