It takes a certain level of cunning to lure people in with cute looking games. You know the type: the ones with the either the stunning or retro-inspired graphics that start off simple enough, before blindsiding you with a sudden hike in difficulty.
Games like Cuphead and Hotline Miami are exempt, as they make no bones about being tough. I refer instead to Donkey Kong Country (don’t kid yourself, Mine Cart Madness was evil), the first Rayman, even Crash Bandicoot. That twee, charming sense of fun for all the family that out of nowhere throws some challenge in.
You don’t need to be a detective to work out the point I’m trying to make about Skully, Finish Line Games’ new roller-ball/shapeshifting platform adventure. But, difficult doesn’t necessarily mean bad, otherwise I’d have never finished Hotline Miami or Sekiro (yet not Cuphead, sadly).
But how far can that balance shift before you have to admit defeat, or can a game’s cute appeal see you through it? Let’s rock and roll…
Our adventure begins with a skull. Nothing particularly exciting about it, just an ordinary looking brain protection unit that’s washed up on a beach.
That is until a deity plucks you off of the shore and breathes some life back into the old bones… and christens you Skully. It’s a cute little interaction, as for some reason your life-giver expects a fully formed skeleton from just the head part.
Resurrected as a ball of bone and clay, we get a little bit of exposition from our mineral man, who goes by the name… Terry. Not the most god-like of names, but hey, I didn’t write it.
Anyway, Terry tells you that once he and his siblings ruled the island, but alas have all fallen out. This begins your crusade to roll, jump, climb and take on several forms to reunite the feuding gods of these lands, braving your way through varying climates and lush looking landscapes.
He Brings The Rock, I Bring The Roll
Being a ball of skull and clay, there’s not really a lot Skully can do initially. But what he can do is roll, and by jove does he love to do it. So much so that the camera has trouble keeping up with him.
Imagine if Samus had learnt her Morph Ball form, decided that defeating space pirates was boring, and instead went to a tropical paradise for a roll-about. Or if Aiai, Gongon and the rest of the Monkey Ball crew decided that flowers were more interesting to collect than bananas…
That’s the majority of Skully’s gameplay: roll about a level, collecting hundreds of flowers that mostly unlock concept art whilst trying not to die. Your silent sphere learns to do more than roll though, such as jumping and biting onto vines to traverse a wall or climb pillars. Y’know, as long as you don’t think too hard about how he can bite vines with no lower jaw and roll 360° on them without falling off.
Logistics aside, it is for the most part fun. Hopping Skully like a sentient pebble across some shallow rocks and curving him around conveniently banked corners is a joy… at least to start with.
However, once you’re past that initial tutorial-ish level, with Terry teaching you the basics of rolling and hopping, that’s when things start to spice up.
The first elemental sibling you come across, as you make you way through their lair, is Wanda. She controls water… and Skully has the life expectancy of candy floss in water. Alright, if you’re quick on the reflexes you can occasionally tank one hit and hop back onto something dry. But if you miss that chance, you crumble like an eggshell.
Which isn’t too bad in the early stages, as paths are nice and wide to accommodate you getting the hang of things. But as time goes on, platforms become narrower and timing windows to jump are harder to nail. Again, to make the Hotline Miami analogy then yes, there is a certain element of a repetition and “getting good” about it, but there’s only so much patience you can put into something.
It wouldn’t be so bad if you could map the controls to anything better than it currently is. Left stick rolls, right stick moves the camera, that’s pretty standard. What is annoying is mapping jump to B (on Nintendo Switch), which means having to let go of the right stick to press a face button. In layman’s terms, it means having to abandon following Skully around a bend and blindly jumping towards what you think is the next port of call.
Having the vine chomp mapped instead to ZR isn’t bad, but it isn’t as often used as say… jumping, in a platformer. If I could have mapped that to ZL and jump to ZR, I would have sailed through many of the levels rather than by attrition. It’s not a deal breaker, it’s just for something that relies on you following your hasty little skull-ball, to relinquish camera control seems a bit of a back-step to navigating the tricky trials the game throws at you.
But thankfully, Skully doesn’t have to carry the weight of this game world on his, uh, metaphorical shoulders…
Making A Kameo Appearance
The other part of Skully’s adventuring comes in the form of the clay/mud golems that he can morph into. Starting off with a big and heavy, you unlock two more forms as you progress further in.
It massively changes up the gameplay dynamic, as you go from a Marble Madness/Sonic Adventure roller-platformer to, in essence, a Rare game. I don’t mean that flippantly, but if you’ve ever played Grabbed by the Ghoulies or even the lesser known Kameo: Elements of Power, you’ll see the comparison here.
Platforming with the large chap goes from hopping on lily pads to knocking down columns and popping enemies with ground-pounding slams. The other two are smaller, but use magic as a means to lift obstacles either out of the way or into place, almost like in Trine. As time progresses, you end up utilising these aspects together to progress.
This is because summoning each form is easy enough, as you can do so from a rejuvenating mud pool that serve as checkpoints. You can summon a total of any three at one time, so the fun becomes in figuring out which one you’ll need ahead. Fortunately, you can also dissolve all three and pick the suitable candidate, so it’s not that punishing.
Honestly, I loved this aspect of the game. Switching up from zooming about as a skull-ball to having to build or clear pathways as any of the others is a nice touch. It almost feels like a track creator for my zippy little vehicle, except I’m more involved than just laying down or clearing elements from the track like a management sim.
No Bones About It
Ultimately, I’ve had a blast with Skully. It’s a bright, vibrant and wonderful game that manages to incorporate a few different play styles into its fold quite well. Sure, sometimes the pacing grinds to a halt when you have to stop having a ball to go on a little backtrack to knock down one stone pillar, but that’s not a deal breaker.
The pseudo-claymation cutscenes remind me heavily of Skullmonkeys, which is only ever a good thing. The conversations with Terry and his siblings (although mostly himself) are actually full of enthusiasm and humour, and Terry sounds so much like Chris Pratt that I can’t help but enjoy the positivity.
The only other downside, which actually coincides with the weird control scheme, are the chase sections. In Wanda’s lair, for example, she summons a massive tidal wave to chase you. Think Crash Bandicoot boulder levels, but from the bottom of the screen. In this instance, the camera pans out so far that I could barely see Skully, let alone which platform I was aiming for. Thankfully, the checkpoints were merciful but dying half a dozen times takes the joy out of what could have been a fun chase scene.
But then, I am playing on a Switch Lite. It may be relative on a bigger/more fitting screen that a handhold console. However, I shouldn’t be making excuses for that. That’d be punishing me for not, say, buying a full Switch or the PS4 version of this. Luckily, this is only a small handful of times in the game, not a core feature. Otherwise I wouldn’t have bothered with it.
Once you do get the hang of it, Skully is an absolute blast to play. It’s cute, it’s funny, and you can’t help but love the little emotive skull and his deity buddy. As stated, the difficulty can spike at times, but it shouldn’t be too much of a distraction. We’re used to this happening in games like the aforementioned Crash, Jak & Daxter, and many more.
So again, don’t take that as a criticism. Instead see it as a polite warning: don’t fall too hard for the charm, as for a head with no feet, Skully will kick your ass at times.
A beautiful, hilarious and all-around cute platformer/roller, Skully is deserving of the praise. The difficulty can ebb and flow at times, but don’t let that put you off.
Skully is available now on Nintendo Switch (reviewed on Switch Lite), PS4, Xbox One and PC.
Developer: Finish Line Games
Publisher: Modus Games
Disclaimer: In order to complete this review, we were provided with a review code of the game. For our full review policy, please go here.
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