Skull And Bones Review: Sea Of Yves

Skull And Bones Review: Sea Of Yves

Skull and Bones is a very strange game. Given the trouble this game has given Ubisoft on the way to launch, a strange experience is probably the best anyone could hope for. Strange is good, in a way. Strange means that the art is, at least, interesting in some capacity.

The journey Skull and Bones has taken just to get out the door is unlike almost any game made in the last 30 years. It’s been a decade of false starts, disappearances, massive changes in design methodologies and consumer tastes, re-emergence, a battle to differentiate itself from Sea of Thieves, and the work of no less than eleven Ubi studios around the world. The sum total is a genre homunculus, less a Sea of Thieves and more a Sea of Yves (a joke coined by Rick from Hojo Studio, and which I like very much).

With so many cooks in the kitchen and that many business needs to satisfy, it’s a wonder the whole project wasn’t simply scrapped half a decade ago. It’s hard to imagine Ubisoft had altruistic reasons for wanting to see the game ship. At this point, it’s less about a belief in the vision and more that it had almost certainly spent too much on this one project. Beyond a certain point, to not ship the game and try to make something back would have been financially bruising. Ubisoft itself expects to make some money, but does not expect Skull and Bones to break even, which would seem to confirm this hypothesis. Maybe the story of this game’s tumultuous development will come out one day. I look forward to reading it! I think it will be fascinating.

All these facets make it harder for me to write S&B off as a misfire. Even if I don’t find it terribly interesting to play, I do still consider it to be a fascinating work of art, one that is indicative of the moment the video games business finds itself in.

I Was Told We’d Cruise The Seas For American Gold

So, now that it’s here, what exactly is Skull and Bones? CEO Yves Guillemot referred to Skull and Bones recently as a quadruple-A (or AAAA) title, which is a faintly absurd way of saying its a kitchen sink game. For better or worse, everything that has come to define the bloat of modern AAA video game design is in here — it’s an open-world collectathon, a third-person RPG, and a naval warfare game. It serves both PvE and PvP audiences, and it’s a sprawling MMO in the vein of The Division. There’s currency earned in-game, currency you can only obtain through real-money purchases, an optional battle pass, and a rotating Fortnite-style item shop.

Actually playing Skull and Bones follows the same circular loop of persistent online RPGs like The Division or Destiny 2. The early game mostly sticks to taking your boat out, hunting for ships carrying high-value cargo, blowing them up, scurrying back to port, and tipping your plunder directly into boat upgrades. As the game progresses and your boat grows larger and more powerful, the scope of activities available to you widens. The higher up the chain you get, the further the curtain is pulled back, presenting you with interesting places to plunder and people to steal from.

This is where the game’s illusion of a rags-to-riches pirate fantasy butts up against the real-world business needs that drive its bolted-on MMO design. Skull and Bones sells itself on the idea that you can become a pirate lord of immense in-world notoriety. In an Assassin’s Creed style single-player RPG, this sense of rising through pirate society to become a feared and respected name might make more sense. But because Skull and Bones is an MMO, everyone is on the same path to infamy. That means running into age-old MMO problems, like waiting for resources pillaged by recent players to respawn, while occasionally being pounced on by higher-level players in PvP waters. The dedicated will push through and be rewarded with endgame activities like heists and cargo runs. There are legendary bosses to murk and Pieces of Eight to claim. It’s occasionally exciting and very piratey, to be sure. But getting there takes hundreds of hours, and having to accrete so much wealth and such a wide array of resources for upgrades feels like a lot more work than perhaps it should be.

Two Pirate Games In A Trenchcoat

Skull and Bones also doesn’t try to hide the grinding of gears as it switches between its two vastly different modes of play. Transferring from your boat (the oldest part of the game) to on-foot play (the much newer part) causes a momentary black loading screen. It’s an attempted sleight-of-hand that betrays Skull and Bones‘ lashed-together nature. Imagine a film projectionist needing to change the reels mid-film. Ordinarily, this is done in such a way that the audience is none-the-wiser. Skull and Bones can’t quite nail the hand-off, and must switch the plates out with the lights off.

Then there’s the experience of actual play. I don’t think there’s any part of Skull and Bones that isn’t mechanically fine. It all works as expected. The sailing still feels the way it did in Assassin’s Creed 4, if not a bit springier. The on-foot segments feel very much like The Division — you move around ports, towns, and cities to visit various shopkeeps and quest-givers. You sell your gear, fit your upgrades, pick up a new job, and head out again.

It’s all fine, but little of it is unique. It’s all stuff you and I have done in a hundred similar games before. And maybe that’s why it created such a specific response in me. Skull and Bones causes me to completely zone out whenever I play it. Thanks to this review, I now have long periods of time that are unaccounted for because whenever I was playing, my brain fully turned off. I have never in my life found an ADHD medication that makes my mind fall quiet way this game can. Proper ‘no thoughts, head empty’ stuff.

I mentioned its effect on me to a friend, who suggested it was a podcast game — that is, a game mindless enough that you can play it while chewing through your week’s worth of podcast listening. But I don’t even know that’s a good descriptor for Skull and Bones. I don’t think I’d recall any podcast I listened to, so deep is the fugue state I enter while playing it. Eventually, something will draw me out of the fog — my phone will buzz, the cat demands a feed, my housemate knocks on my office door. I stare at my quest list, different to the ones that were there when I opened the game hours prior. I have no memory of picking them up or ticking the others off. I look at my boat. It is now a galleon. I have a dim memory of it being a skiff at some point in the past.

I said earlier that it takes hundreds of hours to reach the endgame, and it does. But if it makes me zone out so hard that my memory fails, I have to ask if any of it was worth the effort.

Hoist Up The Thing, Batten Down The Whatsit

In an attempt to recoup any part of what must be an extraordinary production budget, Skull and Bones throws every ingredient on the shelf into a cauldron. The resulting flavour is confusing — flashes of delicious pirate adventures subsumed by rather more bland notes of MMO grind.

However, I also don’t know that the original vision — a multiplayer naval combat game — would have been a success either. Perhaps a return to Assassin’s Creed, applying pirate mythology to the sprawling Valhalla template, would have been the better move. Who knows. Will it ever get a sequel? A chance to iterate and develop the ideas that are here? Will Ubisoft brass ever even want to hear the game’s title again after all the time, money, and strife that went into creating it? Also hard to say.

In the end, there is one truly positive thing I can say about Skull and Bones, and that’s that Ubisoft didn’t give up on it. Becuase of this, it becomes a true, modern video game curiosity. An odd, misshapen creature that lacks the polish and laser-clarity that comes from focus testing absolutely everything to ensure a strong return. We don’t get games like this very often any more.

Skull and Bones: Final Thoughts

Ubisoft could have cancelled this game. It could have thrown it on the pile with all the other games that never saw the light of day. But it didn’t, and there’s value in that. Not for the shareholders, for once, but for everyone else. Interesting art is rarely perfect. Skull and Bones may not have much to say about the pirate life that hasn’t been said elsewhere, and more eloquently. But, the experience that it became has much to tell us about the realities making of AAA games in the 2020s. It’s a beast of burden, a game battling with two mandates — the first: do what it can for players with the resources Ubi has thrown at it; the second: for god’s sake, try to make some of that money back.

Review conducted on PlayStation 5 with a retail code provided by the publisher.

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