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Skull and Bones review: An unsatisfying grind across the high seas

Ubisoft's Skull and Bones is a game that many may remember for its continued delays and controversies than for actual gameplay reveals or promotional materials. The game was first unveiled in 2017, promising wild adventures in a piracy-themed multiplayer world. You and your friends would be sailing together and plundering both NPCs and other players for the most important reward of all: loot.

Inspired by the naval elements of the hugely popular Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag, the game looked at least like an interesting spin-off to bolster Ubisoft's growing multiplayer ventures of those days.

Plans didn't work out quite that way, though. While development had begun in 2013, and Ubisoft's trailers kept showing a largely finished project, Skull and Bones would continue to get delayed year after year. Now, in 2024, it's finally here as a finished product, but what I played is not something I would ever describe as a game with over a decade of development. Still, it's not the unmitigated disaster the internet would make you think. It's just average. This is giving me a weird feeling of déjà vu after reviewing Suicide Squad.

After spending a good chunk of time with the game's PC version to see what its take on piracy has to offer, here are my complete thoughts on Ubisoft's Skull and Bones. I can't offer my usual assurances about this being a spoiler-free review, though, because if there was a plot somewhere, I seem to have missed it.

Skull and Bones screenshot

Story, or rather the lack thereof

This may be the thinnest application of plot I've seen in a big-budget game touting a story campaign as a major feature. Skull and Bones starts off with your player character surviving a major naval battle and being recruited by random passer-by pirates to be their captain. Soon enough, a pirate lord of the region, Captain John Spurlock, takes you under his wing to carry out various fetch quests. By mid-game, your loyalties switch to another head pirate who loves to monologue a lot, Admiral Rahma. Although this is presented as a major shift in tone where you're working for the good of the people, it's simply more of the same fetch quests to kill others.

While primary quests all have starting and ending cutscenes, these are simply long stretches of one other character speaking to our pirate directly. Let me just say this gets old fast. Setting aside some of the iffy voice acting, there isn't any direction or much character movement to the "cinematic" dialog sections, with these apparent hugely influential individuals being restricted to a tiny room with a chair in the massive islands they own and control. Including the tutorial intro section, there are perhaps only five NPCs who receive these kinds of special dialogs in the entire game. Deciding not to use any historical figures is also a little bizarre for telling a story set during the Golden Age of Piracy.

Skull and Bones screenshot

Quest givers spin tall tales of incoming invasions, injustices happening around the world by megacorporations, and traitors swarming amongst their ranks, but we get to see exactly none of this. Because once you leave the confines of the, possibly under house arrest, quest givers, you're simply going to a location to blow up ships and cruise home, just to be told to go back out again in a long-winded way.

Gameplay: You're a ship, yarrrrr

Since its inception as an Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag spin-off, the focus and draw of Skull and Bones have been the ship battles. Unlike in many other popular pirate games like Sea of Thieves or Black Flag, your ship is your player character in Skull and Bones. It was also originally slated to be a much more hardcore gameplay experience with volatile alliances between players as they battle NPC ships, but what we have today is an almost completely PvE-centered adventure, where battling other players is demoted to a few repeating side activities. A few days after launch, and possibly due to time zone differences, I could not even find players who were participating in PVP battles to try out these instances.

Skull and Bones screenshot

There are multiple mission types to participate in. But it doesn't matter if you're tasked with taking down one ship or a dozen, laying siege to an outpost (which involves taking down those dozen ships), or delivering rum in the endgame, it's all about ship-to-ship combat. It's not perfect by any means — like having no consequences for killing any ship that you come across — but there is freedom regarding how you build your boat, from the weapon types and their positioning to perks and cosmetics.

At the core, the goal is to gather and craft resources to upgrade your vessel to make it destroy stuff fast. This leads to getting bigger and better ships that can fit even more spoils in them to make the destroying stuff part even better. Skull and Bones is like a mashup of looter shooter and survival crafting genres, and you're a ship.

Every ship, including your own, has its own power level to signify its danger. I had the most fun with Skull and Bones when fighting higher-level enemies. Drawn-out battles where I would be maneuvering around foes, slipping past torpedoes, avoiding mortars, and getting healed at the last second by a friend made me appreciate the dynamic battles the game can sometimes offer. It all makes this a fine naval game to get lost in if you don't mind arcade-y action.

Skull and Bones screenshot

Enemies aren't dumb either. They constantly try to use their specializations to wreck my day, often by colluding together. Sharpshooters attempt to stay further away to find long-range hits. Fire ships get up close and personal to keep the burn going. Broadside canon wielders throw all caution to the winds to get good angles for massive volleys. At the same time torpedoes and artillery fire keep peppering the battlegrounds for good measure. This makes picking the right targets a fun enterprise, where I would have to quickly strategize with my friend to take down the most troublesome ships first, or perhaps funnel them together for long-range mortar fire.

Alas, the oceans are too calm for their own good. 95% of the time I have been sailing, it's been on completely calm seas where the waves barely even shift my ship. A weather system does exist to generate storms and rogue waves, but they feel too rare right now. One of the best battle experiences I had in the game was during a major storm, and its random rogue waves were absolutely wrecking everyone in the vicinity. I haven't been able to replicate this situation outside of that battle.

Skull and Bones screenshot

There is a good variety of weapons, ship archetypes like glass cannon or support, as well as changeable ship perks, damage types, and other variables to make you think of how you approach battles. I found that almost any combination should work out as long as the ship levels of opponents are within reach of my own. It becomes a matter of using what you have in an effective fashion.

