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Skull and Bones

Skull and Bones

Written by Randy Kalista on 2/27/2024 for PC   PS5   XSX  
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The look, the feel—the whole aesthetic—around pirates has gotten comfy. Too comfy. A pirate, by any modern definition, must include Johnny Depp eyeballing an empty bottle of rum. Pirates of the Caribbean, looks-wise, is The Lord of the Rings for the Golden Age of Sail. Its visual language is wide-spread and understood. It's safe. There are 21 year olds (old enough to drink rum, no doubt) that have never lived in a world without Captain Jack Sparrow and the rollicking adventures of a Disneyfied Davy Jones.

So, as the world of pirates continues to go right, Ubisoft goes left. We’re leaving behind the West Indies and heading to the East Indies. You know, the place Christopher Columbus never made it to. Skull and Bones doesn’t just go to Indonesia, it goes to Madagascar and the east coast of Africa, and spans the Indian Ocean between. From tall stands of baobab trees, to grand canyons lined with African waterfalls, to the sea stacks of Southeast Asia and the Dutch company that scarred the land and people for two centuries, the environments look less and less familiar the longer you stare at them.

Thus we're taken out of our comfort zone and dropped into unfamiliar territory. This is Skull and Bones’ secret weapon. This is what piracy should feel like. Uncomfortable. Unfamiliar. With foreign shores and alien seas. Sailing ships that strike a different silhouette. Citizens that don’t necessarily like the cut of your jib.

“Stay greedy, cully.” That’s the oft-repeated mantra of pirate kingpin John Scurlock. You meet Scurlock in Sainte-Anne, a pirate haven built into Skull and Bones’ rendition of Madagascar. Scurlock is exactly the trench coat-wearing, red-bearded sea dog you’re looking for. You may have set yourself on a path to rule the ocean, but you’re not pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps. You need a mob boss. You need a godfather. You need a mentor and, frankly, someone to point you towards the bigger jobs with bigger payouts. That's Scurlock.

Skull and Bones is no role-playing game, but you’re often given two (unspoken) dialogue options when talking to Spurlock: You’re either after coins or kills. You want booty or blood. You’ll master mercantilism or murder. Skull and Bones, of course, leads you down both paths. You want to sail increasingly bigger ships in this online nautical combat action adventure? You want to fill your in-game coffers and your Ubisoft meta currency wallet? Well buckle up. Because if there’s anything Ubisoft has gotten good at, it’s taking money from people that aren’t sure they want to give them money.

Because if anything, Ubisoft knows how to game your fear of missing out. There is something here to tickle your fancy. Do you like 17th century sailing ships armed to the teeth with cannons? I do. Do you like a trade economy bustling with dozens of commodities? I do. Do you like speaking the language, dressing the part, and singing the shanties? All these I do’s sound like I’m leading up to my marriage vows. But it’s true. Skull and Bones is all about that pirate life.

But what does it leave out? It doesn’t give you time to lose your sea legs. There are land lubbers out there that want this to be Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag 2. At one point, I think I was one of them. But I’ve re-aimed my cannons. I’ve come up with an alternative firing solution. In other words, I’m seeing Skull and Bones for what it is, instead of what it was meant to be.

That sounds like faint praise, I know. But ten years in proverbial “development hell” forced me to give Skull and Bones a wide berth. I did my best to avoid rumors and speculation. I turned the page every time another Ubisoft executive left, or, more likely, was removed from the project. Until finally I was just like you: I thought Skull and Bones was never going to happen. After ten years, I even thought that might be for the best.

It took months of pre-launch beta coverage to bring me out of my funk. Maybe, I thought, 2013’s Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag was the only pirate game we needed from Ubisoft. Or maybe, I thought, Sea of Thieves was the reigning king of pirate games and it should stay that way.

I’m glad I got out of that funk. The world is wide enough for both Sea of Thieves and Skull and Bones. Why would I want fewer choices? Both lace you up in buccaneer boots, but beyond that, the similarities fade away. The fact that people will prefer one type of gameplay over the other is proof positive of that.

Sometimes it seems, however, like I could poke holes in Skull and Bones all day. Every little thing feels like it could’ve been done a little better. At the same time, every little thing also feels like it could’ve been done a lot worse. So many of them are quality-of-life issues, some so simple it feels petty to quibble over them.

Take treasure hunting, as one small example. Too many chests crop up on the same patch of sand. Also, I wouldn’t mind a sharper musical stab from the cellos when I haul a chest up onto the sand. Speaking of hauling it up, am I supposed to keep hitting triangle over and over on my gamepad, or is it a one-button-push situation? It’s unclear. Yet treasure maps are also accompanied by flavor text that builds out the world. “We saw a ship docking in Islands of the Moon, Dragon’s Back, dirtying our ancestral lands with their trash stamped with the Compagnie’s insignia."

