Reviews

Skull & Bones review — Live Service Land Ho!

I was there when Skull & Bones was announced at E3 of 2017. I was there to go hands-on with the game in 2018 (you can see that right here). It only seemed appropriate that I be the one to take to the high seas to review Skull & Bones – I just didn’t imagine it’d be a full seven years later. In this review we’ll take a look at what this game is all about, and whether or not a full decade of development has sailed it out of rough waters or not.

Skull & Bones - E3 2018 preview

We’re gonna start this off with the 10 pound cannon ball that just landed squarely in the middle of the room. In the footage linked above you can see effectively every system that shipped with Skull & Bones, including multiplayer ship battles, consumables, cosmetics, multiple classes of ships, and much more. What I played behind closed doors felt like it was very close to shipping, and I said as much in my preview at the time. Put frankly, I cannot account for the differences between that demo and what shipped to shelves in 2024 beyond adding additional content. To be clear, there’s a lot of content here, but not seven years’ worth. I’m sure we’ll never know the full story behind this game’s development, but it must be a doozy if it landed them back where they started.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t compare this game to Black Flag, since it’s obviously the first thing we all did when this game was first announced. After all, Skull & Bones started its life as an expansion pack for Assassin’s Creed Black Flag. In Black Flag, the ocean was practically a character in itself. Your ship fought against the sea at every turn, and you really felt the impact if you put your prow into a massive wave as it practically stopped your ship. Similarly, aiming meant timing your shots against the sea swell, and the size of your ship had a direct effect on how maneuverable you were in the water. In Skull & Bones, this has been turned down dramatically. What we have is a more arcade approach to movement. Momentum is far less of a consideration and the sea is far more tame, even far from the shore. Similarly, aiming depends less on being truly broadside as the cannons seem to be able to pivot roughly 45 degrees off from center. When paired with the consumable system, this results in a very arcade feel.

Skull and Bones: Launch Trailer

There are a number of consumables in Skull & Bones, ranging from simple cooked fish to more exotic fare. All of it is in service of your ship. Your ship’s crew has a stamina meter. When running flat out, you’ll see your crew scurry about, pulling on ropes and really leaning into pulling every gust of wind out of the sky for maximum speed. This runs that stamina meter down. When it’s exhausted so are your crew, meaning you’ll need to back down a notch on speed, or you can use a stamina consumable to restore it more quickly. Similarly, your health bar is fixed by a repair kit, and nearly instantly. Some meals can help you fire your cannons more quickly, somehow. It all combines to create a give and take system that feels very different from the more semi-realistic approach we had in Black Flag.

As I dug into all of these systems it dawned on me that Skull & Bones is trying its level best to be anything but Black Flag. It’s not trying to be realistic or a pirate simulation, but something far more approachable that doesn’t just resonate with fans of Assassin’s Creed, but with anyone who ever wanted to be a pirate. This will either resonate with you or it won’t, but just like Skull & Bones is trying to meet me where I am, I decided to do the same thing and follow my own advice – review the game in front of me, not the game I wished it was. Let’s get into it as I tell you why Skull & Bones might actually still be the game you’re looking for.

Despite being a multiplayer game, there is a campaign to Skull & Bones. It’s not going to set the Caribbean on fire, but the long and short of it is that you’re a ship commander who suddenly finds themselves at odds with an overwhelming force. Washed ashore with little more than the sand in their boots, you must rebuild your ship to carve out what little bit of the world’s treasure you can grab. You’ll meet with the likes of Captain John Scurlock and Admiral Rahma, acting on their behalf as you build your own base of power. These two, for example, will provide you with narrative choices, though “choices” is a bit of a suggestion that your choice will make an impact on the narrative outcome – it will not. For example, telling Scurlock that you “rob merchants to get goods” or “trade my way into a haul of those goods” will result in effectively the same outcome, give or take a few dialogue line differences. Scurlock’s motivation is obviously revenge from the outset, and Rahma…well, I was just glad I could skip lines of dialogue when she started hastily nailing together analogies and metaphors by the score. Much of what they have to say boils down to ferrying goods from A to B or fetching something to then ferry from A to B. You’ll occasionally hunt other ships or groups of ships, pick up their loot, which you then…well, you’ve probably guessed it, ferry it to the nearest town to trade for upgrades to be able to do it all over again. I don’t expect it to be deep as this is very much an MMO-lite hybrid of sorts, but suffice it to say you probably won’t be spellbinding your friends at the water cooler with how great any given mission was in terms of its narrative setup. Frustratingly, these interactions feel like the voice actor is wandering their way through exposition dumps with little to no interaction with your character. It makes the scenes feel lifeless and almost like they were tweaked, remixed, and recut all the way to the launch date, leaving no time to actually make people interact in any meaningful way.

