When your decapitated head washes up on an island shoreline, that’s generally the end of your story. If it’s a particularly exciting sort of archipelago, you may even be of some use by adding to an atmosphere of foreboding for other hapless visitors. Not so for Skully, the titular hero of Front Line Games’ new puzzle-platformer; a friendly local demiurge named Terry brings you back to life (even if it is just the brainpan, and not the full body) with magical clay, in return for help convincing Terry’s three elemental siblings to settle a long-running feud.
Skully starts off teaching you the basic movement mechanics for rolling around and navigating hazardous terrain. You’ll build momentum as you move, but without a brake, constant small course corrections are needed to ensure that you don’t go spinning off the edge of a cliff, or bounce off an irregular rock platform into a water feature. Early traversal sections really make sure you’re paying attention to your movement around Terry’s island, and your vulnerability to water will see some quick deaths if you’re not fast enough to bounce back onto the shore (in a nice detail, Skully’s health is visualised by the earth being washed away inside his own skull until nothing but the bone remains, and is likewise replenished when absorbing more material at a clay deposit checkpoint). Frustratingly, the bumpy landscape plays unintended hell with Skully’s movement, as pressing the jump button on an uneven surface will occasionally launch you in a different direction entirely.
Within the first hour, however, those muddy checkpoints take on a further function, and you learn to gather the sludge around Skully enough to craft one of three different golems; sticky, swampy figures with different abilities necessary to progress beyond the simple rolling and jumping traversal sections — the first is a brute used for punching through brick walls or throwing Skully across gaps, the second is a speedy little fellow who can move interactable floating platforms horizontally, whereas the third has a double-jump and a vertical platform levitation ability. Skully can eject from these figures like a muddy mech fighter to leave them standing in place, and you can generate up to three homunculi in any combination — all of which will be needed to solve some of the more fiendish environmental obstacles as you enter the lands of Terry’s estranged brother and sisters, each domain characterised by water, air, or fire. By the end of the game I’d come up against meticulously crafted puzzle sections which were immensely satisfying to solve, as well as tense action-oriented scenes with Skully fleeing from rising waves of lava.
Now, as appealing as I found everything I’ve described above, the fun eked out of Skully was in spite of so many other elements of the game. Skully’s rolling was pretty fluid and responsive, some issues notwithstanding, but the clay forms he takes on are clumsy messes, clipping through surfaces and stuttering on platforms. With two of the creatures being tiresomely slow, and all three having to stop in their tracks after jumping from one surface to another, this unexciting decision killed a lot of my interest in exploration or collectibles. If movement isn’t fun in a puzzle game, you can just focus on getting to the next goal… but when movement isn’t fun in a platform game — which Skully is giving over half of the game’s focus to — there’s a bigger issue afoot.
The camera spins out of control when rolling through smaller areas, often getting itself stuck in walls or obscuring your view entirely to make matters worse. When it does behave, what you can see is another mixed bag: the early levels had some interesting scenes and surprisingly good looking water effects going on, but the overall look takes a nosedive after a few hours. Upon reaching the fire biome, an ever-present lava effect is little more than a flat texture of red and yellow pixels, which detracts further from blander level designs. Skully himself is fine, and I really liked the first golem’s look — a brute with broad, grassy shoulders giving way to stumpy legs. The second two were disappointingly interchangeable in design, and while there’s some sniggering from having two characters inadvertently looking like spikey poops, it feels like a missed opportunity. I found myself wishing for more colourful designs to help differentiate them from the drab backgrounds, especially when spending the majority of the game controlling the clay forms.
Skully does have its own appeal; the voice acting from Terry and his family is lively and often funny, and solving the imaginative puzzles was a fun experience overall — even by the end of the eight- to ten-hour game. Sadly, the best parts of Skully are just too bogged down by endless sequences of unresponsive platforming through ugly locations, and this builds a steady resentment each time you have to restart a checkpoint due to the game stumbling your golem off a cliff. The bottom line, if it wasn’t clear from a reanimated skull, muddy monsters, and a mish-mash of gameplay styles, is that Skully is an odd game. I like ‘odd’, I really do, and I really wanted to like Skully, too. I just wish that Front Line Games had at least managed to pull off the basic gameplay mechanics for what could have been a fun new entry for the platforming genre.
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