Skull and Bones review: A pirate's life is not for me

Ubisoft's seafaring adventure game is remarkably uninteresting and frustrating to play.

Ubisoft
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Seven years after its reveal and multiple delays later, Ubisoft has released Skull and Bones, a 17th-century pirate game about building infamy and becoming one of the most feared names on the sea. Despite all of the time it spent in the oven, Skull and Bones feels half-baked and trite.

A high tide…

A ship narrowly dodging cannonballs from a pursuing ship.

Source: Ubisoft

Skull and Bones was originally conceived to capitalize on the success of Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag, which introduced piracy and naval warfare to the stealth franchise. Despite that, Skull and Bones feels like a rough draft, like this was the game that introduced mechanics and ideas that would later be iterated upon in a much better-received spiritual successor. It’s baffling.

Skull and Bones opens rather strongly with an all-out battle on the high seas that ends in defeat for you and your crew. From here, you’re forced to start over from scratch and rebuild your reputation as one of the world’s most formidable pirates. This means building new ships, sinking enemies, stealing loot, and doing anything else that’ll raise your infamy and restore your good name. It’s a rather straightforward premise that opens the doors to the game’s various systems and mechanics.

As the captain of a ship, you’re responsible for everything that happens onboard. This means acquiring raw materials to craft weapons and gear and then assigning those weapons and gear to the different parts of the ship. You can outfit your vessel with different paint jobs, emblems, trophies, and other cosmetics to make it truly yours. I enjoyed this process a fair bit, even if there was no shortage of cool cosmetics locked behind obnoxious microtransactions.

Raise your sails

A captain encouraging his crew.

Source: Ubisoft

The naval warfare itself is perfectly fine. You bark commands at your crew while balancing steering the ship and launching attacks at enemies. It’s not bad, per se, but I was disappointed by how samey it felt compared to most pirate games I’ve played. There is very little done to innovate on the format or push it forward in any way that feels unique or engaging. Some of it is downright boring.

Take ship boarding, for example. One of the coolest features in Assassin’s Creed 4, Skull and Bones' spiritual predecessor, it allowed you to walk away from the wheel and physically board a hostile ship, executing crew members and snatching loot before eventually deciding to return to your vessel. That game came out ten years ago. Boarding in Skull and Bones has been relegated to pressing the designated board button when a ship’s hull has received enough damage, and watching a brief cutscene before deciding what loot you want to take from an inventory screen.

Skull and Bones is at its best when you’re sailing the open seas. The game places safety zones around some of the hub islands, which disables weapons and protects your ship from attackers. Outside of these zones, you’re fair game. There’s a real sense of dread I would feel when my ship was banged up, I was low on resources, and then I spotted a potentially hostile ship in the distance. There were a handful of tense moments where I barely made it to a safety zone with my ship intact.

Sea of cheese

Crewmates fire cannons at hostile ships.

Source: Ubisoft

Where Skull and Bones drops the ball is in its land-based segments. A solid portion of this game asks you to run around various islands, interacting with merchants, and finding contracts to take on. Every moment on dry land feels like a video game from the Xbox 360 era. Controls are clunky, there’s a brief load to enter/exit every building, initiate every conversation, and embark/disembark your ship. It’s often busy work, as you’re typically trying to harvest a resource or deliver goods so that you can get back on your ship and onto the sea. There’s a legitimate argument to be made that this game should have never featured elements that take you off the water.

Skull and Bones is a AAA game (AAAA, according to CEO Yves Guillemot) in 2024, so of course it’s got all the live-service fixings: a Battle Pass, a seasonal format, and items that can only be acquired by purchasing a premium currency. Mind you, it’s a fully-priced game at $69.99 USD. None of these elements add value to gameplay, and they feel so shamelessly shoehorned in by Ubisoft executives to maximize profits. Live service elements are supposed to make players want to keep coming back to a game, but Skull and Bones seems more concerned with getting you to open your wallet. Had this game been released during the era it already feels like it belongs to, it would have been a much simpler, straightforward pirate experience with some co-op and multiplayer modes included. And it would have been better.

Another man’s treasure

A captain steering his ship toward incoming hostile ships.

Source: Ubisoft

Despite Skull and Bones’ multiple shortcomings, there are moments where Ubisoft’s strengths shine through. The company’s flagship Assassin’s Creed franchise has thrived off authentically capturing various eras and cultures throughout human history, and Skull and Bones manages to do the same. I was impressed with the diversity in character designs and voices, which perfectly fit the game’s Indian Ocean setting.

There are also a lot of fine details that Ubisoft gets right. Most notably, sound. From the creaking of the wood on my ship as crewmates frantically move around to the sound of waves crashing against the hull, there is a lot of work done to immerse you in that pirate setting.

Sinking

A ship taking fire from two hostile ships during the nighttime.

Source: Ubisoft

I have to wonder what happened to this project over its lengthy development cycle that took it from a promising spin-off of one of Ubisoft’s most beloved games to what will undoubtedly be remembered as one of 2024’s more underwhelming big-budget releases. It’s not entirely disposable, but it’s far from the treasure it promised to be.


This review is based on a digital PC code provided by the publisher. Skull and Bones is available now for PC, PS5, and Xbox Series X/S.

News Editor

Donovan is a young journalist from Maryland, who likes to game. His oldest gaming memory is playing Pajama Sam on his mom's desktop during weekends. Pokémon Emerald, Halo 2, and the original Star Wars Battlefront 2 were some of the most influential titles in awakening his love for video games. After interning for Shacknews throughout college, Donovan graduated from Bowie State University in 2020 with a major in broadcast journalism and joined the team full-time. He is a huge Scream nerd and film fanatic that will talk with you about movies and games all day. You can follow him on twitter @Donimals_

Review for
Skull and Bones
5
Pros
  • Ship combat is serviceable
  • Authentic world building
  • Immersive sound design
Cons
  • Land segments are painful to get through
  • Hollow live-service elements
  • Monotonous gameplay loop
  • Mechanically underwhelming
  • Instantly feels dated
From The Chatty
  • ? reply
    February 28, 2024 11:00 AM

    Donovan Erskine posted a new article, Skull and Bones review: A pirate's life is not for me

    • ? reply
      February 28, 2024 4:18 PM

      A very fair review! All of the black screen transitions from ship to land turned me off. I don't even know if fixing that could have saved this game from the virtual delete bins.

      Incidentally, it was actually Assassin's Creed III that "introduced piracy and naval warfare to the stealth franchise." III was quite an ambitious game and had so much going on, sometimes people forget the naval warfare stuff in it haha!

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