I saw Skully on Twitter about a week ago, a game which I’ve never heard of prior to the tweet, and I instantly fell in love with the way it looks. The gameplay, aesthetic, art style, and mechanics all looked super cute and very interesting, like a mix between Super Monkey Ball and Trine (I’ll explain later). However, what I wasn’t expecting was the frustrating gameplay, rage-inducing moments, brutal platforming, and countless deaths which were to come once I started to play the game. Skully may look cute, but looks can be deceiving!
The game is developed by Finish Line Games, a studio with two prior releases, Cel Damage HD and Maize (a game I really want to try out after only just finding out about it now). Its publisher is Modus Games, which we’ve worked with many times over the last few years, a publisher who has their name on games from all genres but often smaller indie titles which deserve more exposure – just like Skully.
So, come with me as we revive Skully with some magic clay and see what incredible adventure awaits him…
Once upon a time, there was peace in the world with four deities and their mother watching over the land, deities which represented the Earth, Air, Water and Fire. However, upon the death of their mother, the siblings began fighting, finding themselves locked within an endless rivalry with one another over power and control. One of the siblings, Terry, has had enough. He was in charge of the Earth so he used his element, and the magic clay puddle, to bring life to Skully, a skull filled with magical clay that can roll and jump about.
Terry asks for your help in reuniting the siblings and putting an end to this petty war, thinking that you could possibly get through to his brother and sisters easier as you have no prior conflict with them. What he didn’t tell you is that each of them hates him, so they’ll stop at nothing to use their powers to try and banish him, including you, if you try and get close to either of them. So, the journey won’t be that simple, especially when you’re simply a small ‘pebble’ which is rolling around the place at great speeds.
Thankfully, being a living skull-ball isn’t your only skill, you soon find out that you can summon clay bodies (‘Forms’) to jump into (literally) and command, Forms which offer new unique mechanics and abilities which will make your job a little bit easier. So, by combining rolling, jumping, moving objects, throwing yourself, and setting pre-planned movements, you have a good chance of overcoming the environmental puzzles and hazards placed before you – a good chance yet you’ll still die over and over again. However, being made of clay, death isn’t the end, it’s merely the beginning (of your frustration)…
So, I likened the game to both Super Monkey Ball and Trine, why? First of all, as Skully, you are a small physics-based ‘ball’ which rolls around very, very fast. As such, you need to be wary of things like gravity, momentum, acceleration, and your overall speed. for example, there are a lot of small tracks which you need to go fast over, as they’re angled around 45-degrees or more, yet too fast and you’ll fly off or too slow and you’ll simply drop to your (often) death. I found these parts of the game quite tricky, especially when it also throws in some precise platforming whilst playing as Skully.
As you progress into the game, you’ll get access to three new clay Forms which you can summon at the magic clay pools, Forms which literally eat you and spit you out as you swap between them. This reminded me of Trine as in that game you have to swap between various characters to solve certain puzzles. The first is the Strong Form who can punch down walls and smack the various enemies about, later gaining the ability to throw Skully long distances. The second is a Swift Form who is only a little bigger than Skully, this one can run and jump long distances and move blocks around with its magical powers. Finally, there’s the Vault Form who can double jump and lift the same blocks up and down.
The game introduces some really clever puzzles and challenging platform mechanics, some you’ll love and some will frustrate the hell out of you – especially if you’re trying to go for the platinum. I initially was obsessed with finding every single collectable within each level, ofter restarting the mission if I didn’t find them all, but once I reached level three I gave up on this as I just wanted to play the game and not focus on collecting everything. This is very unlike me, as I hate leaving things at less than 100%, but I had a good reason – the game was driving me insane! Let me explain…
Each level has a plethora of ‘flowers’ for you to collect – some have 100, others can have as much as 450 in a single level. In terms of visibility, most of them are out in the open, with a few hidden in areas you’ll need the various clay Forms to access or they’ll be high up on top of mountains which you’ll have to scale in order to find. This isn’t the issue, the number of them is fine as it often relates to how long the level is, and the hidden ones are quite fun to find as it encourages exploration, the issue for me lies in the difficulty of collecting them.
Before we get into my personal issue, let me explain how the save mechanic works. When you walk over a clay puddle, the game saves and flowers you’ve collected will be registered. Then, when you die, the flowers you have will re-appear but they’ll be brown, whereas the ones you don’t have will be gold. Also, these pits are scattered all around, so you’ll not find yourself going too far before being able to save again. So far everything sounds fine, doesn’t it? Well, once you enter level three onwards, things start to get pretty tricky…
Skully has a few segments which are like Crash Bandicoot, running towards the screen whilst something is chasing you. Not knowing where you’re going and what’s ahead, all whilst collecting items and avoiding the instadeath by falling into water or lava, can get quite stressful. Similarly, there are moments where the next portal is a point-of-no-return, so you need to collect everything in one area, with no save, then move on – often filled with enemies, precise jumping, sloped platforms which makes Skully roll into the water if you’re not careful, and annoying vines that whip you and pretty much kill you instantly.
