Skull And Bones Ships
Image: Ubisoft

Skull and Bones review – A barebones arcade game

A looter shooter on the high seas.

Skull and Bones has been in development hell for 10 years, but we finally have a finished game. We were promised a gritty and realistic pirate adventure. Yet this gets undermined at every opportunity.

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Even though the game isn’t what most expected or wanted from a pirate game, does it mean that Skull and Bones is objectively a bad game? After playing many hours, I believe I can finally answer this question that’s been bugging me since the Open Beta.

A decade for a disappointment

It is no secret that Skull and Bones has had a troubled development. The game initially began as Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag DLC. For 10 long years, the game has been scrapped and redone over and over again, and the developers decided to land on Skull and Bones.

As the development has been going on for a decade, many people expected so much more than what we got. Ten years is a long time, and what we got feels like it’s been in the works for maybe a couple of years at best.

Sailing To Dragon's Back In Skull And Bones
Screenshot: PC Invasion

With many years of mismanagement, an ex-developer is even quoted as saying, “No one knew what the [heck] they were doing.” Miscommunication, bad management, and no clear direction dragged out Skull and Bones’ development as it suffered from turbulent seas the management themselves made.

But is this awful history of development important to know? Well, it would be remiss of me not to mention it considering so many people have been waiting 10 long years to play what was supposed to be a grand pirate adventure. So many people have been disappointed with this game after many years of anticipation.

The lack of direction can be felt in the game. It’s like the miscommunication between the team snowballed into a miscommunication between the gameplay and the theme they were trying to establish. It’s such a shame the development history of Skull and Bones has impacted the gameplay.

Skull and Bones is not a gritty pirate game

Let’s go over the meat of Skull and Bones. I was looking forward to the gritty and realistic approach Ubisoft kept harping on about. As an avid fan of Sea of Thieves, I was excited for a less fantastical and more historical pirate experience. I was mighty disappointed when what I finally received was goofy rather than gritty.

Sure, the graphics are pleasant and there are realistic elements present, but nothing gritty whatsoever. The combat — the game’s core activity — doesn’t feel like proper naval combat. This is where we come into the many contradictions Skull and Bones tries its best to hide.

Shooting Another Player In Skull And Bones
Screenshot: PC Invasion

Realistic and hearty piratical combat and sailing cannot be had in a satisfying manner when the ships feel like reskinned jet skis and are irritatingly sluggish. Sailing with these ships is generally a fine experience, but considering that getting from point A to point B is so boring, the measures Ubisoft tried to take to limit the unrealistic acceleration and movement become an infuriation.

Your crew has a stamina bar, which feels like a forced resort to prevent each ship from zooming around the map. They’re pirates. They’re used to grueling conditions. “Sorry, boss, I’m too tired to maintain the ship’s speed” just doesn’t sit right with me.

The stamina bar segues quite nicely into another gripe I have with the combat system of Skull and Bones. The consumables. Both food and repair kits can be popped to instantly repair the ship and restore stamina, as well as some other benefits. What?!

In what world is popping consumables like a looter shooter considered “gritty,” especially in the context of a pirate game?

Many have mentioned Skull and Bones plays like an arcade game, and I have to agree. With instant consumables, super speedy ships (that are somehow never fast enough), a forced stamina bar, and the ability to pay a sum of silver to instantly revive your ship after sinking — there is nothing gritty nor complex about the combat or sailing in Skull and Bones.

The sailing is boring and obtuse, and the fights allow you to consumable-spam your way through them, deflating the realistic experience I was hoping for. It takes the wind out of the game’s sails, if you will.

Skull And Bones Ship Sailing
Screenshot: PC Invasion

Additionally, allow me to highlight another contradiction Skull and Bones throws at you. Upon first arriving at Sainte-Anne, the first settlement of the game, you are warned by your first mate to ignore the gang of “low-lives” that hung around the port. I was given a strict warning about them and adequately prepared for some trouble.

When walking past them? Nothing. A little disappointing, but not the hilarious U-turn I want to mention. When I set sail for the first time and arrived back at Sainte-Anne, those “low-lives” that would eat me whole congratulated me on returning and praised my efforts.

Upon my third visit back to Sainte-Anne, one even commented on my rising Infamy: “Your Infamy is quickly rising!” No, it isn’t. I have sunk maybe four ships, and they’re spinning tales of my excellency? It’s laughable. To have a gang of ne’er-do-wells excitingly awaiting my arrival whether I succeed or fail is just ridiculous.

It’s as though the team had forgotten they’d labeled the motley crew as “bad guys” when ideating their welcoming messages.

Now that I’ve ranted about how the game was disappointing and in no way gritty like Ubisoft said it would be, let’s go over whether it is at least a good game — if not a good pirate game.

Related: Best Cannons in Skull and Bones

A bad pirate game, but a good seafaring game?

Let me state that Skull and Bones can be a fun game, as long as you alter your expectations. Despite my disappointment, upon some reflection, I tried to lean into the more arcade-esque and seafaring experience the game has to offer, instead of trying to play it like a pirate game.