[ESRB] Skull and Bones: Season 1 Gameplay Trailer

Graphically, Skull & Bones is the very definition of a mixed bag, and even more so when compared to the E3 2018 demo. The facial work is all over the place, and the mouth movements are absolutely bizarre. This lends further credence to the remixing supposition. The character creator is, frankly, inexcusable in a current-gen title. You’ll choose from a handful of prebuilt faces and whether you are male or female, and then you are off and running. The amount of customization is minimal at best, and the facial hair for any generated character (read, yours and any randomly created one) is a scraggly PS3-era mess, whereas folks like Scurlock’s head of hair and beard looks fantastic. It’s a shame to see this disconnect. The water is mostly fine, though it always feels like I’m skating on top of it instead of being sunk into it, even in heavier ships. The seafoam that casts off of it looks more like a graphical glitch as it sprays little squares off the crests and peaks, failing to interact with anything. Your ship looks great, as do the myriad accessories, but when cannons impact with the hull it’s back to chunky explosions with very little splintering of wood – again, diametrically opposed to what we were shown in 2018. Speaking of accessories, let’s talk about clothing.

If there’s a rule above all others it’s that you need to look your best to plunder the high seas. I don’t know if that’s a real rule, but it is on my ship. There are dozens, perhaps hundreds of individual pieces, and no barrier to the team adding innumerable more. Coats, hats, pants, eye patches, belts, and more are just the tip of the iceberg, with many more awaiting players as part of the first season of the game. Similarly, your ship sails, paint, helm, figurehead, canon braces, railings, crew clothing, and more can all be modified cosmetically to make your ship look formidable.

Once you visit a town and obtain a blueprint (they are fairly easy to find) you’ll be able to craft a vast array of weapons. Their effectiveness is directly related to a handful of stats, including damage and range, though aiming is still your job, Captain. Similarly, ships are more like character classes, with support units (healing via cannons – makes sense!), tank, hunter, and the like.

One of the big questions around Skull & Bones was whether you’d be able to get off your ship. It stands to reason, given that every Assassin’s Creed game that has featured naval combat has allowed this very thing. Well, yes – you can, but with a cannonball’s weight of a caveat. There are two types of places you can get off the boat – towns and outposts. Towns are what you’d expect – a place to meet up with your friends, talk to vendors and quest givers, upgrade your ship, buy supplies, and if you capture one, even set up a “manufactorum” where you can make goods in an automated fashion for trade later. That brings us to outposts.

Skull and Bones: PS5® Immersion Trailer

Outposts are small ruined forts, breaks in the forest, and other camps where you might meet other swarthy pirate types. They might have the occasional quest, a place to dig up treasure, or you might find a trader or two that could offer you something you might not find elsewhere. These are generally dotted with small caches of goods. These caches mostly contain cash and trade goods, though you’ll also find cannonballs. I craft these 100 at a time, so it’s odd to pick up 7 of them in a box, but hey – free is free. These spots are otherwise unremarkable. We’ll come back to this.

Have you ever seen a pirate ship cut down a tree? Well, I can now say that I have. Rather than having your character mine minerals and cut down trees at the various outpost locations dotting the map, you’ll sail your ship up to a resource node to accomplish the same thing. Your lumbering ship pulls to a stop as you hit a button to start the harvesting process, prompting a basic minigame to appear. In it, you’ll be tasked with hitting a button when the indicator is in the green to maximize your yield of “stuff”, or in the yellow to get less “stuff”. There’s even an option to turn it off entirely and just harvest things slower, but automatically, buried in the game’s accessibility menus. Like the outpost, hold this thought matey – there be a point here.

Skull and Bones: Making A Pirate's Life For Fans

Know what I’ve not mentioned? On-foot combat. That’s because Skull & Bones has none. Now where would a good place be to put combat that occurs man-to-man? How about while boarding a ship? Black Flag? Check. Skull & Bones? Cutscene. How about in those big towns? Black Flag? Ambushed in town! Town guards! Other assassins! Check, check check. Skull & Bones? The safest of safe zones. Surely the outposts would feature stinky pirate crews waiting to shanghai you and leave you for dead? Well, it turns out that pirates are a very friendly lot, never doing a single thing that approaches sword combat, except during cutscenes. Not even in these outposts. In fact, while we are at it, know what else could occur in these otherwise barren outposts with their seven cannonballs? Mining and cutting down resources! These outposts are often just big spaces offering the smallest amount of purpose or content. I guess 11 years in the cooker wasn’t enough time to come up with the same idea as they had nearly a decade prior in Black Flag, and over and over again in games that came afterwards. It’s almost as if the Shanghai team hadn’t played a Ubisoft game before – baffling.

Setting sail, Skull & Bones finally figures out what it wants to be, even if the developers didn’t want it to be an offshoot of Black Flag, clearly. So what is Skull & Bones? Put simply, it’s a sandbox / Skinner box. You’ll sail, earn loot, earn blueprint, spend loot on those blueprints, build new ships, and then do it all over again to earn ever-larger ships. If you are looking for more than that, you might be disappointed. If you let this game exist in a world where it’s not tied to any previous effort from the publisher, however, there’s fun to be had.

