“Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio: a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy: he hath borne me on his back a thousand times; and now, how abhorred in my imagination it is!
Every Shakespeare actor needs a break from the theater from time to time and Yorick likes to spend his downtime vacationing in the islands. I’ve been anxiously awaiting the full release of Skully ever since I got my hands on the demo earlier this year, and now that I’ve played the complete and final version I find myself torn between my love of the presentation and style of this unique adventure and the utter rubbish controls that will quickly deplete the patience of all but the most dedicated (or obsessive) gamers. Skully wastes no time in setting up the scenario; you are Skully, a literal skull reanimated by a deity to help end the timeless struggle between three feuding siblings. Your adventure will take you across a large tropical island full of unique environments that presents their own environmental challenges to test your own increasing abilities.
Created with mud by a deity that’s a mix of Jack Black and Josh Gad, your only real directive in this game is to STAY DRY. Even the tiniest of splashes can wash away the magical mud that keeps Skully alive, and if you actually fall into the water you have mere seconds to get out before you…err…un-animate? Thankfully the island is littered with conveniently located mud pits that serve as both checkpoints and a place to restore your mud/health.
Mud pits also serve another important function. As you progress through the story you will unlock new forms/abilities; the first being a giant mud monster that can slap his hands to send out shockwaves to obliterate enemies or topple stone pillars or smash walls. Another form allows you to run really fast and telekinetically move around mossy stone platforms to create bridges, and another form allows you to move those same stone ledges vertically and double-jump. With all those “rules” in play you have your core gameplay loop.
Skully offers a nice mix of exploration, platforming and minor puzzle-solving. There are lengthy sections where you are simply rolling around like a marble collecting these gold flowers. Each of the game’s 18 levels has a set amount of flowers, and OCD gamers like myself will certainly be tempted to find them all, even if they serve no other purpose than unlocking bonus content in the Extras menu. If you are able to resist the urge to collect all the flowers, or at least the ones that are off the beaten path, Skully will be a much shorter game and possible a more fun and less frustrating one.
At its heart Skully is a platforming game and these games live and die by their controls. The game supports and recommends a controller and I agree, but I don’t know if a controller exists that can properly play this game. The parts where you are playing the mud monsters are fun enough but all the sections with Skully are pure tension and frustration as you wait for your next inevitable death and return to the last mud bath. The analog controls are way too sensitive, and Skully has the momentum of an 8-pound bowling ball rather than a 2-pound skull. This means that jumping is very imprecise, as you will always continue to roll after landing then try to correct but ultimately overcorrect and fall off ledges or lily pads that aren’t much bigger than yourself. The game sometimes tries to help you by placing vertical surfaces to stop you, sometimes creating a series of steps to reach higher locations, but if you are touching a vertical surface when jumping Skully will fly backwards. In a world that demands precision Skully’s controls are anything but precise, and sadly this is a huge detraction from what is otherwise a very enjoyable game.
Another significant issue with the game is the manual camera that will have you using the right stick as much as the left. Movement is relative to the camera so you will quickly need to learn how to steer and move using both sticks in perfect harmony, but the real problem comes when the camera slips into some impossible angle or gets hung up in the environment. There are many situations where Skully will need to detach himself from his mud host or make some daring leap and the camera will float behind a waterfall or a rock or even inside Skully’s own head. Again, none of these issues are game-breaking; just momentum-breaking and frustrating in what is otherwise a magnificently charming game.
The presentation is excellent with stunning visuals that capture the distinct look and feel of the seven ecosystems on the island and keep things fresh. Just when you get tired of the beach you’ll be in the forest or ascending a mountain or exploring volcanic caverns, and all of these locations offer up their own unique set of creatures and platforming puzzles. The lighting and textures are fantastic along with the stylized cutscenes that play out in this stop-motion storybook panel animation with fun voiceovers that can be intentionally annoying since most of the time you are a third party to yelling/arguing siblings…awkward. The soundtrack is perfection (and available on Steam) with great island-inspired music that mixes up to fit with the themes of the environment and dynamically shifts with the events on the screen.
Skully is a substantial game and it will take at least 6-8 hours to finish and you can double that time if you want to collect every last flower and unlock all the trophies – I dare you to complete ten chapters without dying. Individual levels are nicely sized, so the game has natural stopping points and the level of challenge rises to match your increasing abilities. I did like the way the game started presenting puzzles that required multiple and varied monsters in play at the same time – you can have up to three forms active – but again, your only reward is more flowers. Your progress is never gated behind a certain amount of flowers; just your access to bonus content.
For as much as I hated certain parts of Skully while playing it I can still appreciate the overall awesomeness of its intent and design. If they could smooth out the controls and fix the camera glitches this would be a top recommendation for 2020, but as it is I can only recommend if you have a high tolerance for die and try again games. I prefer my challenges to come from the game and not my inability to play the game due to poor design. Thankfully, the generous checkpoint system keeps things from ever reaching a rage-quit status, and the simplistic charm of the story, visuals, and delightful music always managed to keep a smile on my face.
You can check out our gameplay video here to see Skully in action.