Skellboy (Switch eShop) Review
There are a lot of action RPGs in the world. Even in the last few months, there will have been a ton released, all with different pedigrees – is it like Diablo? Is it like Zelda? Skellboy is one of the many hitting the Nintendo eShop and today we’ll look at how it compares to its many, many competitors, and what it does to differentiate itself from the rest of the pack.
Skellboy launches you straight into its core gimmick: you’re a skeleton… boy… skellboy, and you can pick up body parts strewn across the ground to augment how your character behaves. You’ll start as, well, a skeleton made of bones, but as you down various enemies like the zombies in your first encounter to mushrooms, knights and cursed skeletons, they’ll occasionally drop some new feet or a head for you to steal. This can change your health or speed, or various other attributes, and give you special abilities relative to the parts you’ve got equipped. Grab a set of zombie parts, for example, and the swarms of undead that plagued you in the opening areas will now ignore you, at the cost of now being only able to take a single hit. While equippable gear is nothing new, changing your character on the fly to solve puzzles with a bomb head or equipping a disguise to avoid the frustrating projectile-firing flowers feels pretty cool.
This combines with a number of different weapon varieties you can swap between to suit the situation or your playstyle. It all comes together feeling very fresh, even despite the fairly by-the-numbers action RPG combat and construction. Yep, you’ll swing your sword and kill enemies, solve some basic environmental puzzles, and sometimes find yourself in a boss fight. There’s not much to really complain about – weapons hit how you’d like, and you never feel restricted by the movement system or unable to manage crowds despite some large numbers of enemies and reasonable difficulty. I died a fair few times, but I never felt like it was the game’s fault (mostly… more on that later). There’s definitely a reliance on the body-changing gimmick and the aesthetic to keep things feeling new and exciting, though.
And what a pretty aesthetic it is! Everything in the environment is voxel based – for those new to voxel graphics it’s a bit like pixel art on a 3D grid, and here it often looks stunning. There are some great lighting effects and draw distances, and in particular I found the rolling fields in the farm area to be particularly beautiful. It feels serene at times, but (surely you saw this but coming) there are absolutely crippling performance issues around almost every corner that absolutely annihilate that serenity. It doesn’t even line up with the on-screen action – just walking along a path you’ll encounter stutters, hangs and framerate issues, and it’s only in very tight poorly lit indoor scenes you’ll see anything even out.
I talked about me dying not being the game’s fault earlier? It was never because the challenge was insurmountable, it was because having a few enemies on screen caused the game to stutter wildly and I’d have a big tank of a knight impale me while the game was hanging. I’ve said before that performance issues have hindered my enjoyment of otherwise solid titles but when it’s causing game overs something really needs to be done. The developers say they’re working on patches but in its current state I can’t forgive the quality control.
The other thing hampering this otherwise gorgeous game is very childish writing. This is obviously a matter of taste, but every character, item and line of dialogue is some sort of pun on cubes – from main villain Squaruman to missing monarch Granddice Fluffybeard, out to the game world being called the Cubold Kingdom, I found it all a little insufferable. It’s not that I wanted the game to take itself super seriously and never crack a joke, but this isn’t… jokes. It’s just this really constant out-of-place absurdity in what could actually be, if framed with a little more gravitas, an interesting narrative. Eliminating puns for a second (and believe me, every single noun in this spiel was a pun): a powerful sorcerer joins the royal court with ideals that don’t line up with the rest of the kingdom, and so he rebels against the constrictive monarchy by raising the undead and wreaking havoc.
You play as one of the risen undead, who has to both prove himself to the living and help stop the evil being carried out. Wow! What a narrative! In-game you discover Squaruman’s motivations by finding his bedroom where you can read his diary that’s mostly puns. You rescue someone in distress and they’re… a hat maker who can make you silly hats to wear. The humour never landed for me, and it was far too omnipresent and over-the-top. That said, maybe you’ll have a giggle, but I found this game’s strength to lie much more in the solid level design and pretty visuals.
Onto that solid level design, actually. Each individual dungeon is great, with internally consistent rules and cues – I rarely, if ever, felt lost in the game’s opening hours as it makes it very clear which direction to go and what you need to be doing. There are challenges and new mechanics and enemies in each area, as well as hidden paths and rooms exist for you to find as you solve puzzles and take careful stock of your surroundings. After clearing the sewer about halfway through, the game opens up from its previously fairly linear progression and gives you a choice about where you’d like to go, and with that stroke loses all sense of pacing and forward movement. Here, Skellboy becomes more like a Metroidvania style piece, with you moving partway through an area and becoming unable to proceed, instead needing to use a new tool to go and make progress through a different area, which will unlock a new item that lets you progress in your original zone, etc etc. It’s frustrating after the strong pace established in the opening half – by itself, this style of level design is fine, but when thrown at you halfway through a different game it’s jarring to adapt to. Adding injury to insult for me was the crypt system.
As you explore, you’ll walk near little gravestones that pop up as you approach and save your game. At one point, a character gives you the Hero’s Crypt Key. “Great,” I said, “now I have to find the Hero’s Crypt.” After carrying the key a few hours, passing up seemingly important items on the way (you can only carry one non-weapon item at a time), and then wandering previously explored areas searching for a hidden path (there is no map), I gave up. I went to save, and walked closer to the point than I have ever needed to… and the game prompted me to interact with it. It turns out that literally any save point was the entrance to the crypt, and that this was not an optional extra but the fast travel system and location for you to equip your character with the right gear so as not to suffer with rubbish equipment as I had been for hours. I had to ask myself if I was stupid, if I had just missed a cue, but no – the game hides this essential location behind a behaviour that’s literally one of the first things established. Maybe you’ll disagree with me on this one, but boy was I fuming. In the interests of ending this paragraph on a positive note, the music does kind of slap, though.
Skellboy, much like its body-part-swapping protagonist, tries a lot of different things in its visuals and mechanics to get me to like it, but ends up a veritable Frankenstein’s monster. The aesthetic is nice, but the writing isn’t; the visuals are lovely but create ugly performance issues; the combat is mechanically solid but not well-paced or structured. It’s certainly worth taking a look through what Skellboy has to offer, as there’s a beating heart underneath, but your mileage may vary with the inconsistent exterior.
+ Beautiful voxel graphics
+ Fresh body part swapping gimmick
+ Solid combat and level design
- Performance issues
- Bad pacing and structure
- Unfunny writing