The development of Skull and Bones was so long and painful that somewhere along the way, the developers seem to have forgotten what they were ultimately going to do with the Assassin’s Creed IV legacy: Black Flag. Skull and Bones lacks many of the elements required for a good pirate game, but has a lot of optional and even harmful game mechanics. How did this happen?

Game Skull and Bones
Genre action/adventure
Platforms Windows, PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X/S
Languages English
Developer Ubisoft Singapore
Publisher Ubisoft

You Had One Job

The idea behind the development of Skull and Bones was very simple. Take the naval gameplay of Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag (2013), which players loved so much, throw out all the assassin’s lore and most of the land-based gameplay, move the events to the Indian Ocean (this is the Golden Age of Piracy, so even the ship and clothing models don’t need to be redone!), optionally add co-op and MMO elements, and you can cut the coupons. Black Flag was indeed an almost perfectly balanced game and, if desired, its gameplay could be used for many more years, launching a separate spin-off series, as happened with Assassin’s Creed itself.

Unfortunately, instead of being a cheap way to make money by reusing game mechanics and models, Skull and Bones has become a visualization of the famous You Had One Job meme. It seems that Ubisoft Singapore and other Ubi studios involved in the project (10 studios worked on the game, including Ubisoft Kyiv!) did everything wrong.

It would have been better to spend this money, which in 2021 was more than $120 million, on the conditional Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag 2 in the Indian Ocean. That would be really cool!

Libertarianism and the first megacorporations

And most importantly, Skull and Bones uses a really interesting and very rare setting. The pirates of the Indian Ocean are not often mentioned, all the attention is drawn to the New World and the Caribbean, but at the end of the Golden Age of piracy, the main activity of gentlemen of fortune from all over the world moved here.

At that time, there were almost no large regular European navies in the Indian Ocean, so the main targets and opponents of pirates were the merchant fleets of the world’s first megacorporations – the East India Companies of Great Britain, Holland, and France. These were heavily armed private armies, the forerunners of modern international corporations, who fiercely defended their colonial achievements from the pirates.

But pirates, and there were European and American adventurers in the Indian Ocean at the time, as well as African, Islamic, Chinese, and Indonesian pirates, also organized into gangs and tried to fight corporations. It is said that Madagascar even had an independent pirate state for some time, Libertalia, but this is nothing more than a myth.

It is from Madagascar that you will begin your journey across the Indian Ocean.

What Skull and Bones doesn’t have

The idea of removing the entire land part from Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag’s entire land-based part was interesting, but wrong. Because it was the balance of naval battles, land raids, and story missions with minimal stealth that made Black Flag an extremely interesting and diverse game. By throwing out an important part of this formula, Ubisoft Singapore made a terrible mistake: naval battles don’t work at all alone.

Do you remember what the naval battle looked like in Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag? Approach, exchange of the first volleys, short-range artillery duel, boarding. Boarding cats fly towards the enemy ship, the team led by the captain gets on board the enemy vessel, a short battle with firearms, a boarding saber, improvised weapons, etc. And finally, the victory celebration. Epic, dynamic, beautiful, as it should be in any respectable pirate game. This is the gold standard since the days of Sid Meier’s Pirates! (1987) (great game, how much time was spent on it!).

Well, Skull and Bones has none of that. The ships exchange volleys, close in, the crew throws boarding hooks… That’s it, you can only look at the prey screen. An important, one of the most important parts of a good pirate game was simply thrown into the trash.

Yes, we even understand why this is done. In a cooperative/MMO world, none of your teammates or opponents will wait for you to deal with the enemy ship’s crew. The battle is raging around you, there is no time to wait. But… you can’t just do that, it’s just stupid.

Okay, so Ubisoft Singapore removed the boarding, but why did they cut all the ground missions? What prevented them from generating separate locations and giving players time to storm the fort, or have some sort of showdown with other factions on the shore? But no, in Skull and Bones there are no such categories as hand weapons, firearms, or cold steel, and all the clothes have only cosmetic functions.

At the same time, Skull and Bones has ground locations, and even interesting ones, but there is literally nothing on them except for a few vendors. Zero gameplay. Oh, yes… treasure hunting… It would be better not to have it. We have never seen such a simple and uninteresting treasure hunt. You just need to sail to the right location, and it’s easy enough to find them, land on the shore and run around the maze of corridors for a while… The hidden treasure is highlighted automatically. You don’t even need to dig it out, your hero or heroine will pull a heavy chest out of the sand with their bare hands… It’s… We just don’t have enough words.

What’s in Skull and Bones

In fact, apart from the arcade and rather monotonous naval battles and assaults on settlements (also without landing, only a short animation of the beginning and end), there is almost nothing in Skull and Bones that would allow us to identify it as a pirate game. However, there is a lot of MMO and survival simulation.

