Skull and Bones review: Sunk cost

Skull and Bones review: Sunk cost
Images via Ubisoft

Written by 

Dani Cross

Published 

15th Feb 2024 15:45

Skull and Bones should’ve been a slam dunk. It’s a game inspired by the best part of many people’s favourite Assassin’s Creed game, Black Flag. It fills a hole that few games fill, a pirate adventure spread across beautiful islands filled with opportunities for plunder and naval warfare. 

It’s the kind of game that has variety streamers on Twitch donning pirate costumes and doing terrible pirate voices as they set sail for the first time. After all the work put into it, it should’ve been able to make a big splash.

This game has been described by Ubisoft’s CEO as “quadruple-A”, an imaginary term conjured up to justify its many years of troubled development. It makes it sound more premium, more technically advanced than its competition, and suggests it’s operating on a higher level than the average, measly triple-A experience.

But what we have here is a game that somehow feels more dated than the Assassin’s Creed game it spawned from. It fails to live up to its hefty price tag, and rather than delivering a fun journey across tropical islands and treacherous waters, we’ve ended up with a boring cruise cursed by Ubisoft’s usual trappings.

GGRecon Verdict

There are brief windows within Skull and Bones where I can see some remnants of passion. Maybe your crew will break into an unprompted shanty while you’re sailing to your next destination, or maybe you’ll stumble across one of the few unique discoveries worth seeing out on the ocean. Everything else is a chore. A predictable one, considering the game’s delays and development issues, but a disappointment all the same.

Maiden voyage

It’s hard to review this game without mentioning its delays. Skull and Bones has been pushed back time and time again, and reportedly went through numerous changes to its gameplay. It all suggested a lack of direction, and that certainly seems to be true of the final product.

Character creation in Skull and Bones
Click to enlarge

Skull and Bones is a multiplayer, open-world pirate game, and an ambitious-looking one at that. It’s got tons of ship customisation options, a huge world to explore and a vast array of mechanics ranging from crafting to ship-on-ship warfare.

In my first few hours with the game, it seemed the high seas were entirely occupied by players sailing around collecting driftwood. This was after a pretty dull intro where you’re essentially moving from quest marker to quest marker, not really engaging with anything. Skull and Bones doesn’t make a good first impression.

I was hoping the game would pick up though. The seas are the perfect backdrop for adventure, and the free-spirited nature of pirates would surely lead to some swashbuckling fun. When I think of pirates I think of treasure hunts, exploration, thievery - things that would make for an excellent game if done well. After many hours playing during the open beta and early access period, it’s clear that Skull and Bones is, sadly, not an excellent game. In fact, it's not even a good one.

Rough seas

In Skull and Bones, you don’t play as a character. You can make one, and you can walk around at outposts and talk to people, but you essentially play as your ship. You can press buttons to raise or unfurl sails, fire cannons and hunt things in the water, and your crew will jump into action.

There are moments of excitement here. Sailing into the horizon with a storm looming overhead, engaging in naval combat on rough seas as creatures like whales breach the water - it can feel like a greater adventure than it is. The combat itself is competent and fights occasionally feel pretty large in scope when other players get involved.

A storm in Skull and Bones
Click to enlarge

The wildlife goes a long way towards making the world feel populated, as hearing whale calls or seeing hippos on the shore reminds you that there’s more to the seas than identical NPC ships. It’s something I wish games like Sea of Thieves did better - that game only has sharks and a couple bigger threats, but lacks ambient wildlife.

The rest of the game is far from captivating, and that’s largely down to the gameplay. You can only fire at ships from yours - there’s no boarding or combat in person. Well, technically there is boarding, but it’s just a cutscene you trigger by pressing the Y button. You can get a bit of extra loot by doing so, but half the time it doesn’t even work despite clearly making contact.

When you dock your boat at an island you’ll sit through a black screen, then you’ll be standing there on the shore or dock. When you set sail you just teleport back to your ship to watch a cutscene. It’s constantly cutting away and killing any notion of immersion - something the game’s marketing focused on, but is sorely lacking when you play it.

