Among the blessed ranks of grueling platformers, there are games like Cuphead that feature excruciatingly difficult gameplay and a knack for storytelling to tide you through those arduous leaps of faith. There are also strategy or puzzle platformers like Nefarious that immerse you in problem-solving and exhilarating lore. And, more often than not, these games are charming in their hard-earned right to be infuriatingly annoying. Skully is not one of the games that have that right.
Skully is a 3D platformer that’s brimming with thematic heart and conceptual fun, in an adventure with plenty of action and platforming elements. The game takes place from the perspective of a rolling magic clay skull named Skully, on an adventure with the deity that created it. For the purpose of this review, we played Skully on the PS4. The game is also available on Switch.
As Skully, you roll your way across treacherous courses of varying levels of elemental terrain, trying to resolve a family feud between four elemental deities that could potentially turn into a destructive war.
Balance, as you roll about in ball or skull form, is a core mechanic, and holding your joystick with skillful control is of prime importance. Controls are reminiscent of nostalgic games like Marble Mania and Hamster Ball.
But most of the game’s efforts roll off-course because of mechanical inconsistencies that imply a rushed product. And while the fundamental story of the game is interesting enough, the storytelling just isn’t as gripping as it is cute.
Family, the heart of many a game. The story of Skully is simple enough. You, Skully, are little rolling skull created by a rock deity. He is one of a few elemental deities, the other are his siblings. With their elemental prowess made destructive by a family feud, the balance of nature is at threat… or something like that. Skully sets you on a quest to resolve the feud with all of these gods. On your path there, you have to weather through the elemental terrain that they put you through. Therein lies the bulk of the game’s challenge.
As you go along, you can use pools of mud to transform Skully into three adorable humanoid golem forms with different attack abilities and telekinetic powers!
For instance, the big golem is able to punch its way through walls, and one of the smaller golems is able to shift platforms around with its little mind. These forms are key to solving the platform puzzles in the game, and also in helping reach collectible leaves.
The story of Skully is mediocre at best, with a voice cast that does what it can to deliver on lines that are corny and fun, but lack engagement in all. I’m always up for corny, but the manner in which characters of the game leave nothing to pine for makes an otherwise forgivably typical story an absolute bore to get through.
When you get to meet characters, they’re presented in adorable stop motion cutscenes that work in unison with what the game clearly set out to be.
Mechanics That Don’t Stop Rolling
A list of questionable choices and a clearly rushed product are a massive part of what detracts from a ball of a time. The game is littered with imbalances. On the one hand, getting from Point A to Point B shouldn’t be so easy, but on the other, it also shouldn’t be so difficult. There’s no middle ground with Skully, and this is present beyond jumping and rolling sequences.
Certain points of the game have checkpoints where you absolutely do not need them, and others leave you dying for a checkpoint in the midst of ridiculously difficult maneuvers. It almost feels like the game WANTS to restrict your enjoyment, but not in a way that makes you want to try again and bounce right back.
The game is also notably well-rendered at the beginning, with pristine scenery and graphics that stun with their stillness, creating the perfect zen ambience for your little skull buddy and you to roll around with. But incomplete textures and a drop in quality come crashing down on you soon enough. Camera angles are also terribly misplaced sometimes, with the camera sometimes moving in pace with your environment instead of you, totally killing your speedy vibe. Angles also sometimes seem to whoop around, which seems unintentional but definitely avoidable.
Reasons to stick around with the Skully game
The character models for Skully and his forms are conceptually sound, and rather cute. Switching between them helps the game retain some of its fun. They also aid in collecting those leaves, sometimes kept in troves at harder-to-reach locations.
Speaking of them leaves, the perfectionist in you is going to want to try and catch them all, even if they amount to nothing. However, misplaced platforms and mechanics make the process far too much of a hassle to be fun.
Skully isn’t a game that you’re going to race to finish. But for its heart, exuberant tone, and for the opportunity to cruise through elemental worlds as a skull with an endearing companion, it might just be one that you’ll revisit from time to time on your console.