Skully brings players on a powerful journey of friendship and healing on a lush island filled with challenging obstacles but is let down by frustrating environmental and camera mechanics. While not a very lengthy game, Finish Line Games’ latest offering has 18 levels set in a variety of different environments, each with its own unique characteristics. These unique environmental challenges and puzzles manage to make each level seem fresh and, the world much larger.
In the first of many gorgeous cutscenes, we are introduced to our eponymous main skull, Skully. Recently reanimated using magic clay, we become acquainted with our friend and benefactor, Terry. A primordial deity, it seems that he has power over earth, and he has brought Skully to life to aid him in his quest to stop an ongoing familial dispute with his three powerful siblings — who themselves also have power over certain elements. Unfortunately, by lashing out with their power in their quarrels, they have also begun to risk irreparably damaging their island home.
As we journey with Terry in his quest to end the fight and restore peace to their home, we begin to empathise with his plight. As the firstborn, he feels responsible for the actions of his siblings and is willing to do whatever it takes to achieve a peaceful resolution. However, he is also clearly dealing with his hurt feelings as he was cast out. Thus, as his friend, Skully also helps him come to terms with his feelings and begin healing.
Super Skully Ball
Similar to games like Marble Madness and Super Monkey Ball, Skully (being a ball, of sorts) rolls through the level, jumping over obstacles and collecting flowers and reaching the endpoint. But unlike these classic games, we directly control Skully’s movements, while maintaining a 3rd person view of its surroundings.
In the beginning, Skully can only roll around, hop and occasionally wall climb using plants growing on the walls. But as we further explored the island, more environmental hazards appeared, requiring greater platforming finesse to progress to the next area. Being on an island, we often found ourselves surrounded by water, which is deadly to Skully. Once submerged, it decreases health fast, since the clay Skully is made out of dissolves in water. Thankfully, Skully can regenerate lost health by dipping in clay pools, which conveniently double as checkpoints.
As the obstacles and puzzles increase in number and difficulty, we were slowly granted the ability to morph into three different clay forms, each with their own special attributes. Introduced at the checkpoints by instructions carved into the surrounding rocks, we eventually were able to break walls, move individual blocks from a distance, and even throw Skully across chasms. Towards the late game, the incredibly challenging puzzles made it necessary to use all our abilities in concert.
The best, and sometimes most aggravating, feature of Skully is the environment. As Finish Line Games wanted the platforming elements to be ever-present, we found ourselves having to watch our ‘footing’ as we hopped and skipped our way through the story. This added complication gave another dimension to the gameplay as minute control over Skully’s position was necessary to prevent unwanted deaths.
Unfortunately, questionable checkpoint and camera mechanics made the spotlight on platforming elements a major source of frustration, rather than a challenge. Firstly, checkpoints, while plentiful, only saved our position in the map and not any physical progress made in the map itself. Thus, any prior setup would be lost after a fatal incident, making puzzle sections unforgiving and rather annoying.
This is made worse by the wonky camera mechanics. For one, the camera orbits Skully at a fixed distance; it is impossible to zoom in or out to get a better view of the surrounding area, making challenging platforming sections even more difficult. Additionally, for platforms close to walls or in narrow, high-walled areas, the camera sometimes can phase through the walls. Some walls did disappear to give us a clearer picture of the next platform, but most did not. This led to misjudgment while jumping, often to lethal results. Thus, the challenge of having to micromanage Skully’s position on a precarious platform or log was made worse by having to simultaneously shift the camera to a better angle.
However, the worst of the camera’s deficiencies were found in the “time trial” levels. During these levels, we had to race from the start, while dodging obstacles and platforming our way to the end of the map. However, the camera was locked at a far distance — and given Skully’s small profile — made clearing the levels unbelievably frustrating.
It is a sad notion that the unfortunate camera mechanics and focus on platforming detracts from the beauty of this mysterious island. At first glance, the island could pass for a Hawaiian atoll, with the giant mountain in the centre, ringed by forests and the idyllic beaches. Each of the different environs is lovingly designed. For example, sections of the beach made us feel as though we were wandering through the Giant’s Causeway.
The care and effort put into environmental designs was also extended to the characters and sound design. As each of the mud forms and Terry stem from powers based on the earth, it only fits that their designs have an earthy feel to them. Terry’s body, for example, looks to be made of dry clay, with some small stones and pebbles embedded in him. As a result, his skin looks rough and dry, and as befitting a primordial being, very unfinished. Also, his hair and his pants are the same shade of green as the grass that grows from the earth.
Perhaps the best example that we noticed was in the Strong Form. As is befitting of the name, the Strong Form has a large frame, belying its ability to perform incredible feats of strength. It is after a jump, when the Strong Form lands, that a loud and distinct thump sounds, suggesting to our minds that a large mass has landed, which is apt considering the size of the Strong Form. Furthermore, its grunts and growls are deep and threatening, unlike say, the Swift form, which uses a high-pitched sound base that emphasises on its small stature and blistering pace. All of which makes the interaction of the Form with the world more realistic.
Voice Acting, Cinematics & Music
As we rolled on the sands of the beaches, or through the lush forest, we were accompanied continuously by upbeat background music. Adventurous and high-spirited, it perfectly mirrors the bright ambience of the game as well as the optimism exuded by Terry as he hopes to reconcile the differences between his siblings.
Accompanying the epic soundtrack is the enthusiastic backstory narration by Terry. Simultaneously filling up gaps in the story, the energy and emotions are carried through clearly and caused us to be more invested in his quest. However, it is not just Terry alone. When Terry is conversing or bickering with his siblings, the voice acting kicks up a notch. The high running emotions shine clear during the delivery, granting a degree of realism to the interactions.
But where it all comes together are in the cutscenes. Using a storybook-type format, at first glance, the cutscenes are just a series of dynamic images with voiceovers. However, the artistic visuals, combined with the impressive voice acting, does much to bring the story to life. And despite the limitations of using images, action scenes are still full of tension and excitement, a testament to the great art and sound design, and voice acting.
Alas, Poor Yorick!
At its heart, Skully is a very narratively driven game. This was never more evident than during cutscenes or conversations in the background. The storytelling was well executed, drawing us in and making us more invested with each passing stage. However, the compelling and passionate story was, in our opinion, let down by the gameplay.
The platforming elements of the game were always challenging yet refreshing. Each new section was never the same, and you always had to fully incorporate the new skills learnt into your gameplay. While there is no one correct way to solve every puzzle, using unique skills makes it far more manageable. Unfortunately, the camera mechanics caused us to make mistakes, causing us to restart from the checkpoint more often than was perhaps ideal. Thus, longer platforming sections began to feel tedious, marring the fun gameplay and storytelling experience.