No Bones About It (This Game is Great)
The beginning of the indie scene in the PS3 era was truly a magical time. There were so many amazing concepts being thrown around, and, while not all of them came to fruition in the way that I was hoping (I remember excitedly following Fat Princess since the very beginning, only to be devastatingly disappointed by it once I finally played it), there were far more which met, or even exceed, my expectations. Looking back on it, I doubt that I could pinpoint what made it feel so magical. Maybe it was the creativity behind the games being made or the way in which the indie scene was being presented to potential buyers. Heck, maybe it was just the fact that it was new. I couldn’t tell you. Since then, however, indies have become way more mainstream. And, because of that, they have lost some of their whimsy. But when I started playing Skully, I was reminded just how playful, fun and creative an indie title could be.
Don’t Lose Your Head
Would you believe me if I told you that Skully‘s story was about sibling rivalry? I wouldn’t blame you if you said no; it really wasn’t where I was expecting the game to go, either. Nonetheless, that’s where it ultimately ended up. Skully‘s story follows the journey of Skully, a skull that was brought back to through the wonders of a magical clay, and his creator Terry—a once-powerful Earth elemental—as they track down Terry’s three siblings in the hope of restoring balance to their island.
Alone, powerless, and stuck on a small beach, there was a long portion of time during which Terry did little more than reflecting upon the state of the island which was once partially his—however, by realizing that he could bring something (aka Skully) to life and have it travel in his stead, he could finally stand up to his siblings and quell the (sometimes quite literal) raging storm. Of course, sibling rivalries are never easy to deal with—and that goes tenfold for rivalries with siblings who wield elemental magic.
Given the fact that this game only spans 18 levels, I wasn’t expecting Skully to have much in the way of narrative prowess. Boy, was I wrong on that one! Skully truly has a unique and captivating story, the quality of which is only enhanced thanks to its charming stop-motion animation storytelling and a delightful cast of voice actors. As fun as the game would be on its own, I won’t pretend that there were times when I found myself wishing for a level to end soon so that I could watch more of the game’s story unfold. It’s seriously just that good.
Skully, at its soft, clay-filled core 3D platformer of extremely high quality with a simple premise—to make it to the end of each of the game’s 18 levels (which is way easier said than done). While many things help to enhance the overall quality of this game, one of the elements (and I’m not talking about Terry and his siblings) which helps the game stand out the most is none other than our little boney ball of goo himself. You see, Skully isn’t just a platformer; it’s a physics-based platformer. I’m sure that you get where I’m going by now, but, just in case you don’t, I’ll spell it out for you; having your main character be a ball in a game with physics isn’t the easiest thing in the world. Don’t let that scare you off just yet, though. I mean, we’re not talking Super Monkey Ball levels of zaniness, here. Far from it, actually. In fact, I think that the use of physics in this game helped to reach its full potential.
At the risk of sounding a tad hyperbolic, Skully‘s gameplay is one of the best examples of physics-based platforming I’ve experienced in a very, very long time. In many cases, it seems to me like games with their own physics systems tend to go overboard with them—all physics, all the time. …Okay, maybe they aren’t that extreme. But I’ve definitely seen my share of games that rely on physics too much. Skully’s a different story, though.
Despite still very much being based around physical realism, it’s not shoved down your throat throughout the duration of the game. Sure, you’ve got your occasional loops and curves, and that one level with the wind could get a little extreme. But, all-in-all, it feels like the devs wanted to ensure that Skully stays a fun-yet-challenging platformer above all else, something which they absolutely succeeded in doing.
I’d also like to point out just how well this game controls. Although I’m far from being a game designer myself, I would imagine that creating tight and responsive controls for a game like Skully without making things too easy isn’t exactly simple. But that didn’t seem to stop the game’s devs from doing it anyway. In fact, the only thing that I would say doesn’t operate in an almost perfect manner is the camera, which is a little stiff for my liking—and if that’s all that I have to deal with, then I really couldn’t care less about it.
Me, Myself, and I
Yet another thing that Skully has going for it is its inclusion of transformations. While you can still expect to spend plenty of time rolling around at the speed of sound (or however fast Skully actually goes), you won’t be stuck as a sentient orb for the entire duration of the game. Skully features three different transformations—the whole of which gives off a pseudo-Lost Vikings vibe—with each specializing in either strength, speed, or jumping. And, just like Skully himself, they’re all very comfortable to control.
Transformations are always interesting. But what’s even more interesting is the fact that you don’t even need to be in control of these transformations. By pressing the corresponding button, the mudman that you’re currently controlling with literally spit up Skully—who apparently acts as some kind of core—leaving the transformation in-tact, but (mostly) motionless. While this isn’t something that comes into play immediately, later levels will have you quickly and efficiently mastering the management of your trio of transformations—whose skillsets diversify as the game goes on—in no time.
I might not have explicitly mentioned this yet, but if the inclusion of things like physics and real-time character manipulation and management haven’t already tipped you off that there are a lot of puzzles in this game then prepare to be surprised… because there are a lot of puzzles in this game. I’ll admit that I was a little worried at first when dealing with some of the game’s more mid-late-game puzzles. While Skully tells you the bare basics of how to use each transformation, it expects you to figure out some of the more advanced techniques on your own. Fortunately, it handles this pretty well. Just be sure to experiment for a bit if you get stuck!
Skully may shy away from holding the player’s hand too much, but it doesn’t seem fond of brutalizing them, either. Areas that require players to think for themselves are never initially too difficult, and most of the techniques learned come in handy during later levels—meaning that they’re not a one-and-done deal.
Reaching Your Potential
If everything that I’ve said about Skully so far hasn’t convinced you that it’s a great game, then I’m not sure what it will. It’s appropriately challenging, it’s highly mechanically polished, the story and characters are great, and, best of all, it’s fun. Like, a lot of fun. The time in which all indies were inherently exciting and mysterious may have already passed on by us, but Skully shows that indies can be just as magical as they’ve ever been if you know where to look.
Final Score: 4.5/5
Available on: PlayStation 4 (Reviewed), Nintendo Switch Xbox One, PC; Publisher: Modus Games Developer: Finish Line Games; Players: 1; Released: August 4, 2020; ESRB: E for Everyone; MSRP: $29.99
Full disclosure: A review code was provided by the publisher.