Saturday, April 13, 2024

Skull and Bones Review — Aye’d Skip This One

Playing Skull and Bones, I went in with an open mind and even a sliver of excitement. Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag is by far my favourite from Ubisoft, and its combat (naval and otherwise) always calls to me whenever I get the chance to actually sit down and play it.

While Skull and Bones isn’t a carbon copy of Black Flag, I was sure that whatever lessons Ubisoft had learned during the game’s development and reception, it would take into its newly released pirate MMO.

God, was I wrong.

If there’s one thing you should know about me, it’s this: I’m deeply invested and intrigued by the Golden Age of Piracy era. This era takes place from around 1650 to 1730, where once ‘good’ men turned their coats on their leaders for reasons as depressing as oppression or as foolhardy as wanting to be paid better by treasure hunting. Pirates have been portrayed as a number of different things, namely villains and heroes.

The truth is that pirate’s lives, like most historical figures, are far more complicated. But as I quickly learned during my time with Skull and Bones, this is a game that just isn’t at all interested in unpacking any of that.

Instead of the highs and lows of pirate life, what we get is a very bare-bones naval simulator where the action is relegated to blasting enemy ships from miles away, and collecting materials to fashion and accessorize your ship. On the surface, this is fine. With a multiplayer game you can play online, there does need to be some level of progression to keep you coming back for more.

Skull and Bones
Image Source: Ubisoft

The problem is this: it is impossible for Skull and Bones because it simply isn’t even a little interesting. When you breeze through the introductory quest and missions, your first task is to go collect some materials to start building your ship. Cool. Heading out, you’d probably be forgiven for thinking that you’ll have to head onto islands and go get materials for yourself. After all, the best thing about this game is that its character creator is fairly robust, so clearly, Ubisoft wants you to see yourself, right? But no: collecting materials can only be done via your ship. Outside of a few island hubs, you’re feet will always remain rooted firmly to the deck of your ship.

That’s right: you’ll find most of your time will be relegated to naval gameplay, and I might hear you say, ‘Well, Aimee, isn’t that the point of Skull and Bones?‘ But if Ubisoft wanted to create an epic pirate game like none before it, then this was a total misfire. Sailing and trade make up a lot of the lives of pirates, it’s true, but it doesn’t come close to actually being exciting. The introductory missions are so tedious that when you finally think you’re getting somewhere, you find out you’ve got another hour or two before you can actually jump back into blowing things up.

All of this would be somewhat forgivable if Skull and Bones had an intriguing world and characters. In its current state, you’d probably have more fun watching paint dry. Really, if someone asked me to name a character in this game, I’d genuinely struggle. Does myself count? The character creator is very nice and interactive, and I enjoyed the inclusion of bigger and more diverse bodies, so with that in mind, yes, my favourite character is myself.

As for its story…Again, there’s nothing remotely memorable about it. For an era rife with discontent, pirates have never felt so boring and safe. Never did I feel as though I had to reconsider anything, from my cosmetics to my ship, because you don’t actually benefit the story in any way. You’re just there, and really? You don’t matter at all.

Skull and Bones
Image Source: Ubisoft

As a live-service game, there’s certainly room for Ubisoft to make some desperately needed changes, but my gut tells me that it’s far too late to make Skull and Bones a game worth salvaging. It’s a very hollow game, and it does something that I didn’t think possible: make piracy boring.

But even that statement comes with caveats because, ultimately, Skull and Bones does not understand what pulls people to the Golden Age of Piracy in the first place.

The pirate fantasy is steeped in freedom — from capitalism, from rules and regulations, and even from social expectations that were prominent in that era. Piracy let many people — marginalized and otherwise — escape and even give into their most horrific, most basic desires. They were not able to fit into one box of ‘heroes’ and ‘villains’. But, if we glimpse past the fact there were certainly structures and hierarchies in a pirate crew, they were certainly free to act in whichever way they liked.

For Skull and Bones, freedom is not even an illusion that it tries to play up: it’s simply not there.

Score: 1/5

A copy of Skull and Bones for PS5 was purchased by Gayming Magazine for review.

Aimee Hart

[She/They] Aimee Hart is Editor-in-Chief of Gayming Magazine. She specializes in queer fandom, video games and tabletop, having started her career writing for numerous websites like The Verge, Polygon, Input Magazine and more. Her goal now is to boost LGBTQ+ voices in the video games industry.