For example, several types of currencies and 100500 resources needed to build new ships, guns, missiles, flamethrowers, and torpedoes (no, it’s not a joke, there are torpedoes). There are also resources for the production of alcohol, opium, and other counterfeit goods, and a bunch of missions to deliver resources or make things to customers. And several types of tools for harvesting wood, ore, cane, meat, fruit, etc. Are you sure this is a game about pirates? Why is this all here? If I wanted to play an economic strategy or survival simulator, I would have chosen another game, especially since there are plenty of them.

The world of Skull and Bones is full of resources that need to be collected, with different tools and in different mini-games. And sometimes you can unintentionally activate resource collection, for example, during a battle. Moreover, to collect resources from shipwrecks, of which there are many, you need to break the wreckage with a crowbar… Dear Ubisoft Singapore… are you ok?!

And of course, what’s a recent Ubisoft game without all-consuming grind, grind, and more grind? To collect resources for a new ship or guns, you have to spend hours roaming the world, sinking NPC ships, looting settlements, buying resources, processing them, and so on. Again, is this a pirate game for sure?

Grind is complicated by an extremely inconvenient interface. After 30 hours of playing, I still haven’t figured out what level of tool I have, so I’ve crafted a lower level several times. This is simply impossible. By the way, how could they make an interface that every 10 seconds blocks the interface for trading and communicating with NPCs with system notifications? Was this even tested?

Sea adventures?

The main events of Skull and Bones take place at sea. And the arcade naval battles here are really well done, even the fantastic ship weapons, those torpedoes and missiles, look quite acceptable. But… this is an arcade game in the full sense of the word. Here it is impossible to tear the sails or confuse the rank of the enemy ship. You can’t “knock out” the enemy crew with shrapnel, because there is no boarding, so it makes no sense. Skull and Bones has no buckshot and no bayonets at all… The battles are fleeting and extremely monotonous, and there are a LOT of them.

Looting settlements looks like holding territories in some kind of shooter. You have to stay in the settlement area and destroy waves of enemy ships. Bounty hunting and world events are fun for groups of players, and even then, it will take 10-15 minutes to “saw” the bosses. It’s… boring and the reward for completing such missions is not that great. In theory, you can call on other players from around the world to help you… In fact, in 99.99% of cases, no one will respond to your call.

Although the naval battles in Skull and Bones are not bad, the problem is that they are almost the only thing in this game. And after 10 hours and 200 battles, you’ll get so sick of them that you’ll have no desire to see what the developers have in store for the end-game.

The tasks in Skull and Bones are the same, the characters are uninteresting, and the dialogues are primitive. It’s a very monotonous and very boring adventure in a big world in a very interesting historical period. It’s just a failure.

Beauty is a terrible power

It would seem that Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag was released 11 years ago, but for some reason it looks better than the brand new Skull and Bones. The physics and visualization of sea water, which is the basis of the basics for a pirate game, is better in Black Flag. Character and clothing models are better in Black Flag. Yes, the ships in Skull and Bones are pretty, but it seems that Ubisoft Singapore has directed all its energy to the production of cosmetic items for captains and ships.

There are not just a lot of them, but a lot of them. In three different types of shops for three different currencies. Overcoats, belts, hats, boots, jewelry, sail and hull coloring, bow figures, name plates, a crow’s nest, and so on. But… there are actually not many interesting options for clothing and ship decoration. It seems that all the shops are filled with literally useless junk. And it took 11 years to do this?

Lost in the ocean

Skull and Bones is the game that killed Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag 2. This is a game that was positioned as AAAA, while it is only an A-rated game. Skull and Bones should not cost $70 (UAH 1,300 for Ukraine), but be conditionally free, then it would have at least a chance.

Ubisoft’s biggest problem is that the company doesn’t know how to close unsuccessful projects in time, spending a lot of time and money on something that won’t take off anyway. It would seem that the poor financial results of recent years have something to do with it… This was the case with the Hyper Scape battle royale, with Riders Republic, Roller Champions, The Settlers: New Allies, and it happened with Skull and Bones. Most likely, the same will happen with the remake of Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time and Beyond Good and Evil 2. I’d like to be wrong, but…

We’ve had some bad luck with pirated games lately. The Ukrainian Corsairs Legacy received not very positive reviews in Steam. Caribbean Legend is supposedly being developed by a Ukrainian studio, but there are too many Russians involved in this project. There is also Sea of Thieves, but this is a slightly different game in terms of gameplay, which is not suitable for everyone.

So all that remains is Tempest: Pirate Action RPG by Lviv-based Lion’s Shade (the same team that is currently creating the shooter AI Olympius), or… Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag. It’s still a very good, real pirate game with a little Assassin’s Creed flavor. It’s better to play it than to waste time and money on Skull and Bones.