Skull and Bones review – the salt and vinegar chips of pirate games

Skull and Bones is laden with stunning vistas and fearsome fleets, but there's a slight tang on the sea air.
Skull and Bones

There are very few games that make me want to forgo everything else in order to submerge myself in that world. I had high hopes that Skull and Bones would be one of them, with its rich backdrop of the Indian Ocean, an ever-growing pile of pirate plunder and a flotilla of assorted ships – the makings of your very own fleet. I was ready to embrace my destiny as a pirate kingpin.

I’ll cut to the chase: Skull and Bones didn’t quite elevate me to that all-encompassing feeling, despite high hopes and higher tides. But that’s not to say that I didn’t still enjoy my time on the waters of the Indian Ocean.

On the contrary, I’ve found myself continuing to weigh anchor on a regular basis since its release on February 13. In short, sharp bursts, I’ve been gradually growing both my territory and reputation – and, honestly, my wardrobe. In my eyes, Skull and Bones has exactly the energy of salt and vinegar flavoured chips.

They’re divisive. The all-important crunch and saltiness of the chip has nearly universal appeal, but the acidic bite of the vinegar is an acquired taste – those that enjoy it will thrive eating the whole packet in one go, ignoring the brining of their tongue. Those that don’t? Well, they’ll probably make it through a handful of chips before taking a break, or seeking out alternatives.

Over the past two weeks of playing Skull and Bones, I’ve attuned my tastebuds to salt, spray and yes, even the tang of vinegar. Handful by handful, there’s a lot to consider in this expansive action-adventure.

Read: Skull and Bones sails far beyond the bounds of the Caribbean – Interview

Whoops, sloops and cannon-fire

There’s always going to be something enrapturing about seeing life through the eyes of a pirate. From the iconic tricorn hats to the ethereal nature of a ghost ship, it’s a world you can find yourself lost in.

English teachers or philosophers might tell you it all comes down to the feeling of freedom on the seas, but let’s be honest: sometimes, all it takes is a really cool boat. In Skull and Bones, your ship is your best friend. When you can’t rely on kingpins, compatriots, or even the wind, your ship is what gets you through.

Though the process of acquiring resources to craft new ships can be admittedly tiresome, the payoff is significant, and I relished the feeling of doggedly chasing down smaller Bedars and Sloops in search of precious cargo. Each ship has unique and interesting features which, blended with my selection of weaponry and furniture, rendered me a beast on the waves.

I quickly became adept at choosing the right craft for the right purpose – especially in situations where combat was likely. And let me tell you: combat is often likely. Some ships have greater success withstanding bombardment; others have a cleaner, tighter turning circle for manoeuvring against quick-moving ships; and others still were primed with fire and brimstone to initiate warfare on a soaring scale.

I spent most of my fortune on customisation options for my preferred vessels, and would feel personally attacked any time an enemy would send me sinking to the depths.

While I wouldn’t say Skull and Bones‘ combat is revelatory in any particular way, that process of becoming attuned to your chosen ship certainly went a long way in distracting me from thinking, “this was better in X or Y“.

Perhaps my favourite part of the adventure was that every time I stepped back onto the decks of Sainte-Anne after completing a quest or battle, a motley crew of waiting seafarers and ne’er-do-wells (pictured below) would hail me with cheers. The dialogue was specific to the feats and achievements I had accomplished on my travels, with characters calling out my deeds in cheerful, reverent tones.

Skull and Bones cheer squad
Screenshot: GamesHub

It’s the kind of warm welcome home that I would like to experience in other aspects of my life. Returning home from a tough workout at the gym? Shower me in applause for hitting PBs. Didn’t burst into panic when faced with a reverse parallel park in a busy thoroughfare? Let the cheers ring through the lands for my calmness under pressure.

There were times where I’d have a rough day, log into the game and complete a couple of missions just so I could get that deliciously consistent NPC validation, and I’m not ashamed to admit it.

