Killer water. It’s a much-reviled video game trope that once plagued platformers and action games alike but has thankfully mostly disappeared in modern games. At some point in the early design phase of platformer/rolling sim Skully though, the developers decided that it would make an acceptable core mechanic in a game where you play as the one of the slipperiest and least cooperative balls I’ve ever handled.
Okay, so not quite a ball, but a skull. Washed ashore and given life by an earth deity named Terry, Skully finds himself embroiled in a family squabble between four sibling elementals all vying for a great source of power called the Life Heart. To that end, he needs to roll his way through each of their domains, dodging danger and solving puzzles and dying repeatedly because of some fucking bullshit. For a game that doesn’t know if it wants to be a puzzle/adventure game or a precision platformer Skully sure picked the worst of both fields. It’s frustrating, because in the moments that it gives the player reprieve to just roll through pretty environments or throws up a legitimately satisfying puzzle it shows actual promise. Unfortunately that promise is immediately squandered when doing the same sequence you’ve solved 15 deaths ago because it ends with a jump that neither the controls, camera or physics can reliably handle.
Throughout Skully’s five-or-so-hour runtime there are two main categories of gameplay – rolling down obstacle-laden paths as Skully in his natural state, and more puzzle and platforming-centric sections where he possesses one of three alternate forms with their own unique abilities. The game leans more toward the latter as it goes on, and once it does the levels become significantly more interesting and varied, but at that point it’s too little, too late. The early slog through repetitive and overly-long rolling sequences leaves too sour a taste and even the better, later levels suffer from bouts of frustrating design and boring ideas. Too often the ‘correct’ solution to a section barely works, and Skully sorely needs some kind of brake button. Surely if he has the ability to roll around at will he wouldn’t just let himself roll to his death all the time.
Of all the things that Skully does, the things it does right come as the biggest surprise. I actually thoroughly enjoyed the game’s narrative in an oddball, weird-ABC-Kids-show-you-almost-forgot-existed kind of way. Skully has a lot of personality for an empty skull starring in cutscenes made of still frames. So do the elementals, who are also backed up by some surprisingly good voice acting. Predictable as it is I was motivated to push my way through the game just to see the story through and, despite a very anticlimactic final boss that is quite literally just two minutes of rolling in circles, the ending hit right. Still, all that’s not reason enough to pick up this game at the end of the day.
Some games are disappointing because they execute good ideas poorly. For others, it’s a lack of both. Skully is different. It’s a game that’s aggressively average in almost every way, with a scant few redeeming qualities, that could have easily been more successful had its creators realised at any point during production that it just isn’t fun.
Reviewed on PlayStation 4 Pro // Review code supplied by publisher