Guess what this is: an action RPG where you play an undead scouring a ruined kingdom, battling other, less sane undead and hulking monsters, while opening various shortcuts in the interconnected world. Pretty specific concept, right? A game that synthesizes tone and atmosphere harmoniously, that throws devilish encounters into the player’s path, that rewards exploration and perceptiveness with hidden secrets and tantalizing treasures. It’s a game that hardly requires an introduction. Can you guess what it is?
Why, it’s Skellboy, of course! Skellboy is certainly a game worth discussing. It expertly demonstrates the power of good design ideas, and also of how the game’s overall execution limits that power. Umaiki Games have delivered a fun, frustrating, clever, mildly annoying contribution to the gaming canon. Let’s sift through its bones.
- What is Skellboy? It’s a lighthearted action RPG wherein you take control of a bony boy who can swap out his body parts and attain amazing abilities! This is helpful when you’re beset by a horde of ravenous undead and vicious monsters.
- Reviewed On: Nintendo Switch
- Price: $20.00
- Developer: Umaiki Games
- Publisher: Fabraz
- Release Date: January 30, 2020
- Website: http://www.umaikigames.com/games/skellboy.html
- Multiplayer: No
Good Bone Structure
Dark Souls, as I so subtly alluded to, acts as a good reference point for the fundamentals of Skellboy’s design. Umaiki Games, emulating From Software, has emphasized interconnected level design, predictable, pattern-based combat, carefully designed enemy encounters, and ample opportunities to explore and uncover secrets.
This framework, for the most part, provides an engaging flow of gameplay throughout the experience. Furthermore, tutorialization is handled in a deft, considered way. Basic controls are spelled out for you, while the actual utility of an item tends to be revealed in nearby encounters.
For example, the player is given a club, which provides a charged attack useful for breaking tables, many of which act as barricades throughout the map. The controls are explained, and the player has an opportunity to smash up a bunch of chests and barrels. Then the aforementioned tables come into play and are quickly turned to splinters. Then, numerous zombies sprout from the ground, likely the largest group of them the player has yet faced. Instantly and intuitively, having used it to smash up a bunch of scenery, the player recognizes that the club’s charged attack does AOE damage and will be a very effective tool for crowd control. This is subtle, thoughtful work, and it illustrates a solid grasp of game design fundamentals.
As the titular Skellboy, you begin the game sans feet. This is how you’re introduced to one of the most important mechanics in the game: Skellboy’s incredibly modular body. A nearby pair of skeletal feet grant the ability to jump, while the heads of certain enemies provide their own special powers. One such head, that of a killer mushroom, provided an interesting episode for me. As I battled my way through a couple stray mushrooms, I noted that their heads granted the ability to blend in with other mushrooms. I had a ranged attack with a Dead Beet’s head, and all the mushrooms around were dead, so I moved on.
Then I came to the swamp, with its veritable hordes of mushrooms. I tried three times to force my way through, to no avail. It suddenly occurred to me to sneak my way past using a mushroom head, a plan that proved quite a bit more successful. This felt like an organic obstacle barring progress in my adventure, and I used a clever solution provided by the game’s central mechanics to overcome it. Skellboy has a fair few of these sorts of moments packed in, and they’re worth seeking out.
That said, all is not well in Cubold Kingdom. While the game’s design is solid, its inconsistent execution leaves the final product feeling like less than the sum of its parts. Bugs are relatively common, and while most are relatively benign, I did manage to phase through the floor of a level, plummeting to my doom, and I encountered a freeze that forced me to restart. While it’s ambitious for Umaiki to take their Dark Souls-inspired gameplay and spin it with a cute aesthetic and zany body part swapping, Skellboy tends to buckle under its own weight.
One particular section that illustrates the tension between ideas and execution is the sewer level. Minor spoilers for the game follow, but the game’s main villain, Squaruman (quit pandering to me with LOTR puns, Umaiki), blasts you to pieces. Then, a bunch of mischievous ghosts steal your body parts, leaving only your head to explore the sewers. I’m the type who typically enjoys the levels where you’re forced to adapt to a situation without all the upgrades you’ve earned up to that point.
Whether it’s being stripped of your lightsaber in Jedi Academy or getting spitted on a piece of rebar in The Last of Us, I like when games lull you into a sense of security, only to peg you with a curveball to remind you of your vulnerability. In Skellboy, however, being a head sucks. The rate at which you hop around is practically glacial. Unless you happen to breeze through the level on your first try, you’ll be revisiting the same paths repeatedly, grappling with messy physics until you can scrape your body back together and open a shortcut. This provides a satisfying opportunity to exact revenge on opportunistic enemies who gave you a headache earlier (I’m sorry), but I can’t say the buildup was worth it.
High Ground View
This review has focused mainly on nuts and bolts. A glance at the screenshots reveals the disservice this is to Skellboy’s visuals. Cubold Kingdom is a cute, colorful setting replete with imaginative scenery. The soundtrack makes a strong first impression, but over time the tracks can become stale and repetitive. Both the sound and the visuals pair nicely with the game’s overall tone, which is irreverent and wacky. However, while there’s harmony between atmosphere and aesthetics, Skellboy’s sense of humor comes across as a bit overdone, and standout moments like a mage accidentally transforming into a mace are smothered by too many samey jokes.
Zoom Out: Verdict
Level Design - 8/10
Combat - 7/10
Aethetics - 7/10
Execution - 6/10
Writing - 5/10
Skellboy is a game defined by promising concepts and shaky execution. Basic-seeming combat belies clever design for both levels and encounters. Cubold Kingdom is packed with secrets, and exploring its various nooks and crannies is well worth your time. However, bugs, a trend towards repetition and frustration in certain sections, and tired humor may wear on one’s overall enthusiasm, as it did mine.
- Cute aesthetic
- Clever level and encounter design
- Fun body part swapping mechanic
- Bugs/sloppy physics
- Humor typically falls flat.
- Lame sections (the sewers, for example)