Tom Quirk plays a lot of video games, but when he isn't, he is reading fantasy novels and watching way more television than is healthy.
Xbox One, PS4, PC, Nintendo Switch
August 4, 2020
Finish Line Games
Skully is a puzzle-platformer where you roll around an island as a skull. Unlike most skulls, you possess the ability to form bodies out of clay to assist in your quest. With its compelling characters and story and beautiful artistic vision, there is a lot to like about Skully’s presentation, even if its gameplay has some issues.
Skully’s narrative is set on a mysterious island, where four sibling deities, representing the four elements, are squabbling for supremacy. Skully is found and reanimated by Terry, the pacifist earth elemental, as he teams up the adventurous rolling skull on his quest to find and pacify his siblings and stop the conflict. I became surprisingly invested in Terry’s struggle to talk down his siblings, as this cosmic conflict is depicted in the frame of a familial dispute. Each elemental has a quirky design and personality and yet comes across as charmingly human and flawed. Even Skully, who never talks and barely even animates during cutscenes, displays an unexpected amount of personality.
The way the story is depicted is a little unusual. Each cutscene, rather than being fully animated, is shown in a slideshow format, cutting between still frames, rather than fully animating each scene. It was an odd choice that grew on me over time and still managed to convey action and personality with just the keyframes of action and voice acting. This definitely shows how you can present an action-packed story without shelling out for a cutscene animation budget.
“Constantly jumping between small, often angled platforms when your player character constantly rolls around felt frustrating more often than not.”
Throughout the levels in Skully, you will spend half your time rolling around and jumping as the titular skull, and the other in one of three different magical forms. As a skull, Skully is rather fragile and lacks a lot of mobility options, so you will want to be in a body as much as possible.
For the times where you aren’t able to use a body, or your body is destroyed and you are stuck as a skull, the amount of precision platforming often annoyed me. Constantly jumping between small, often angled platforms when your player character constantly rolls around felt frustrating more often than not. There is a pleasant sense of speed in the larger areas where Skully can really build up momentum. I just wish there were more levels based around that sense of freedom.
The three magical forms, on the other hand, were fun to use and had varied abilities for each situation. I liked that each form continued to unlock new abilities throughout the game, rather than remaining static in their movesets. Skully can maintain up to three different bodies at once, and can jump out of a body and roll over to his other ones to possess them instead. Many of the game’s more elaborate puzzles involve using two or three bodies’ abilities at once.
There is still an element of clunkiness to some of the abilities; for instance, the ability to move platforms vertically and horizontally is split between two different forms. This made challenges involving precisely positioning floating platforms more difficult and obtuse than they needed to be.
This frustration is magnified when the platforms reset on death, forcing the player to begin the laborious process from scratch if they misjudge a jump. That said, for the most part, the puzzles were fairly manageable and didn’t kill the pacing too much, even if I wish there was more variety than moving blocks or platforms around.
Overall, Skully keeps its fairly compact runtime flowing well with a steady introduction of new challenges and abilities. Most action-packed set-pieces are followed with a methodical puzzle section where the player can relax a little. The game presents an extra challenge for those wanting to nab 100% of each level’s collectables. You unlock some nice concept art for the effort, which I appreciated. I can see a potential future for Skully with the speedrunner community.
It helps that the game looks quite nice. The environment design is visually striking and appealing, in particular the fire and water effects. The soundtrack for each area is also varied and adventurous. You might grow to resent some areas more than others (looking at you, dimly-lit cave level), but overall, the island is a beautiful place to explore.
Skully is certainly imperfect, but there is a strong core for Finish Line Games to build upon. The narrative and characters really had an emotional impact by the end, and the game’s setting is quite beautiful for the most part. While some of its platforming and puzzle-based challenges can annoy at times, overall, Skully is a fun ride if you’re looking for short, yet impactful, experience.