Back in the stone age, Ubisoft announced that they were making a stand-alone pirate game based on the ship-to-ship combat in Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag. I was ecstatic because I LOVED that part of Black Flag. As time passed the game (Skull & Bones, just to be clear) kept changing focus. There was going to be a single player campaign (yay) and then there was not. At one point it sounded like it was going to be an esports title. It was going to be open PvP all the time (boo!) and then it was not. It got delayed approximately 5,429,232 times and by the time it started to seem like it was really going to launch I had completely lost track of what it was supposed to be. I did know the single player stuff had been scrapped which killed a lot of my interest.
There was an open beta a while back and I downloaded it, fired it up and lasted about 10 minutes because it just didn’t feel good, and I was immediately annoyed by reading all the dumb gamertags/player names. As far as I could tell wind direction had no bearing on sailing my ship and I kept hitting a boundary where I was leaving the mission area. It was just a bad experience. When the game finally launched, I ignored it aside from raising an eyebrow at the generally mediocre reviews it was getting (as I write this it has a score of 64 on Metacritic). Then Ubisoft announced a free trial and for some reason I figured, what the heck, let’s give it one more try. I was surprised to find that the trial was a generous 8 hours long.
There’s a free trial
When I jumped into the trial I was immediately disappointed. For one thing, my open beta character was still there; a character I had spent like 30 seconds customizing because hey, it’s a beta who cares? (In fairness Ubisoft did tell us progress would carry over, I just wasn’t paying that much attention.) There was no way to reset/restart, either. I wound up watching a YouTube video of someone else playing the intro to re-familiarize myself. When I logged in I was on a dock somewhere and I was unimpressed both with how my character looked and how he moved. Then as I was trying to follow the tutorial steps (I hadn’t even made it out of the tutorial in the beta) some bug hit me where I was constantly being told that my death warrant with some faction had been rescinded. I closed the game again and went on social media to tell everyone what a train wreck it was.
But then the next day I tried again and I’m not even sure why. But I played until I actually got to the title screen! And then I played some more. I upgraded to a proper ship with cannons and put out to sea and…
The magic was back. That old wooden ships and iron men magic. Once again I was firing broadsides (OK this little ship has 2 cannons on each side and 2 forward chasers so not sure you can call that a broadside) and having to time things with the heaving of the ship due to the swells. And wind definitely has a huge bearing on battles, thank goodness. The ‘boundary’ that a fight had to take place in was gone, though so far most of my battles have taken place in the straits between islands, but at least it isn’t a big imaginary marker in the sea. Yes there were other players on the seas with me, but that wasn’t so bad and more than once I’d see someone getting pounded and rush in to try to help; something I could do without grouping or communicating. And though the land graphics are definitely dated, I find the at-sea graphics to be very pleasing.
I used up 4-5 of the free trial hours before I said “Heck with it” and bought the game.
I like it, but…
Now all that said, I do agree with the few reviews I’ve read. The game is buggy and the character models are really dated, as is just walking around on land. I can’t comment on the end game, which is also getting some heat. There is no specific narrative and no specifically single player content, but you can definitely just go it alone (I’m sure there are parts that will require a group but I haven’t gotten that far yet). Think of it almost like Destiny. It does not feel like a game that should be $70 and a big part of why I was OK with purchasing is I happened to have enough Sony Reward Points to cash in for a $50 PSN card, which I did. So Skull & Bones cost me $20+tax out of pocket.
While there isn’t a campaign per se, there is a story of sorts. In the intro of the game you’re in an unwinnable battle and after it you are rescued by a couple of sailors in a dhow (basically a dingy with a sail). For whatever reason they put you in charge and now you have to make a name for yourself. You wind up in Sainte Anne, a pirate refuge run by John Scurlock, who has a deal with someone back in New York. He sends goods in exchange for weapons. And it just so happens he needs pirate captains to help acquire these goods, but first you have to make a name for yourself. And off you go.
That said though, most of the story is going to be the one you tell in your head and by your actions, supported by quite a bit of lore found in the form of notes and letters left strewn about.
