Skull and Bones Review screenshot
Skull and Bones Review in Progress

Review in Progress: Skull and Bones

AAAAhoy matey!

Skull and Bones is not a AAAA game. I’m not even exactly sure what would constitute being an AAAA game, but Skull and Bones is not it. That being said, that doesn’t mean Skull and Bones is a bad game. In fact, there’s some fun to be had here if you’re looking for a more arcade-style pirate adventure.

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I originally started my own pirate journey in the Skull and Bones open beta earlier this month, since the progress made in the beta carried over to launch. The beta had a cap on progress which I reached after about eight hours of playing, but I had enough fun to make me want to continue my progress on launch.

It’s a little less pirate simulator than I’d have liked. But the ship combat and some of the other core combat systems are fun and engaging in a way that makes me want to keep going despite the issues at hand.

Skull and Bones (PC [reviewed], PS5, Xbox Series X|S)
Developer: Ubisoft Singapore
Publisher: Ubisoft
Released: February 16, 2024
MSRP: $69.99

Yoooo-Hoooo

Skull and Bones throws you right into the action. You were on a ship that had wrecked, and you’ve washed up on the shores of the Atolls islands. Over the course of a brief intro that also serves as a tutorial, you build a small ship called the Dhow, then sail off towards the Pirate Den of Sainte-Anne in the Red Isles. The Dhow isn’t exactly a pirate ship, but rather a small boat you’ll later use for hunting creatures for their hides and skins for crafting. But for now, it gets us from point A to point B, and now our real pirate life begins.

We meet Scurlock, a pirate captain who runs things in the Red Isles. You’ll build rapport with him by completing simple missions to plunder nearby ships, find buried treasures, and even ambush a royal convoy. Along the way, you’ll gain Infamy (experience) that increases your Infamy Rank (level) and unlocks new ships.

Each ship requires a blueprint you will have to track down and acquire, as well as some material costs to build it. You can plunder ships for most resources by looking at your map, finding a Supply Route that has the resources you need on it, then sailing out to that location and ambushing Merchant Ships traveling the route. It’s almost like picking a spot in an MMORPG to farm certain materials, but fit for an open-world pirate game.

You can also find certain raw resources that you can gather, and then take back to your Pirate Den to refine into the needed crafting materials. For example, there are islands that might have Acacia Trees on them that you can chop down for the logs, and then at the Pirate Den, you turn the logs into planks which are used for building your ships.

Oddly though, you perform gathering actions from your ship, not actually as your character disembarking from the ship. So you’ll sail your ship to the coastline of the island where you see the trees, play a harvesting mini-game, and then sail around the islands looking for another resource point. It feels a bit off, when there is the option to dock with ports and run around the island, to have you chop trees and mine ore by pulling up next to them in your ship like it’s a drive-thru window.

Skull and Bones review screenshot
Screenshot by Destructoid

You’re not always a ship, but most of the time, you’re a ship

The core of the game is centered around building bigger and better ships with more powerful weaponry and then taking those ships out to plunder other ships and ports for resources. You can customize the cannons, armor, and other equipment on each of your ships, allowing you to sort of build a ship that fits your preferred playstyle.

Once again, you can leave your ship and traverse on foot, but only at designated outposts and settlements. They usually serve as rather confined spaces where you can interact with a few of the same sorts of NPCs that all outposts and settlements have: a merchant, a stash space or warehouse, etc.

The Pirate Dens—I’ve encountered two so far, Sainte-Anne and Telok Penjarah—act as your bigger quest hubs with other points of interest. Here you can refine your raw materials into better goods, sell your acquired goods to a commodity trader, pick up missions and bounties, and most importantly visit the shipwright to actually build your newly unlocked ships. The Pirate Dens are pretty detailed and feel pretty lively when you’re there.

But when it comes time to actually do anything such as gather resources, progress a mission, or farm some Infamy, you’re going to have to jump back in your ship. There’s no land-based combat here—Sea of Thieves this is not—and all of your encounters will be fought from your ship. Sometimes you’ll fight other ships, or even fleets of them. Other times you’ll attempt to siege and plunder towns and outposts.

Combat stays relatively the same, though. Your target will have red spots that you can aim at and hit with your weaponry to deal bonus damage. You want to primarily aim for those spots. Of course, your enemies are also going to be firing at you, so you need to try and navigate in a way that makes it difficult for them to connect their shots. In some ways, it’s more of a numbers game. For example, is your ship’s combat rating higher than the ones you are facing based on your ship and its equipment? If so, you’re going to be dealing more damage and taking less damage. But if it’s a fair fight or if you even find yourself outnumbered or outmatched, proper maneuvering and aim can help turn the tide in your favor.

Skull and Bones review
Screenshot by Destructoid

Build a Pirate Empire…sort of

As you near the end of the Red Isles missions, you unlock a feature called The Helm. This feature seems to be the end-game progression in Skull and Bones. Basically, you get a hideout at your Pirate Den with a map of supply networks in the area. You can either meet up with liaisons in the supply network and buy their illegally obtained raw materials at a discount, or plunder convoy ships to acquire them. Then, at The Helm, you convert these raw materials into actual goods. From here, you must then transport the goods manually to a designated location to sell them for profit. Along the way, rogue pirates can attack you to try and steal the resources from you as well.

You’ll also have the ability to take over various production facilities scattered across the world. At first, it’s logging camps and mines in the Red Isles areas. Taking over these areas is basically a fort plunder mission with some added enemies. Doing so gives you a passive income that you can collect while continuing to operate your smuggling network from The Helm.

Both systems are pretty fun, at least from what I’ve played so far. I’m not super far into either, and I do have some concerns about it getting repetitive or boring if that’s the only means of end-game content. However, I do know there’s also PvP-style content as well as massive sea creatures you can team up to fight with others, almost like world bosses. I haven’t gotten high enough Infamy Rank to attempt these, but I did encounter one in the open sea once and it completely decimated my ship.

Skull and Bones isn’t for everyone. If you’re looking for an intricate pirate life simulator, this isn’t really it. There are elements of that for sure, but as a whole Skull and Bones is more of an arcadey and somewhat grindy action game where you continue the loop of plundering ships for materials, Silver, and Infamy to level up, unlock a new ship, farm the materials to build that new ship, rinse and repeat. Even doing side missions along the way are really just to increase your Infamy or obtain some more Silver or other resources to build your next ship.

So far, I’m enjoying the gameplay loop because each ship has felt like such a powerful upgrade over the previous one. Each new ship has had more weapon slots, and been able to dish out more damage while also taking more. But with a few more Infamy Ranks to go, I could see the process overstaying its welcome. And if it doesn’t, what do I look forward to once I hit Infamy Rank 10 and build the best ship in the game?

It’s great for some rather mindless fun, but don’t expect anything too intricate. I have some genuine fears about this being live service, as I’m not sure there’s enough to really justify that sort of design. But I’m also currently Infamy Rank 6 out of 10, and maybe as I reach the maximum rank and experience some of the new content I will see more that gives me hope Skull and Bones could find its sea legs.

If the more arcadey pirate ship combat sounds interesting to you, definitely check it out. There’s a free trial that allows you to play up to eight hours, which is plenty of time for you to decide if this is a game you will enjoy or not.

[These impressions are based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]


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Author
Steven Mills
Staff Writer - Steven has been writing in some capacity for over a decade now. He has a passion for story focused RPG's like the Final Fantasy franchise and ARPG's like Diablo and Path of Exile. But really, he's willing to try anything.