Let’s not even talk about the levels where the lava rises up and you have to climb a thin-ledged tower as Skully, basically on a timer until you’re burnt to a crisp whilst collecting and platforming!
This is why I gave up obsessing over the collectables on my first playthrough, the gameplay was frustrating me even more than those games which are made to purposely frustrate you as they mock you for dying over and over again. My advice, if you are crazy and want to try and collect everything all at once, collect things and walk over the clay puddles as often as you can, so it saves your progress. Even if it means backtracking to save – it’s worth the extra time and effort.
On a side note, what are the flowers for? Are they just for the trophies? Nope. As you pick up more, you’ll unlock new concept art in the main menu. I’ve collected all but two of these so far and they’re really good. But, are they worth the frustration and patience required in order to unlock them all – that’s up to you.
I really enjoyed the puzzles which Skully presented us with, they were unique and thought-provoking to the point where I had to actually ask the PR to get a hint off the developers for me! As the game progresses, you’ll have to combine the various abilities of each clay Form in order to find the solutions to the puzzles, working together to almost create ‘new’ abilities. For example, some puzzles require you to lift up a rock (by using the Vault Form then popping out of its mouth with Triangle), then use the Swift Form to move the levitated platform around whilst the other is still making it hover. One can only lift things up and down and the other can only move them around the floor.
The puzzle solution I got stuck on is one which is introduced in level 14. I’ll let you know the ‘solution’ just in case you also get stuck. You unlock an ability that lets you pre-plan the above platform movements. All you do is lock onto the platform with R2 as either the Swift or Vault Form, then position the platform at point A. Press R1 then move the platform to point B and press R1 again. Now, when you jump out of the Form with Triangle, it’ll move the platform between point A and B automatically. I don’t know why, but the in-game instructions on how to do this (which is a few images on a stone tablet) really had me confused.
At first, you’ll only be able to have one clay Form at a time but you’ll eventually unlock three. However, this doesn’t just mean one of each can be created before you have to destroy them, you could have two or three of the same type depending on how you wish to solve the puzzles. So, you could use a Vault Form to lift a platform and hold it in place whilst you become another Vault Form and double-jump on top of it. Some of the puzzles really had me thinking and I believe I may have solved some of them ‘incorrectly’ by messing around until I found what worked for me.
The basic enemies are quite straight forward, use the Strong Form to shockwave the water blobs into nothingness and punch the fire rocks until they explode (after you’ve run away). But the vines… OMG, the vines! These appear on water-based levels and they are a bastard to deal with. If you’re in any clay body and they touch you as they flail about, Skully will be forcefully removed from the body and sent flying, often straight into the water. These made the platforming a lot more stressful and frustrating – they’re also the reason I gave up on collecting everything, as they kept killing me before I could save the game and update the things I’d found.
Then we get to the bosses. I don’t want to spoil things with these as you should experience them for yourself, but all you need to remember is that Skully is usually the only thing which can hurt them. I spent a long time trying to figure out how to kill Brent, the wind deity, until I realised I had to use an ability I had unlocked about an hour earlier and get Skully to damage him, rather than trying to punch back the projectiles as you do in Zelda games!
Some of the boss fights were a case of trial and error, with me dying countless times in each, but they offered some variety by introducing new challenges and obstacles within arena-like situations. However, I will say that I actually found the bosses to be easier than some of the levels – especially that rising lava level as that had me almost throwing my controller and giving up on the game.
The one actual disappointment I had with Skully was the ‘cutscenes’, not the frustrating and rage-inducing platforming. All of them are played out as still images that move slightly (so the characters will move independently of themselves as 2D images in front of a background). Don’t get me wrong, they all looked very nice and the quality of them was really good, but why are they still images and not actual in-game cutscenes?
They will often transition to in-game models just before the game kicks back in, showing that the developers do have the ability to animate the characters in a way that would be deemed an actual cutscene, but instead they opted for the storybook approach.
This isn’t a big issue, it’s just something I noticed and particularly didn’t think was the best choice. It reminds me of how Koei Tecmo and Gust used still images from the Fairy Tail anime in their latest game rather than animating their own scenes or actually inserting the moving anime. However, there is a ‘reason’ for this, the game is basically a story being told to you (without a narrator), as the game starts and ends with a book being opened/closed, implying that you’re reenacting the story of Skully. That would explain the storybook-like cutscenes, but I’d still prefer in-game ones.
Did I like it?