Naut very good

Strange design decisions constantly sully the experience here. There’s a cool first-person mode you can switch to while sailing, but if you turn to your left you’ll see your annoying companion standing there, blocking your view. She’ll constantly talk to you about quests or random stuff too.

When you “plunder” an outpost, you’re basically tasked with going AFK in a zone for a while as the odd ship arrives to attack you. It’s pretty mindless stuff and takes forever to complete. Once you’ve dealt with the towers at the outpost you’ll only have to deal with a ship spawning every minute or so, and from my experience, they always sank after a few shots.

The first person mode in Skull and Bones
Click to enlarge

Even treasure hunts fail to live up to their name. You’ll have to track down which outpost you need to go to to dig up treasure, but once you set foot on the sand a big notification pops up saying “Treasure is on this island!”. The treasure itself is brightly glowing in the ground, making it completely impossible to miss. Skull and Bones seems determined to rob you of even minor sparks of fun like finding a treasure chest on your own terms.

The best activities are ones you’ll find on the seas, where stronger adversaries roam. These were the only moments I felt genuinely engaged in the combat, and also the only moments where I had to think about whether my ship’s build was up to par. 

It might seem like I’m tearing into the game, but there are some aspects I enjoyed. The customisation is pretty cool, and you get a good amount of freedom to tailor your sails, hull and more to your liking. There’s a wide selection of weapons and you can try different ship builds to see what works best. It takes a while to unlock some of it, but at least it feels like there’s some reason to trudge through quests.

If you’re looking for a basic sailing game to chill out and play, I can somewhat see the appeal despite everything Skull and Bones is lacking. It’s just missing polish, and has far too much influence from the bad parts of Ubisoft’s other open-world games. It’s littered with unsatisfying systems that feel rushed despite this game’s lengthy development.

Poorly crafted

As a video game released in 2024, of course, Skull and Bones has to have crafting. Sadly, the related missions are repetitive and dull, making the emphasis on gathering and crafting a waste.

Nothing feels worth making when the gameplay isn’t enjoyable. And when I think of a pirate fantasy, I don’t imagine myself sailing out to gather wood and iron so I can make slightly better cannons.

Gathering acacia in Skull and Bones
Click to enlarge

For some inexplicable reason, you also have a stamina bar for sailing. You can eat cooked food to give your crew a boost of stamina which lets you sail at full speed, but it’ll eventually drop. You’ll need to manage your stamina even when there’s nothing but calm waters ahead of you. This makes sailing cumbersome, especially when you get hit with a random gust of wind that slows you down even more.

Not only is the sailing and crafting dull, but the game does everything in its power to make sure you can’t explore at your own pace. Sail a bit further than you’re told to and you might run into an enemy ship three times your level. These ships can instantly destroy you. There’s little you can do except avoid them, but this makes navigating the seas a pain, especially when it takes so long to sail back to where you were going.

You can call for help, but often no one will arrive unless they happen to be going for the same objective you are. I took down a mini-boss ship with a few other players and it was decently enjoyable to team up against a larger foe, but far too much of a cannonball-sponge to attempt on my own. 

Deep dive

Later, I received a quest referring to a “terror from the deep”, so naturally I went to investigate. I was promptly sunk in one shot by an overpowered enemy and forced to respawn back at a dock before I ever saw the mysterious beast I was searching for.

When you sink you lose your cargo too, and other players can claim it if they get there first. What’s worse is that other players can embark on late-game quests that spawn tough ships close to where new players will be hanging out, ruining their experience.

A sea monster in Skull and Bones
Click to enlarge

Skull and Bones merely has an illusion of exploration, but once you try to carve your own path and step outside the restrictive guidelines the game places on you, you’ll only find misery. The game points you towards objectives in areas you’ll be unpowered in, encouraging you to stick to its bland, linear quests instead.