Skull and Bones: Dev Diary #1 - Building a World of Piracy

At the lower left of your screen is your Infamy (read: level) and the XP needed to get to the next tier. You’ll need to increase your infamy to be able to construct higher tiers of ships. For example, a basic Rammer is a small ship you can own as soon as you wash up like so much flotsam on the beach. It has the ability to, as the name suggests, ram for some additional damage to cause flooding damage and is classified as a DPS ship as it is built for more aggressive playstyle. It requires just 20 jute, 10 acacia, and 8 bog iron to build – simple. At level five infamy you can graduate up to a Bombardier. It’s a medium ship that also suggests an aggressive playstyle, but instead focuses on mortar attacks, with a 70% chance of triggering an explosion on hit. This can be built by a specific shipright after you’ve earned the blueprint, or can be granted as a contract reward. Let’s get into combat.

Much of the game is spent in ship-to-ship combat. Ships you face have an associated level. Higher levels mean you’ll face dangerous foes and more of them simultaneously. When you face foes, you’ll see certain targets highlighted in red – weak spots. This can be their powder cache slung over the side (not very wise), the studding sails (or “stun’sl” – the square sails that come off the sides), or any other miscellaneous parts that can be detrimental to a ship if lost. Like any game where buying new gear makes the number that pops up get bigger, hitting these spots will do critical damage. Whether you board a ship, or sink it for its bounty, you’ll recover the goods to feed the Skinner box once again, giving you the goods to build the next bigger lever.

Skull and Bones: Play by Your Own Rules (feat. Michelle Rodriguez)

After you’ve been on the hunt for a while you’ll eventually be presented with missions denoted by a red skull. These are PVP missions where you’ll have to hunt down another player, taking a trinket, treasure, a map, or something from them. Interestingly enough, Laura and I tangled with a few players who frankly just didn’t seem all that interested in squaring up for a battle at sea. They ran at nearly every opportunity, engaging only long enough to try to put wind to sail. Your mileage may vary, but as busy as the seas are (and they are), I just didn’t have any luck having random players respond to my requests for help. They would occasionally join my plunder missions ad-hoc, but you might need to bring a few friends for some of the more dangerous targets.

For the most part, Skull & Bones is remarkably tuned for a single player experience. Sure, you’ll face tougher foes that would go down easier if you brought two more friends and their ships, but it’s all very do-able solo. You might need to grind out a bit better gear on your own, but other than some later missions, I rarely felt like bringing additional Captains was required. Sailing around, finding trade routes (handy for intercepting goods en masse), collecting goods, building ships, and crushing rival AI Captains scratches an itch that frankly cannot be scratched elsewhere. Even a game like Sea of Thieves is in a different lane than Skull & Bones, the latter of which has more in common with Ubisoft’s own game The Division. Even plundering a location feels like it has been cribbed from The Division 2 as you have to hold off waves of enemies while your crew liberates the goods from a location.

Skull and Bones: Endgame Explained

By the time you hit mid to endgame activities you’ll be tackling escort missions, treasure hunting, contract hunts, heists, and plundering forts aplenty. At max level you’ll become a “Kingpin”, smuggling rum and opium all over the map. Taking over “manufactories”, these will process materials directly into cold hard cash as you capture and hold trade routes to establish your empire – your key to the highest level armor, ships, weapons, and cosmetics in the game. There’s even a big sea monster swimming around out there waiting to be discovered. Long story long, there’s a LOT of content in Skull & Bones, if you give it a chance, and the development team has a lot more planned. In this way I’m reminded of two other rough launches – Rainbow Six: Siege and For Honor. Both are stronger than they’ve ever been, and those who stuck with them have seen those games go from strength to strength. I believe Skull & Bones has the capacity to do the same.

Executive Director and Editor-in-Chief | [email protected]

Ron Burke is the Editor in Chief for Gaming Trend. Currently living in Fort Worth, Texas, Ron is an old-school gamer who enjoys CRPGs, action/adventure, platformers, music games, and has recently gotten into tabletop gaming.

Ron is also a fourth degree black belt, with a Master's rank in Matsumura Seito Shōrin-ryū, Moo Duk Kwan Tang Soo Do, Universal Tang Soo Do Alliance, and International Tang Soo Do Federation. He also holds ranks in several other styles in his search to be a well-rounded fighter.

Ron has been married to Gaming Trend Editor, Laura Burke, for 28 years. They have three dogs - Pazuzu (Irish Terrier), Atë, and Calliope (both Australian Kelpie/Pit Bull mixes), and an Axolotl named Dagon!

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Skull & Bones

Review Guidelines

Skull & Bones exists in the space between GaaS and MMO-lite at launch. There’s fun to be had, as long as you recognize that this is a looter shooter more than a pirate game.

Ron Burke

Unless otherwise stated, the product in this article was provided for review purposes.

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