Skully (Switch) Review
Skully is a game about momentum. The momentum you build up as you roll around a mythical island as a magical skull, the momentum of a narrative put well into motion before you came to be and the momentum you’ll occasionally struggle to maintain as the player. It’s all constantly building to something, some new horizon or puzzle or revelation, which is palpably exciting and full of wonder. It’s also a stark contrast to the times when the game asks you to unlearn its lessons and navigate corners at a glacial pace lest you avoid yet another death screen.
Developed by Canada based game makers Finish Line Games, Skully is first and foremost a physics-based platformer that slowly introduces puzzles and boss encounters as you progress. You are cast as the titular Skully, brought back to life by the elemental earth god Terry to help him attempt to make peace with his warring siblings and bring balance to the world. The magical clay which fills your hollowed head allows Skully to eventually take on three different forms which are all used to varying degrees across the island.
There’s a charming ambition to Skully that goes a long way to elevate the experience. The emphasis placed on the game’s narrative is a welcome one, as too often collectathon/platformers neglect to give you a reason to actually, well, platform. Skully’s relationship with Terry, and subsequently Terry’s with his other elemental siblings, forms the backbone of the game and despite some tropes remains compelling until the end. Terry is a bit of a jerk, emulating the himbo style of recent masculine figures in media that Chris Pratt seems to always play, but his trust in Skully eventually opens him up to some interesting dramatic beats.
Skully itself is the main attraction though and Finish Line Games has pulled off a wonderful magic trick with the rolling bone. It is impossibly loveable from the moment it rolls onto the beach, non-existent eyes wide and beaming with potential and earnestness. Without any dialogue or even extensive animation, Skully makes a lasting impression.
Controlling the little dude is also (mostly) a joy. Skully leans hard into the physics angle and every slight tilt of the joystick can cause a chain of events. Momentum is your best friend here (mostly) as you send Skully rocketing along curved pathways and tight corners, all the while making sure you collect the gold leaves which number in the hundreds across levels. It controls smoothly and so long as the camera behaves you’ll soon find a nice flow state tossing Skully around a decent variety of locations.
You’ll also need to jump a fair bit as Skully needs to navigate countless rock formations across the game. Skully has a basic jump that can be enhanced by building up momentum from a good roll; it’s serviceable, just not quite as buttery as the rolling feels. Which can occasionally cause frustration as Skully will sometimes task you with making a very particular jump or turn on the spot. Without any means of controlling Skully’s finer motions (a simple slow your roll button would suffice), its spherical nature becomes an irksome quirk.
Failure can set you back a few seconds or a few minutes depending on the uneven placement of checkpoint mud pools. At times these are oddly close together and at others infuriatingly far apart. This is made worse by the game world completely resetting upon death, which means that those few minutes you spent changing forms and getting blocks into place will be wiped clean by a split second finger twitch on a jump. The game can checkpoint at other times away from the pools but never uses this outside of setpieces, an annoying design choice I never quite made peace with.
Speaking of setpieces, Skully takes a leaf out of Uncharted’s book here and will often have Skully run away from an encroaching wall of *insert element here*. In these instances the camera switches from manual to set as you’ll need to quickly move toward or away from it, causing headaches for different reasons. When Skully needs to flee into the background he becomes so small, and the textures so blended, that keeping track of it is a nightmare. Meanwhile, rolling toward the camera means you’re unable to see any oncoming platforms or instadeath pits. These instances added at least a whole hour to my time with the game (approximately 8 hours) as, paired with the hair-trigger physics, mistakes came far too quickly and frequently.
These frustrations were consistent throughout the game but I’m not entirely sure I hold all of them against Skully. It has become trite to make the comparison in games critique but there were genuine moments that brought me back to how I felt during Dark Souls. Times when simple mistakes cost me more time because I was impatient and annoyed, not the game’s fault as such but a combination of janky mechanics and my diminished tolerance. This doesn’t excuse the issues with Skully’s checkpoint systems or chokepoint level design though and there were far too many times I wanted to just stop playing because of them.
I didn’t though, which is the important part. Skully has a knack for pulling you back for one more try, one more checkpoint. The three clay forms Skully can take go a long way here as each is used in some pretty neat ways to traverse or engage with the world. There’s a brute who can fight enemies, punch walls and eventually throw Skully. A form that specialises in double jumping and moving certain platforms up and down. And my personal favourite, the squat king you can spring charge and move platforms from side to side. You can have up to three active at any given time, meaning you’ll need to combine their powers to reach areas and so on.
When all of Skully’s design elements harmonise it is a fantastic little experience. High risk, high reward platforming segments followed up by slower, more methodical puzzle-solving sections interlock nicely for most of the game, only really upset by the intrusion of those setpieces. Levels often feature hidden paths and extra collectables (which unlock concept art and the like from the main menu) and seem destined to be the playground of speedrunners.
The story that pulls your along has a couple of nice moments toward the climax too; one, in particular, made my heart so full just looking at the little dead bone I now called friend. It is mostly told to you through storybook style cutscenes, fully voiced by a cast who do a decent job at conveying some surprisingly emotional beats. This is bolstered by a terrific art direction that gives life to every character in the game and occasionally delivers some stellar locales.
On the technical side of things the game ranges from decent to average depending on the location, it drops you in. Visually speaking Skully is a bit of dirt sandwich; early levels pop with clean visuals and textures, as do later ones with moody cave systems and beautifully colourful glowing fauna. It lags in the middle though, with muddy texture work and washed out environments which don’t inspire a sense of adventure or provide clear visual clues for progression.
Some of this seems to be due to the Switch hardware as on other consoles these same levels have much higher fidelity. Which is unfortunate, as the game does run rather smoothly in both handheld and docked mode – though the visuals tank even harder when playing on the go. Worth noting too that the game crashed twice, once just to the Switch home screen and the other hard locking the system. These problems make recommending Skully on Switch a little difficult but fingers crossed a patch addressing the instability is on the way.
Ultimately, Skully feels to me like the little game that could. It’s rough around the edges, sure, but it has heart and a solid underpinning that I hope Finish Line Games run with for a sequel. When it all comes together it inspires the same kind of wonder you might have felt when you were a kid trying to navigate your way through your first platformer – frustrations and all.
+ Solid physics-based mechanics
+ Charming cast of characters
+ Engaging puzzles
- Frustrating level design
- Poorly designed setpieces
- Rough visual and technical performance