With this lens, naval combat became rather fun, and trying out different weapons in different orientations made combat less repetitive for a time. Taking on much larger ships with other players was also enjoyable, and striking weak points allowed the fights to be a little more than just constantly blasting away.

Shooting Another Player In Skull And Bones
Screenshot: PC Invasion

There is quite a range of different weapons, and there are special and unique renditions of existing weapons. Designing the best loadout for your ship is fun, allowing different playstyles to emerge.

Different types of damage such as Flooding, Piercing, Explosive, and others allow the strategy to become more nuanced to some degree. You may choose one weapon over the other as it does extra Flooding damage, reducing the max HP of the enemy ship.

I did enjoy battling and taking down ships in Skull and Bones, and taking on waves of ships when plundering settlements is fun. But that enjoyment will wane, sooner or later.

Considering that this is less of a pirate game and more of a casual ship-battling game, then you could say that Skull and Bones is fun. However, the rest of the game doesn’t want to be a casual ship battle game; it tries to be a hardcore pirate game, but this chill combat system undermines it.

Skull and Bones is unrewarding

The ultimate goal in Skull and Bones is to rise through the Infamy ranks to become a Kingpin, where you’ll be in the endgame. The endgame of Skull and Bones consists of challenging rival players, setting up smuggling routes, and a bunch of other things that admittedly sound quite fun. Although, it is an endless loop of doing those tasks, so that probably won’t have much staying power for many players.

To rise through the ranks, you’ll need to take on quests and bounties, which consist of sinking ships in PvE combat or delivering items to different settlements. Honestly, doing so much of that did become a little boring. Thankfully, there are other activities, like treasure maps and investigating rumors and sightings.

Treasure Map Skull And Bones
Screenshot: PC Invasion

Although these activities are fun the first few times, the reward for each of them soon becomes just a matter of Infamy, as silver is easy to come by and the only thing you’ll really need it for is fast travel, buying the odd provision here and there, and buying Blueprints.

Although Infamy is what you’re after, and you’ll unlock more ships and Blueprints through different ranks, there is a tinge of feeling unrewarded. This may be because the activities themselves are stale and quickly become repetitive, so completing them isn’t fun in their own right. Playing this game soon becomes “What will get me the most Infamy?” as that’s all you’ll be playing for when the novelty wears off.

All of this effort is for an endgame that will also have its novelty depleted soon enough.

Leopold In Skull And Bones
Screenshot: PC Invasion

As you progress, you’ll be constantly blocked by needing to buy and find Blueprints for weapons, furniture, ammo, and other ships. Constantly sailing around to buy Blueprints to build what you need is an annoying hindrance I can’t see a decent workaround for. It’s an unnatural obstacle, as you’re not crafting the things yourself, you’re paying professionals who should already know how to build most of the things you need Blueprints for.

That’s the gameplay loop. Doing bounties and quests for Infamy while constantly sailing around for Blueprints to take on bigger ships to get more Infamy.

To answer my own question, this isn’t a great seafaring game, either, even if the combat is the best thing the game has going for it (if you stop treating it like a proper pirate game, that is).

Is Skull and Bones for you?

At this point, the only redeemable feature of this gritty pirate game is the combat — but only when you accept that it’s not a gritty pirate game.

If you want to do things like explore islands to uncover treasures and riches and engage in grueling fights with other fleets and other pirates, then Skull and Bones isn’t for you. PvP is an opt-in event that occurs every now and then, and there is no on-foot exploration. The only time you’re on your scurvy-ridden feet is when you’re walking around a limited settlement to get quests or produce things.

Best Pc Settings In Skull And Bones
Screenshot: PC Invasion

If you are to enjoy Skull and Bones, you must approach it like most live service games. Not too deep and not too thrilling, Skull and Bones provides a pleasant and easy-to-access looter shooter with piratical dressings. Yes, there are stories to be had, but naturally, they’re not too exciting and mostly serve to get you new gear and explore more areas.

You’ll have to gather resources, either by hand in an annoying minigame (that you can turn off, to be fair) or by plundering merchant ships. You will be doing a lot of that, so I’d recommend you take down merchant ships on sight if you are to play.

No, you won’t be living the pirate life, but if you enjoy MMOs, then you will find a lot of novelty and genuine fun. I mean, I’m having fun with the game now that I can accept it for what it is, although with my long list of frustrations, I can’t see myself playing for too much longer.

At least future seasons should bring more content and areas to explore. Who knows? Maybe the later seasons will dramatically transform this game into something more enjoyable.

If this review somehow made you want to play the game, then you’ll want to keep our guide on harvesting Acacia handy. You’ll certainly need it.

Skull and Bones
Instead of a "gritty pirate game," Skull and Bones is a looter shooter on the high seas that keeps stepping on its own toes. I hope future seasons will transform it into a game that's good for more than novelty ship battles.

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Aidan Lambourne
Aidan Lambourne is a contributing writer for PC Invasion, with almost a couple years of experience in the industry. He has written about Roblox extensively, although has keenly covered new releases and indie games. A passionate writer and gamer, he still can't really believe he gets to indulge in both for a career.