‘Skully’ review: a classic platform game with a weak and predictable plot line

A decent experience, but it’s all skin and bones

Skully is to a video game what a skull is to a head. The core is there, it’s solid, robust, and is beginning to take shape. However, the polish, the identity and the finishing touches are missing. Throughout the game, you control a skull (and take possession of a handful of golems) as you make your way across an island, and while jumping from platform to platform is fun, the game itself is bogged down in frustrations, awkward ideas and a lack of direction.

Skully feels very much like a game from another era, and not just because I spent most of my time playing it trying to come up with a good X-Files pun. I want to believe there’s a great one out there, but I just can’t think of any right now.

First off, there’s the genre. Platformers were once the dominant genre of gaming, and while remasters of Crash Bandicoot and Spyro have given the genre a shot in the arm, Skully still feels like it trades on old ideas from games held back by long forgotten technical limitations. The zippy gameplay when you’re in control of Skully is engrossing, but the puzzles are often fairly basic and the game’s thought process never seems to get out of second gear.

Skully 2
Image: Stacey Henley

Then there’s the difficulty. Celeste and Cuphead have proven how successful rock solid modern platformers can be, but don’t worry, Skully never gets near their level. It has peaks and troughs of challenge in a fairly well paced rhythm, but this is often caused by the camera and unintentional hiccups in the level design more than it is the game masterfully guiding you through a perfectly sculpted pathway. There are checkpoints aplenty in Skully, but they seem a bit random, and often your reward for completing a particularly tricky part is having to do just a bit more before you’re allowed to save. Other times, a simple two jump section is bookmarked by these checkpoints.

The voice acting and script also feels dated. Usually, calling writing ‘dated’ is code for it being sexist, racist, or homophobic, but there’s none of that here. It just feels like a clunky brand of humour that should be wrapped up in nostalgia, despite being brand-new. It’s very Shrek, very Space Jam, very Mighty Ducks. Take that as criticism or take that as praise, but Skully shares the subtlety and comedic timing of the Budweiser “Wazzup!” commercials.

Skully 3
Image: Stacey Henley

Then there’s the story itself, easily the most bare bones part of the game. You were created by a rock god, or something, who has the personality of T.J. Miller. I found him irritable, but I also feel like he was supposed to be? Anyway, he needs your help to take on his family, who are gods of other elements on the island. I get that there wouldn’t be much of a game if T.J. Miller sat down with his siblings and talked it out, but it also felt like this antagonistic, needlessly melodramatic family drama didn’t need to be there and only messed with how the game functioned.

In fairness, the character models for Skully and their helpful golems are very cute, and the humans all fit together with the general aesthetic, even if they don’t pop as much as the star of the show. The stop motion cutscenes are darling too and mesh perfectly with the fun and fresh feeling Skully wants to create, even if too much frustration stops it from ever truly pulling it off.

Skully 4
Image: Stacey Henley

But the few times Skully does try something a little bit different, it doesn’t quite stick the landing either. There’s a chase section, where you need to leap from platform to platform while fleeing the waves, however the camera moves in pace with the waves, not with you, so speeding – which is the best part of the game – actively works against you here.

Too often the game limits your enjoyment by making basic things too difficult. If I miss a tough leap because I mistime it, that just makes me want to get up and try again. If I falter on an easy ledge jump because one the rocks sticks out at a janky angle and jams me against the wall, I feel cheated. The latter happens far too frequently in Skully.

Skully 5
Image: Stacey Henley

I think there’s a great game locked inside Skully somewhere. Several of the sections get the risk and reward balance just right, zooming along as Skully is wonderful, and while the puzzles don’t bring much new to the table, they’re very competent and rarely get in the way of gameplay. Unfortunately, this great game is rendered mediocre by the predictable structure.

I wonder how Skully would look if it ditched the storyline midway through development and capitalised more on its strengths than on confining them to fit a boil in the bag plot.

The narrative feels like a first draft, but more than that, the exploration Skully offers, collecting the flowers scattered around the level and finding every nook and cranny, is the real joy of the game. Go from point A to point B via some tricky jumps is a bit lowest common denominator when it comes to platformers. Skully has a lot of the tools to experiment, but never really picks them up.

‘Skully’ is available now on PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch, Xbox One and PC.

Our Verdict

Skully is a very competent game with fun gameplay in the moment, but largely relies on recycled ideas, trips itself up a little too often, and adheres too much to a worn out structure. Definitely one for classic platform fans, but nothing special that suggests it’ll be a breakout title.

Pros

  • Skully is zippy and fun to control
  • Interesting platforming design
  • Exploration is fun, despite lack of encouragement

Cons

  • Weak, dull plot line
  • Overly frustrating too often
  • Too linear and repetitive
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