Published on February 25th, 2024 | by Richard Banks

Skull & Bones PS5 Review

Skull & Bones PS5 Review Richard Banks

Summary: Skull & Bones is a fantastic sea-sim with all the best bits of being a pirate taken out.


Ah har!

Black Flag is often considered the best pirate game of all time, so creating a follow-up should have been a breeze for Ubisoft, and there are times when Skull & Bones’ decade-long delay was worth the wait. Watching pods of dolphins frolic around my ship while my crew ho-hum a sea shanty quite literally shivers my timbers, and I don’t think I’ll ever get bored of pimping my sails. But, as any good pirate will tell you, it’s all for nought if the booty ain’t worth chasing, and that’s the problem with Skull & Bones. Sometimes, the proverbial chest opens to a bounty of fun and excitement, but more often than not, it’s more like taking a trip straight down to Davy Jones’ Locker.

Before you go hoping that Ubisoft has done a 360 on their ‘sea combat only’ approach to Skull & Bones, don’t get too excited – there’s no swashbuckling here. All of the game’s best bits are reserved for open water antics, with time on land spent across the game’s social hubs and mini explorable camps and towns. Thankfully, it wastes no time putting you behind the wheel of your own ship – and after a rather forgettable opening hour or two – Skull & Bones’ sumptuous seas soon open up, ready for you to plunder. 

Most Skull & Bones missions usually involve some variation of chasing down a ship or delivering cargo, but it’s a loop that works quite well for Skull & Bones’ naval-focused gameplay. Ship combat, for the most part, is a tonne of fun, and I was surprised at how great controlling each ship felt. Smaller ships, for example, tend to be a little easier to turn, whilst hulking great warships feel like commandeering a jumbo jet. Alongside simple-to-use weather and sail systems, I found ships felt like they had plenty of weight behind them, making movements feel purposeful and satisfying.

The same goes for the game’s combat, with the likes of cannons and mortars feeling responsive, powerful and, perhaps most importantly, like they’re actually doing some damage. Aiming is an absolute breeze too, and something that feels really special on PS5, with the additional benefit of all the pops and cranks that come with playing alongside the console’s glorious haptic controller feedback. 

Combat is also helped by the sheer amount of customisation available to your crew. Granted, there’s loads of aesthetic customisation available in Skull & Bones, but there’s a genuinely impressive amount of changes any hopeful pirate can make to their arsenal – all intending to make your adventure unique. If, for example, you want to focus on distance-based weapons, kitting out your ship with things like mortars or long-range cannons is entirely up to you. If, like me, you prefer to get up close and personal with your victims, feel free to cover your decks in terrifying, flame-spewing turrets. I especially like how each weapon plays differently, and frantically switching between weapon types in a heated sea battle makes for exciting stuff. 

Like weapons, there’s ample choice in ship types which cater to different play styles. While I thoroughly enjoyed unlocking new ship archetypes, I was more impressed with how much time I spent swapping out ships for different missions. Sometimes, I found myself benefiting from nippier small ships to evade enemy patrols, other times I retreated to the safety of the behemoth of a warship that took centre stage in my fleet. Missions even occasionally asked me to fetch the oars and step back into the Dhow, the game’s first, and rather pathetic, ship, to collect skins from the map’s huntable wildlife.

Don’t get too excited over the prospect of fending off sharks and alligators though, as it’s easily part of the worst aspect of seafaring in Skull & Bones – loot gathering. You’ll do plenty of fetching throughout the game, but it’s nowhere near as interesting as ship combat. More often than not, gathering resources is achieved by hammering away at your controller as you sail past floating goodies. Even worse, sometimes you’re enlisted in tedious time-based minigames that are as boring as they sound. Fighting off creatures like sharks is equally as dull, requiring you to simply throw an endless supply of spears their way until they die. 

Still, I found the more time I spent commandeering my ship, the more interesting and varied missions became. The large-scale battles toward the end of the game’s current set of main missions were truly exciting stuff, and I was surprised to find new mechanics and some of the game’s most interesting plot threads hidden away in missions that took me 30 or so hours to stumble across.

Maybe I’d have found these little secrets quicker if I hadn’t spent so much time taking on boss battle-type bounty contracts, but these are perhaps the areas where I enjoyed Skull & Bones the most. Of course, you can try and take these high-level enemies yourself, but joining up with fellow pirates is, after all, what this game was made for, and I found plenty of camaraderie with other online players when testing my mettle against the most dangerous enemies on the seas. There’s very little in the way of a main storyline in Skull & Bones, but this does allow you to shape your own fate – and tale – and it’s great that involving others when out at sea can be so much fun.

But it’s a shame I didn’t see any point interacting with other players on land, as the parts of the game spent exploring towns and camps are, unfortunately, completely lifeless. Even without land combat – something I was completely expecting – I found myself disappointed with Skull & Bones’ offering. These incredible environments – full of pirates going about their day-to-day business and gorgeous rainforest villages – are reduced to boring social hubs with flat NPCs and online players emoting. At one point, I landed in a hidden campsite inhabited by deserting British soldiers. Expecting an exciting new mission to unfold, I rushed over to them, only to discover they acted as more generic salesmen, just like most other NPCs in Skull & Bones. During another mission, I finally worked out the clues on a treasure map, only to discover an island where after tediously following a path to a dig site, I simply found the treasure, with very little fanfare. 

It’s an issue that rears its ugly head somewhat into the sea aspects of the game too. Again, I wasn’t expecting to jump ships and draw my cutlass in Skull & Bones, but docking with enemies is done through a system that requires you to simply aim your hooks, shoot, and watch the action play out through a short, generic cutscene. It’s such a shame, as even without combat, the land aspects of Skull & Bones could be so much better if they only received the love and care the game’s seafaring areas had.

And I’ve barely even touched on how gorgeous Skull & Bones can be. Whales breaching in front of your ship, waves crashing against your hull as a moody storm batters your crew – it can be a vibrant, beautiful world, just don’t look too close at the edges, as it does have a few visual niggles. While sailing through lush trade routes, for example, you might notice campsites built into the forests, but you won’t notice any sign of life in these camps, as every land area you spot is completely devoid of people. It’s also a shame that, visually, there’s a lack of ship damage when firing on enemies. When they finally succumb to your attacks their destruction is a glorious sight to behold, but there are barely any visual clues that you are taking chunks out of an enemy ship, bar a slowly reducing health bar.

But despite my grumbles with Skull & Bones I can’t help but keep going back. There’s enough late-game content that I’m still finding things to do, and some of the game’s quirkier missions – like world events that involve ghost ships and sea monsters – are a sign that there should be plenty more to come in the game’s future. I never felt obliged to spend any money with Skull & Bones, even though there’s ample opportunity to part with my real-life booty, and I overall found the game generous with its free cosmetic offerings. 

Final thoughts?

Yes, I miss the swashbuckling and sword-clashing action found in the likes of Black Flag more than I care to admit – but honestly, Skull & Bones’ seafaring sections can be pretty special. There’s a beautiful simplicity to it all – sailing around the seas, watching the stars twinkle above as the sea gently rocks my boat, all while I prepare to turn the night sky red with the burning remains of an unsuspecting merchant fleet. Skull & Bones is far from the perfect pirate adventure, but this is a tale of two halves; at its best, it’s a fantastic sea-sim, but at its worst? I was almost pushed to mutiny.

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