Fighting against the wind

For all its highlights, Skull and Bones also has its fair share of sea rats that chew up the boards and tinge the experience. From my crew’s insistence on endlessly repeating the same shanty, through to glitches that result in pop-ups of irrelevant information, there’s still some sanding of edges to be done as the game progresses further into its Year One roadmap.

While I can make peace with the shanty situation, the pop-ups were aggressive and made for a serious distraction – especially given how much screen real estate they take up. On a number of ventures out, I’d allegedly find myself marked, unmarked, marked, unmarked, marked and unmarked by the secretive smuggling network The Helm, all in rapid succession. This would occur even when I was on an innocent resource-gathering trip in ships, not prepared for war with such a vast network of rogues.

Aside from bugs like that, there are also elements of the core game that feel unwieldy. The land sections of the game feel almost tacked on in parts, as the entire purpose of making berth is exclusively to purchase goods, submit quests and pick up the occasional coconut.

Obviously it’s a naval game, but it does feel like a missed opportunity to not have any land-based goals outside of “find this location and dig up a chest,” especially given the detail and dedication present in each of the locales.

Even when you’re firmly at the mercy of the sea, it still has moments that take you out of it. Crossing massive expanses of open ocean can get mired in tedium, especially when you’re battling against the wind.

The changing wind direction frequently impacts your journey – it’s not the type of game you can keep moving with one hand, while you check your phone with the other. While you could argue that it’s a good thing for immersion, there are some significant stretches where you’re largely just commuting.

In combat situations this can also be detrimental. For the first while, until you unlock specific ships, you’re stuck constantly trying to loop back and around your opponents to line them up with your guns – which at a base level are also slow to reload. This looping process is unwieldy, and even the smallest ships feel hulking.

But the biggest factor in why Skull and Bones hasn’t completely sunk its hooks into me is simple: at a certain point, it starts to feel repetitive. You’d think that of all things, piracy, combat and smuggling would make even the most repetitious activity exciting, but there’s a threshold.

This will undoubtedly change as the roadmap unfolds over the coming year and beyond, but for now, Skull and Bones holds firm as a game that appeals most ardently to those who don’t mind grinding, resource gathering, and shipping contraband from one side of the map to the other.

Skull and Bones - black market
Screenshot: GamesHub

Sails fly on Skull and Bones‘ horizon

Skull and Bones has some really interesting selling points, marred by what feels like a missed landing of lofty ambitions. The world is gloriously formed, keeping you well-occupied on long stretches of sailing around archipelagos and coastlines that stretch for days. The naval combat brings with it a swell of energy that makes you feel incredibly powerful – especially as the smoking embers of your enemies descend into the sea.

For what it is, Skull and Bones is a genuinely fun time. But there are certainly areas where it feels like a bedar in a storm, struggling under the weight of expectations and high hopes.

Read: How Skull and Bones stayed the course through development hell

I don’t see myself sticking out hours upon hours of further gameplay, but the handful of salty, vinegary chips that make up the foundations of Skull and Bones have kept me well sated for the past two weeks – and I can’t deny I’ve found myself thinking about the game even when I’m not logged in.

With an extensive roadmap for the year ahead – and with the proviso that the crowd of onlookers at Sainte-Anne continue to whoop and holler every time I make berth – I can, at least, see an eventual return to Skull and Bones on my horizon.

Three stars: ★★★

Skull and Bones
 PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X/S, Microsoft Windows
Developer: Ubisoft Singapore
Publisher: Ubisoft
Release Date: 13 February 2024

Skull and Bones - Standard Edition, PlayStation 5
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05/18/2024 06:57 am GMT

A copy of Skull and Bones for PS5 was provided by Ubisoft for the purposes of this review. GamesHub reviews are rated on a five-point scale. 

Steph Panecasio is the Managing Editor of GamesHub. An award-winning culture and games journalist with an interest in all things spooky, she knows a lot about death but not enough about keeping her plants alive. Find her on all platforms as @StephPanecasio for ramblings about Lord of the Rings and her current WIP novel.