August 4, 2020
Platform PC, Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch
Publisher Games mode
Developer Finish Line Games
Video games and skeletons go way back. Of course, we’ve all fought numerous skeletal enemies over the years, but they’ve also starred in games like Grim Fandango, MediEvil, and even the recently released Skelattack. Well, Modus Games publishing house brings us yet another entry in the bony subgenre with Skully, which unfortunately has nothing to do with alien abductions. Instead, Skully is a platformer that instructs players to guide a very round, roll-up skull through all modes of danger. And to make this as clear as possible, no, the skull is not a redhead.
AhumRegardless, Skully is the work of Finish Line Games, who previously brought us the inventive and fairly entertaining adventure game Maize, so are they throwing another strike this time? Or is Skully best buried six feet underground? Let’s find out…
Skully begins washing our titular head bone on an unnamed island, where he is brought to life through magical clay from an underage god named Terry. Yes, only Terry. Our unfortunate deity argues with his siblings Wanda, Brent and Fiona (at least they all have equally wicked names) and wants Skully to help him establish some kind of peace … if necessary by force.
Skully doesn’t speak, so the whole story is provided by Terry and his siblings, who tell and comment on the action from an invisible cloud in the sky. Not a bad approach in theory, at least if the whole dialogue wasn’t so tedious. Lines are generally well supplied by a cast of experienced voice actors, but the tone is waaaay too chipper for what would otherwise be a rather restrained game. Terry and the other gods spend most of their time childlike bickering back and forth, which is the last thing you want to listen to as you prepare for a tough platforming challenge. There’s a mystery about what the gods bicker about, but in the end the story isn’t very interesting, and weak stills don’t really add to the excitement.
At least Skully looks good when you actually play the game. You’ll forge through and through windswept cliffs, dark caves and boiling volcanoes, all of which can be quite eye-catching, although the game sometimes feels a bit like an Unreal Engine 4 demo reel. Unfortunately, Skully’s characters aren’t as beautiful as the backgrounds. Skully can turn into a range of larger clay shapes, and I’m just saying it – they all look like they are made of poop. No, that is not euphemism. And the character designs aren’t the only crappy thing about this game.
In the tradition of Samus’ Morph Ball from Metroid Prime, Skully can roll, jump and cling to certain walls in its standard form. With mud pits scattered across the levels, players can also transform into “Strong”, “Swift” and “Vault” shapes, each of which has its own unique powers – in fact, Strong shape is the muscle, with the ability to break through some walls and throw Skully over holes, Swift can sprint and move certain blocks along a horizontal axis, and Vault has the highest jump and can move blocks vertically. Skully can summon up to three of these alternate forms simultaneously and freely switch between them as long as they are in an accessible location.
Having multiple shapes may sound like a good thing, but three out of four just aren’t fun to play with. Skully’s basic form is too fast and unpredictable, and the game’s weird physics will often make you spin in random directions or bounce against ledges that you tie on to jump on if you’re too close to them. Successful games like Metroid Prime, Marble Madness and Monkey Ball specifically design their levels around the fact that players don’t have full control over their marble-like avatars, but Skully seems to to enjoy in creating challenges that are as tedious as possible. Touching water almost instantly kills Skully, and the game packs its levels with water hazards and small platforms, insecure trails and narrow slopes that are extremely easy to unroll. The other forms of Skully are less frustrating to master, but Strong is too slow and clumsy and Swift’s jump distance is only short enough to be irritating. The only form that feels good to drive is Vault, given the decent running speed and double jump, and you can only play it almost halfway through the game. I suspect that was done on purpose because once you get access to the Vault form you will want to use it by default on every occasion.
Unfortunately, it probably wouldn’t make much difference if all four forms of Skully played like a dream since the level design of the game is a complete train wreck. Platforms are placed carelessly and dangers often miss the standard visual warnings you see in better games – water lilies appear and disappear for no rhyme or reason, giant tentacles sweep back and forth without a clear indication of their range, ect. Correct placement of checkpoints is an art, and this game turns it into a complete hash, insultingly placing them close together or far too far apart, forcing you to replay certain tough challenges ad nauseum. Time and time again, Skully breaks the basic rules of Platforming 101 that have been going on since the original days of Super Mario Bros. and Mega Man are in effect.
Skully’s bad design is made even crazier by the game’s terrible camera. Admittedly, you get full control over the camera, but you also have to be on it constantly. Don’t do it and you will be constantly overcome by dangers and bottomless pits you didn’t even see coming. During some of the more intense action scenes later in the game, you spend just as much energy adjusting the camera as controlling Skully himself.
All of Skully’s bad design comes to a head during the autoscrolling and boss level. Each of the scroll levels is terrible in its own unique way – one puts the camera at a weird angle and covers the screen with splashing water effects making it impossible to see what you’re doing, another makes you roll to the screen like in the worst Crash Bandicoot levels, and yet another forces you to climb an endless series of rickety trails as you struggle with the camera as a volcano erupts beneath you. Meanwhile, boss fights are awkwardly designed around platforming as there are no real fights in the game and it can somehow be frustrating and boring at the same time.
Now, I admit, once you get access to all of the forms of Skully and some of their secondary powers and the game is going to focus a bit more on puzzle solving, there are times when it’s almost fun. Almost. While some of Skully’s puzzles are neatly designed, too much relies on picky mechanics, such as having to throw Skully exactly over long distances, with death punishment for every minor mistake. Good puzzle games give the player room to experiment, but Skully punches you the moment you mess it up.
So yeah, Skully has a lot of problems, and the sad truth is that, even without all the problems I’ve listed, the game wouldn’t be anything special. It doesn’t do anything we’ve seen a million times before. Play like a rolling marble? Switch between different shapes? Move block puzzles? Ready, ready and ready. Forests, swamps, caves and volcanoes? All level themes are also done. You could replace Skully with a standard blue ball and rename this game Generic Platformer # 2918. Heck, that name would probably get more attention than “Skully.”
While I strongly suspect that many players will furiously quit Skully before they get the credits, you will get out of the game for about 7 to 10 hours if you keep it up until the end of the 18 stages. If you’re looking for more pain, you can go back and try to grab all the game’s collectible flowers (there are thousands of them), but for your common sense, I advise you not to worry.
This review was based on a PS4 copy of Skully from Modus Games. You can pre-order the game here.
Skully is a master class in bad platform game design. Chargeable characters, sloppy design, poor camera controls, annoying puzzles and a general lack of personality combine to create a deeply annoying experience. If challenge is literally everything you care about (even if it’s grossly unfair), Skully might be worth a try with a hefty discount. Everyone else should spare themselves the headache.
- Reasonable graphics
- Masochists can have fun
- Boring story and raspy dialogue
- Most of Skully’s are a barrier to play
- Sloppy random level design
- Aggravating puzzles
- Terrible camera
- No really new ideas