Skull and Bones review: A masterless shipwreck

Jessica Filby
Skull & Bones

11 years in development and the controversial pirate game Skull and Bones has docked into port, but does it rise like a wave in a storm, or sink under the weight of its own cannons and cargo?

Skull and Bones was set to hit the shelves in 2018, promising to take the best bits of Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag and turn it into an epic seafaring adventure. However, after a series of major delays, the game finally saw its release extended to 2024, prompting a wave of controversy and creative director reshuffles.

Due to this, Skull and Bones had a lot to prove, with its extended development time, bored Beta players, multiple creative directors, delays, and more plaguing its every move. So, does it live up to its Black Flag inspiration, or is it a major red flag in the wake of more AAAA titles?

Skull and Bones: Key Details

  • Price: $69.99 / £49.99 / €59.99
  • Developer: Ubisoft
  • Release Date: 13 February 2024
  • Platforms: PS5, Xbox Series X, and PC

Another surprising entry to the pirate theme

Initially, we went into Skull and Bones with high hopes. The beloved game mechanics of Black Flag and the enjoyable collaborative nature of Sea of Thieves will forever hold a special place in our hearts, and being able to add to that with Skull and Bones felt perfect.

From the offset, you’re placed on a Nassau-style island with plenty of NPCs, stores, and pirate captains to engage with. From there, you’re sent off into the world to make your fortune, with plundering, naval battles, and dealings with various clans at the forefront.

Some of these were enjoyable. In particular, plundering felt natural for a pirate game while still proving to be challenging and rewarding both through the battle and the resources you receive.

Unfortunately, that’s where the love stops. The game’s deals, naval battles, bounties, and even sea monster fights feel clunky, meaningless, and increasingly unnatural.

More unnatural than a sea monster

Skull and Bones
Unnatural camera angles, ship controls, and conversations force Skull and Bones into a rocky start.

Whether it’s controlling the ship, fighting for a decent camera angle, or even making deals with clan members, it’s hard to ignore how clunky and unnatural every element felt. Even conversations left awkward pauses, questionable movements, and underdeveloped lines of speech, reminiscent of the failings of Immortals of Aveum.

Controlling a larger pirate ship was never meant to be easy, with so many elements required to make the boat go. But, that doesn’t always need to transfer over to a video game, as we’ve seen with the likes of Black Flag. Sure, Skull and Bones adopts a simplistic control system for the boat, but even then it feels just as unnatural, honing a more traditional FPS gameplay design where you’re a ship instead of a person.

Then there’s the conversation. Skull and Bones isn’t a story-driven game, there’s one in there but it certainly takes the backseat for most of the experience, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing for an open-world ship game like this. However, it often feels as though the story should take a further step back thanks to its unnatural, awkward, and unpolished dialogue. Each conversation with clan members, Pirate Captains, and even NPCs contains awkward pauses, and unnatural sentences, and fails to pull you into any feeling of adventure or an engaging storyline.

Anything you can do they can do better

Skull and Bones shipwreck
Skull and Bones fails to battle against its similar counterparts.

If Skull and Bones had released when it was meant to it could have dominated its genre. You can take part in some epic naval battles, explore the Indian Ocean, battle sea monsters, and create a truly stunning ship. But all those features feel better placed in other games, with Skull and Bones simply lacking in every feature that Black Flag or Sea of Thieves excels in.

As such, it’s hard to ignore how the game feels half-baked, unfinished, and rushed all at the same time. The story feels lackluster, quests feel pointless, and exploration only rewards you with resources rather than any distinct treasures. While Sea of Thieves throws Krakens, Megs, Ghost Ships, and hidden treasures into your travels.

Exploration is a pivotal element for a game like Skull and Bones. After all, its original inspiration, Black Flag perfected such a notion. Through the clever use of catchy Sea Shanties, naval combat, and stunning scenery it’s hard to improve on one of the best Assassin’s Creed games out there. Unfortunately, Skull and Bones doesn’t meet that expectation.

Through the lack of rewards, PvP, and the addition of stamina you’re stuck sailing at 6 knots for five minutes until you can head to your chosen quest or pick up the latest blueprint — only to do it all again, leading to plenty of frustration and innate boredom.

Fishing for the wrong treasures

Interestingly, Skull and Bones isn’t without its overwhelming amount of features. In fact, there’s plenty to do as you sail the seas, from small minigames to collect resources, blueprints, trades, plunders, battle tactics, and more. Despite this, the experience still manages to feel lacking, with the game proving to be a jack of all trades, but a master of none.

At its core, Skull and Bones is an open-world action game laced with classic shooter gameplay, survival crafting experiences, and annoying puzzles. It’s this mishmash of genres that ultimately leaves players confused, overwhelmed, and let down all at the same time.

The Verdict: 2/5

As much as I wanted to enjoy it, Skull and Bones feels like an underdeveloped, unpolished, and unnecessary game that was better left on the cutting room floor. With awkward quests, little incentive to explore, and far too many problematic features, it’s left us wondering how this took 11 years to release and how quickly it’ll drown in its own seas.

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