I know that this review is coming off as the game frustrated me and I really didn’t like Skully, but it’s quite the opposite. The frustration simply led to the determination to reach the ending (which I did). However, I had to turn myself off the thought that I wanted to get all the trophies as that mindset was the main cause of my initial breakdown. Trophies for collecting all the flowers in one, four, eight, twelve, fifteen, and all of the chapters, not to mention completing five and ten chapters without dying! It also wants you to complete each of the most stressful moments (the crash-like chases and the rising lava) without dying… If there was a death counter then it’ll be easily over 40 for each of those for me.
So yeah, I’ve come to terms with the fact I’m not getting the platinum but I’m happy I saw the ending. In total, I think it took me around 12 hours to reach the end – if you’re going to try and get the platinum, expect that time to be a lot longer as some will require you to restart the level if you make a single mistake.
The only time I actually stopped playing the game was when I became confused about the auto-movement mechanic as I didn’t understand the instructions the game gave me. Other than that, I was playing the game constantly as I was addicted to the gameplay and the incredible visuals. In a way, it reminds me of PixelJunk Monsters 2 with the almost clay-like look to everything. The fact I kept trying and never gave up means a lot to me as I’ll stop playing a game if it gets too much and it’s annoying me, I had fun whilst playing Skully, it just may be a bit much for those with little patience and perseverance.
I think one of my biggest frustrations (how many times have I said this word in this review!) boils down to the death mechanic – again. Once you die it not only resets any flowers you collected since you died, but it also resets any platforms you moved and kills off your summoned clay Forms. It’s more an irritation than an annoyance as you have to then summon the Forms again and re-setup the platforms as before. This can sometimes take a few minutes each time you died depending on the puzzle you’re at. It would be nice if saving actually saved everything – the Forms and where you moved things – but maybe that’s asking too much?
Skully is freaking gorgeous to look at. The world is so colourful and well-detailed with an almost claymation look to it, especially with Skully himself and the clay Forms (as they’re clay). Every new chapter introduced new environments and textures which I’d not seen before, greatly enhancing the variety and visual eye-candy within the game. I often found myself just rolling around and trying to line myself up for some decent pictures. Speaking of, if you press R1 whilst as Skully, he’ll lock himself on looking at the camera for a selfie (you also get a trophy) – yet there’s no photo mode! This game is begging for a photo mode.
The music varies based on where you are and really captures the atmosphere and gameplay at that particular moment. In terms of the voice acting and the dialogue – I loved it. Each deity has their own personality which is well represented and the dialogue is both funny and interesting to follow. I love how Terry constantly complains at Skully for talking too much and messing things up via conversations, even though Skully is mute!
The game also looks fantastic on my PS4 Pro in 4K mode – I’m not sure what the actual resolution is, but even when I got Skully right up in front of the screen, I couldn’t see any jaggies or distortion – it ‘may’ actually be 4K (if not then it’s pretty close). The framerate is also super smooth (it feels like 60fps but it could be 30 with motion blur to make it appear smoother). I felt a few minor dips, as in they only lasted for a second when trophies unlocked, but other than that, it’s as smooth as a babies bottom!
One final shout out to the physics. The majority of the time it felt like I was the one at fault when I died, due to not moving fast enough or overshooting a jump, as the physics are solid and act very realistically. Not once did I ping off into space or see items wobbling as they became dislodged in the floor like physics-based games often do.
Despite the frustration and anger which Skully built up within me, this challenging puzzle-platformer is very addictive and one of the most visually stunning indies I’ve played this year. Utilising three different clay-based Forms to solve the multitude of environment-based puzzles was fun and tricky at times, often requiring you to combine their various abilities to come up with a solution. The game is quite brutal and unforgiving, especially if you’re going for the platinum, but as long as you have enough patience and perseverance, you’ll make it through to the final cutscene. It has a few flaws and questionable choices, but the journey is worth it in the end.
If you like platformers but feel like you are in dire need of a challenge, something which will cause you to pull your hair out as you aim for the elusive platinum (which I doubt a lot of people will obtain), then look no further. Prove you are actually a ‘trophy hunter’ and not someone who only feeds on the easy platinum trophies – pick up Skully today and showcase your platinum with pride!
The Official PlayStation YouTube channel uploaded almost ten minutes of gameplay, which you can find below. Hopefully, that’ll help push you over the fence you may be sat on!
- - Very nice visuals, with an almost claymation feel to them
- - Interesting puzzles which you solve using three clay Forms and the cute Skully
- - Good voice acting and funny dialogue
- - Varied levels over 18 chapters with 7 different locations
- - Very addictive despite the frustration and difficulty spikes
- - Very frustrating at times, with steep difficulty curves based on the area and enemies within the chapter
- - The new abilities aren't explained very well via the stone tablets
- - Did I mention the game gets very frustrating?
- - It contains Crash Bandicoot-like 'running away from things' segements, which are quite fiddly
- - The platinum will be a challenge, one which most people won't dare to pursue