There’s something to be said for expectations in a game. When I was approached to review Skully, I had been expecting something along the lines of your usual kid-friendly colorful platformer. Explore a variety of themed worlds, use abilities in different ways to traverse the levels, beat some baddies and do some light platforming. A casual romp through a colorful land to make me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. What I got was… quite a bit different.
Skully is out now, launched on August 4th, 2020 for Steam, Switch, PS4, and Xbox One. The Switch version was played for this review.
You play as Skully, a skull reanimated with magical clay. You are silent, fairly lacking in personality, and honestly kind of irrelevant. You’re essentially a tool accompanying the actual main character, Terry. He’s some sort of earth-element deity, and throughout the levels he’ll be providing commentary. He’s the one whose goals actually drive the plot, and he’s the only one with any real agency during cutscenes.
Terry is looking to stop his elemental siblings from fighting, but I honestly found it hard to care. Terry starts off as an annoying space case (Yes Terry, we get it, you like rocks), someone I kinda wish would shut up but not too bad, but then we meet his siblings.
They’re all similarly one-dimensional with a certain trait that gets driven into the ground. In their interactions with Terry, they paint him as the sort of person who doesn’t listen to others and conveniently forgets matters he doesn’t agree with, and emotionally abuses others by not getting why they’re fed up with talking with him.
On top of all this, most of the interactions between the siblings has them bickering and being passive-aggressive to each other constantly, while you’re sitting there, unable to interrupt them both in and out of character. It just feels eerily similar to watching a family have a full blown meltdown in a supermarket.
Really, the only character I wound up liking was Wanda, the water spirit. Her whole deal was being absolutely fed up with the others, and quite frankly I really identified with that.
Roll on By
The story may have made me uncomfortable, but the gameplay infuriated me. So, first the good: There are three forms unlocked over the course of the game, encasing your skull in a clay golem with its own unique abilities to alter the world. This led to some fun puzzle design, primarily when I had to swap between multiple golems to hold things in place to create paths.
Unfortunately, most of the game is played in the basic skull form. Here you lack the extra health of being encased in a golem and thus die at the drop of a hat. Essentially, you’re a marble subject to the whims of physics. Stopping is difficult, and even slight bumps and curves drastically mess with your movement.
Now, plenty of games have you play with similar controls, but the platforming rarely has platforms scarcely bigger than yourself, and the slopes are large and easily identifiable. Not so here. Hopping across little lily pads is one of the earliest tasks, and the environment is the rocks and logs of a chaotic island. Each bump and divot was determined to wrest control away from me. The price of failure at any point was death.
One point that nearly broke me was a climb out of an erupting volcano. In a timed section, I needed to navigate curved slopes, jump up stairs, and not lose too much momentum. The curved slopes had jagged portions that would take me to a complete stop if touched. The stairs refused to let me jump up if next to them due to their shape, so colliding meant needing to back up for another attempt. All the while, the lava was nipping at my metaphorical hells. This isn’t even accounting for when a recurring bug would launch me into the air, often right at the start of a new attempt. When I finally succeeded there was no joy in it. Only sobbing in relief.
Clear as Mud
The music is inoffensive, largely forgettable, has obvious loop points, and is quite possibly the best thing about the game. Graphically, it looks well enough, but in that “This was made after the 360” way that everything looks OK these days.
What is a detriment to the graphics, however, is clear presentation of visual elements. For example, there are a number of areas where color choice led to frustrating moments. Two examples include a cave with black ground and black water, and a few cases where a clay pool was needed to proceed, but the ground surrounding it was nearly the exact same color.
Graphical design in games needs to be about more than just what will make for a pleasing trailer video or screenshot. How it conveys information is just as important.
Lastly, maybe it’s just because I was playing the Switch version, but Skully had some major performance issues. I had frequent FPS drops, especially whenever around climbable grass, objects would often visibly load in, and textures would frequently flicker as if unable to decide whether to load the distant or close version.
Bury it Again
I always feel a little bad being hard on a game. I know some people put a lot of work into this and they may even be proud of it, but the simple truth of the matter is I did not have fun. I didn’t even feel the satisfaction of overcoming a challenge.
Whenever I thought I’d find something I enjoyed, the NPCs would snipe insults at each other and make me feel awkward about being around them.
Review copy provided by Modus Games for Switch. Screenshots taken by reviewer. Featured image courtesy of Modus Games.