I will survive
Surprisingly, there’s a little survivalbox in Skull & Bones. Everything you need to become a famous pirate has to be crafted from materials. Some of these materials you’ll find floating around. Others you’ll get from the wreckage of ships you destroy. But some of it you get by exploring and harvesting. You generally harvest from the ship which is a little odd but there ya go. There’s a mini-game involved which is at least different from typical survivalbox games, but I can’t decide if this is an improvement or not. There’s also a progression of better tools you need to craft in order to gather better materials in order to make better gear. Having played Palworld and Enshrouded recently this felt very familiar.
It doesn’t take very much time before you’re sailing around, listening to the crew sing shanties, meeting various factions and getting quests from them and generally living the pirate life. I found I could re-customize my character so I could ditch the bad decisions I made in open beta. There’s a lot of emphasis on bling for both you and your ships, and there are a few currencies for this, one of which you can buy for real-world cash. They emphasize this is all just cosmetic but I haven’t really looked into it to see if that is true. I feel like a lot of the game is about earning a cool look for yourself so buying it feels like cheating myself. (A lot of Ubisoft games, including the AC games, have a similar system that I’ve never felt the urge to utilize.)
There’s more on-land content than I expected. I was rewarded for exploring various outposts in terms of finding materials, lore items and quest givers. I don’t think there is any on-land combat. In fact the only personal combat I’ve seen is harpooning things when you’re in the little dhow that you start off in (and even after you get a better ship, at least one mission required using the dhow).
The spectre of death
I was sunk once and found that when you sink everything in your ship’s hold is left at the place of your death and apparently anyone can pick that up. That seemed to be the only death penalty, at least at low levels. You do have a magical warehouse where you can store goods; magical in that many small outposts have a “cache” which is connected to that warehouse so you can store/retrieve things from it. So if you get some really valuable loot you can nip into an outpost and put that loot in your cache, then retrieve it from the warehouse once you are back in town.
There don’t seem to be any difficulty levels or anything of that nature, but I suppose that is to be expected in an always on-line game.
A crew, in the abstract
This is one of those cases where I’m really enjoying a game that most people seem not to like very much and I don’t really blame them for not liking it. But I love pirate lore and I LOVED the ship combat in Black Flag and the combat here feels just as satisfying. I’ve seen people suggest that Sea of Thieves is a better pirate game and it might be if you have a crew to sail with, but I don’t. Sea of Thieves limits me to the smallest ships (unless something has changed since that game launched) since each part of sailing (steering, trimming sales, repairs, anchoring, loading and firing weapons) has to be done by a human and if you’re alone you just can’t do it all on a bigger ship. Anyway in Skull & Bones I am a captain and I command a crew so I have no such limits.
Speaking of the crew, they are basically represented by a stamina bar. Trimming the sails uses stamina, and sailing with full sails drains it constantly (you raise/lower sails by tapping a button and there are several presets between “sails down” and “fly every inch of canvas”). I am not sure yet if firing the guns uses stamina. You can feed the crew to give them a stamina buff (you get food by harvesting/cooking it). I like this mechanic of abstracting the crew to this extent. I don’t have to futz around with hiring a crew, but they still have a bearing on battles. (Slightly disappointing is that boarding another ship is completely a hands-off affair.)
So I like it, but will you?
Anyway this is all based on just 4-5 hours of playing. I would NOT recommend anyone run out and buy Skull & Bones but I do think it’s worth downloading and taking the 8 hour trial for a spin. If you do, play long enough that you get your first proper ship with cannons and do a couple of missions. The prologue/tutorial does NOT do a good job of representing the game; in fact I’d say it actively hurts the game. If you enjoyed the combat in Black Flag, you might find this is actually a Buy for you. Though even then, might be best to wait for a sale or at least until we see how well supported/patched it’ll be. I’m writing this at 9 PM ET and it’s because the servers are down for maintenance which is both a little annoying and maybe a little encouraging. At least they’re working on things!
[UPDATE: After I posted this I read some more reviews/thoughts on the game, and it seems a lot of people are disappointed that Skull & Bones is JUST a ship-to-ship combat game. They wanted sword fighting and burying treasure and such. That’s a 100% valid criticism. For me personally, I have dozens of sword fighting games, but not very many games about age of sail combat. So S&B is offering me something I’m personally very interested in, but I certainly get why this wouldn’t be for everyone.]