Take upgrades as another example. Why is it hard to stay focused on just upgrading my weapons, or just upgrading my cooking, or just upgrading my ship cosmetics? I have dozens of objectives but the ability to only track one at a time. It keeps my number of logbook entries overwhelming and my attention deficit completing more objectives by accident rather than on purpose. Oh, I didn’t realize I’d be running into my bounty target out here: hope I’m ready. Oh, I didn’t realize I’d collected enough floating debris to whip out a new hammer: guess I can level up my harvesting tools to Saw II and Sickle III. See? These complaints are small potatoes.

One carpenter keeps telling me, “May your travels lead you to warm sands.” One of the Sea People said, “May Harambe follow you.” Perhaps I should turn on subtitles. Or, perhaps, that was exactly the Skyrim Easter egg I thought it was. And, perhaps, that’s one hundred percent a reference to the most famous silverback gorilla of all time.

Sailing close to shore, I have a much lower resting heart rate in Skull and Bones. Sea battles still spike in intensity. Narrow getaways, too. The most harrowing encounter I’ve had yet, however, was with the always stormy Indian Ocean itself. It doesn’t matter how big your ship gets. The wind and the waves get bigger.

Thankfully there’s always the simple joy of taking your fishing dhow for a spin around the island, should you grow weary of the sea (though I don’t know why you would). Still, there are few nicer pleasures than setting off with an empty boat, throwing a ton of spears into the water, then returning, slow and overburdened with fish, shark, crocodile, and hippo. The role of smaller ships will hopefully grow in the late game. Currently there’s little reason to ever set foot aboard your smaller vessels ever again, once you’ve replaced them with larger ones. Bigger ships means they’re better, harder, faster, and stronger.

Sometimes it seems like my crew can’t keep up with the increasing scope and scale of my missions. One crewmate yells, “Look! Fresh fruit ripe for the picking!” with the same enthusiasm that they announce an imminent lightning storm or sails on the horizon. "There’s a brigantine with twice as many guns as you’ve got, captain!" Good, thank you, shipmate. "There’s some coconut right over there, skipper!" Thank you, Felipe, that will be all.

Slow-walking to a tavern along the back wall of Sainte-Anne, I found my first Skull and Bones crush. Yanita Nara, the tavern owner and proprietor of the black market. Not sure if it’s the octopus neck tattoo or the shaved head look from an old burn injury, but I’m definitely sweet on her. I like her Mr. Whiskers kitty on the beer barrel behind her, too.

I would like to tell another player about her, but chat has been shut off since pre-launch. Apparently some bug was making chat unbearable. So the developers shut it off. That’s been the developers’ solution to everything not working as intended. Getting spammed with pop-up messages that you’ve upset The Helm? Shut that off, too. Are the cicadas around Telok Penjarah a tinnitus-inducing amount of unbearable? Well, Ubisoft Singapore grew up hearing those cicadas so they don’t even register hearing them anymore. The cicadas aren’t getting shut off.

Composer Junkie XL knows when to turn up the soundtrack. Whether it’s scratchy, blaring alarm bells during a battle, or Enya-like flows when the calm waters call for it, I’d be remiss not to mention his orchestral-punk influence on Skull and Bones’ pirate radio. I also appreciate when an old favorite shanty starts up that I remember from Black Flag—but this time sung in a different language. French, or an African tongue I don’t know, or an Indonesian dialect I never learned to speak. It’s a wonderful reminder that we’re on the other side of the world.

Since we’re not dealing with your everyday Caribbean flora and fauna, it proves how much Ubisoft Singapore is committed to the bit. Sure, a coconut is a coconut. But when you’ve got a cargo hold full of Iroko, Sisal, and Ndizi, you feel like a biologist as you learn that’s a tree, a fiber, and a banana. Those are things you build ships, ropes, and snacks with. But you’re also getting a small education in your inventory menu. Accuse Ubisoft of what you will. But don’t accuse them of not doing their homework.

Of course, I don’t know if glowing purple sails and Cthulhu livery are part of that homework. But you’ve got to hand it to Ubisoft again: Years of delays for this live service game be damned, they run a tight ship now when it comes to a cosmetics calendar and a trickling rewards schedule. The most cutthroat economy in the Indian Ocean will be the season pass.

Just don't get comfy. Skull and Bones is at its best when you're on edge. When you're scraping together silver for one more repair kit, one more delivery, or one more set of top deck weapons—that's when the kingpins know they've got you on the hook for just one more job. That's when you hear Ubisoft saying, "Stay greedy, cully."

The world is indeed wide enough for Skull and Bones and the increasingly few pirate games out there. But be careful. It won't let you get comfy. And after a long time in production, there's still work to do before Skull and Bones is feature complete.

Rating: 7 Average

* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.

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About Author

Randy gravitates toward anything open world, open ended, and open to interpretation. He prefers strategy over shooting, introspection over action, and stealth and survival over looting and grinding. He's been a gamer since 1982 and writing critically about video games for over 15 years. A few of his favorites are Skyrim, Elite Dangerous, and Red Dead Redemption. He lives with his wife and daughter in Oregon.

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