It’s not necessarily a bad thing that you’re limited at first - the whole point of the game is upgrading your ship and becoming a mighty captain. It’s just not worth investing all the time it would take to reach that point. And if you do manage to reach far-away locations without being blasted, you might get nothing out of it. 

That “terror from the deep” quest? There was nothing there when I arrived. I’m still not sure why. It was the only time in this whole game I felt genuine tension as I got nearer to my objective, but that thrill soon turned into confusion and disappointment. I managed to get that quest again the next day, which led me to a fight against a sea monster this time. It was way too tough for me to beat, but it was fun to have a bit of variety amid the rest of the game’s repetitive content. 

Pirate vs Pirate

Ranking up and improving my ship became the only thing worth doing - the story missions aren’t interesting, and the multiplayer aspect didn’t hook me either. You can only engage with other players if there’s some kind of event going on. Otherwise, you’ll just be sailing past them on your way to collect more materials or fight a couple of NPCs.

Co-op isn’t worth it either - you can’t get up to fun, goofy adventures like you can in other games. You can team up with random players to take down enemy ships in co-op events, but there’s limited interaction between players. You’ll just shoot the same target until it dies.

A meeting between two pirates in Skull and Bones
Click to enlarge

There’s no exciting emergent gameplay on offer here - it took hours of gameplay before I was even offered the chance to PvP, and it wasn’t worth the wait. Whoever has the strongest ship is basically guaranteed to win. 

I entered into a PvP event with players competing to deliver a treasure map to an outpost. The recommended level was only 5, but a level 7 ship entered and utterly destroyed me. There’s seemingly no way to avoid entering into fights where you’re drastically outmatched, making it a waste of time unless you’re the overpowered one. And even then, it’s hardly fun to beat up ships that hardly put up any resistance.

The next time I tried that PvP hunt no one came for me, so I slowly sailed all the way to the outpost experiencing no real gameplay at all. I can chalk this up to a lack of players during early access, as I’m sure it’d be more populated usually, but it just highlights how inconsistent the PvP element of this game can be.

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The verdict

A treasure chest in Skull and Bones
Click to enlarge

Skull and Bones feels afraid to let you have fun. Everywhere takes ages to get to, and there’s nothing interesting to do while sailing. You can’t board ships or engage in melee combat, but the naval fights are either too easy or too hard depending on your level. It’s easy to stock up on supplies and have a huge haul of repair kits to keep you out of trouble, but even great preparation is useless once you run into a ship a few levels higher than you.

Things get slightly better as the game goes on and your ship gets stronger, but when the gameplay loop is this tiresome it’s simply not worth the time or effort. Its restrictions make your journey feel more like a grind than any kind of ascension to a powerful captaincy. Once you become a Kingpin you’ll have seen most of what the game has to offer. I’m not sure there’s anything here that’ll keep people playing for months or years to come.

That’s where Yves Guillemot’s ridiculous “quadruple-A” statement comes back into play, because this game is barely on the level of most big-budget live services, let alone a whole new beast worthy of its own category. It’s going to be tough to convince gamers that this title has earned its price tag, and even tougher for players to convince their friends to buy it to play co-op. 

It’s a testament to the fact that no matter how much time and money you sink into a project, poor gameplay will still drag it down to Davy Jones’ live service locker. There seems to be a lot planned for this game in the future, but when the base game is this lacklustre, it’s difficult to care about what comes next.

2/5

Reviewed on PC. Code provided by the publisher.

Dani is a Guides Writer for GGRecon. She graduated from university with a degree in Broadcast Journalism, then worked as a freelance writer before joining the GGRecon team as a full-time writer in 2023. In her opinion, the best game of all time is Elden Ring – but her favourite is Halo: Reach, a game that created lifelong friendships and somehow started her down the path to a career in media. She’s also way too invested in Pokemon cards, and a big fan of guinea pigs, cats and other cute creatures.

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