At a glance, this may seem like a good thing as it is fair to all kinds of builds, but it also means I was able to go through the game with the same weapon combo (ramming, Bombards, and sniper-like Long Guns) without ever changing tactics despite hordes of enemies with distinct strengths and weaknesses being thrown at me. Changing up the style of attacks I was going for even by mid-game would have cost a lot of time and resources, as each piece of equipment needs a blueprint and numerous hard-to-find crafting materials that you must track down around the world.

Being an always-online game, Skull and Bones holds 20 real-player ships sailing around on their own adventures on each server. It's possible to help other random pirates with their battles or even call for help during major battles, though co-op is absolutely the optimal way of playing Skull and Bones.

Having a friend by you for the journey can make any game better, but things like building ships that complement each other — magical cannons that heal, for instance — trading resources to make the grind kinder, and simply sailing the seas together are some of the best parts of the game that shouldn't be missed out on.

Skull and Bones screenshot

There are some parts of ship gameplay that irks me, like having a stamina bar that needs constant replenishing with food and the endgame grind that turns you into a rum and opium delivery person instead of a pirate. Boarding other ships being a tiny cutscene that quickly skips to the inventory looting is also a major lost opportunity. But it's the on-foot gameplay that manages to kill the immersion and pacing.

Gone are the smooth transition of jumping onto an island, land combat, and freedom to explore entire islands from Black Flag. Instead, Skull and Bones' land escapades are mostly bland treks to meet up with NPC vendors. It's as if someone was tasked with making a gameplay loop out of a menu, so instead of sailing up to an island, upgrading the ship, and sorting out the inventory, you have to slow trot around a soulless town finding the correct NPC to craft a new cannon or hand over some coconuts. Even treasure hunts on random islands involve walking up to glowing points before a hilarious 'pulling out the chest' animation plays out that doesn't even involve a shovel.

Skull and Bones screenshot

Originally, when I saw the game having a simple clicking mini-game to harvest resources and shipwrecks, it seemed like a waste of an opportunity to add more on-foot gameplay. But after playing through those portions, sad to say I am glad this mini-game approach was taken.

Visuals and performance

The world Ubisoft has built has its ups and downs when it comes to visuals. You notice the low points during the on-foot sections, especially if you take a closer look at the pirates or the soulless towns with robotic NPCs repeating the same actions.

It's not an ugly game, but you can tell this was being built for last-generation systems. Still, I can't deny the charm of sailing under the moonlight towards unknown perils with a sea shanty accompanying it or breaking through the fog to reveal a fresh landmass with greenery all over. Skull and Bones has its share of impressive corners of the world and immersion-building moments.

Skull and Bones screenshot

Playing on a Lenovo Legion 5 Pro gaming laptop with an RTX 3060 Laptop GPU, 6GB VRAM (551.52 drivers), an AMD Ryzen 7 5800H CPU, and 16GB of RAM, Skull and Bones has surprisingly good performance. It has been all smooth sailing during exploration and combat sessions while on the ship. The recommended settings offered me mostly high and medium settings with ray traced global illumination turned off. This resulted in average frame raters of 80 in most areas in the open sea. There is a built-in benchmark to quickly test-drive selected options too. The only slowdowns I experienced were during the on-foot sections, which are simple jogging sessions that don't require high frame rates anyway.

Ubisoft has provided a good selection of graphics options to tweak for squeezing out more FPS for anyone on lower-end PCs. Adaptive resolution as well as DLSS and FSR upscaling solutions are also in here for even more gains. The sea may start shimmering a bit more than usual with tech like this enabled though. I encountered a few bugs, but most of them were related to syncing issues with other players or online event popup spam, and nothing gameplay related. Inviting others to the group, shared quest progression, and most online services ran smoother than expected too, compared to other recent always-online titles.

Skull and Bones screenshot


Even over a decade after Black Flag, Skull and Bones feels too much like a low-budget spin-off. The ship gameplay foundation from the fan-favorite Assassin's Creed entry is holding Skull and Bones up from going under completely, but the removal of features like actual on-foot gameplay and instead adding what I can only describe as glorified menus on legs feels ludicrous to me. I never thought I would be hoping for less on-foot gameplay in a pirate adventuring game.

Features from original trailers, like the stealth section using different sails or a fully PVP world, have also been completely removed. It makes you wonder just how many systems were added, removed, and reworked over the years.

The ship combat is complex and fun, and I was genuinely hooked on it for hours on end as I plundered trade routes to craft better sniper cannons for my ship or accidentally kicked off massive battles with fleets of vessels. Having a friend to go along with you helps a great deal with keeping entertainment levels at a high too, especially to laugh at their misfortunes.

Skull and Bones screenshot

The downsides cannot be easily ignored, though. The simple fetch quests, the constantly monologuing leading NPCs and shallow story, and the promise of time-based grinding in the endgame just can't keep me engaged enough to put more hours into Skull and Bones.

Perhaps in a few months, with more seasons under its wing, I can pop back in to test out my sea legs, but it's not a game I can recommend right now. Despite being a $70 launch, in usual live-service fashion, Ubisoft also has an in-game shop for buying cosmetic items using premium currency, plus battle passes are in the works for upcoming seasons.

Skull and Bones is an aggressively average experience that brings nothing new to the table with a sprinkling of big promises for the future.

Skull and Bones is now available across Ubisoft Connect, Epic Games Store, Xbox Series X|S, and PlayStation 5 for $69.99. It is also available on the Ubisoft+ subscription service. This review was conducted on a PC copy of the game provided by the publisher. An eight-hour trial for the game is currently available to try here.

Skull and Bones
Naval combat World exploration Performance Co-op
Shallow story Fetch quests galore On-foot "gameplay" The grind
February 16, 2024


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