Skellboy is an action-adventure game that sees you taking control of a freshly risen-from-the-grave skeleton who, of course, is tasked with saving a world in peril.
Developed by small studio Umaiki Games, Skellboy’s most recognizable feature is its curious visual style. Skellboy combines 2D characters with a 3D world, along with an obsession with all things cube-shaped. While not the first indie title to do this, the playful art style serves to help Skellboy stand out in a very oversaturated market. But looks aren’t everything, so let’s talk about whether Skellboy has any meat on its bones.
Rising From the Grave
I can’t say I find Skellboy’s plot interesting at all, really. You play as a skeleton named Skippy who has risen from the grave along with plenty of other monsters, except those guys are hell bent on doing some evil stuff. If you think the concept sounds familiar, you’re probably recalling the premise of the classic PlayStation title Medievil, a game which is clearly a source of inspiration for Skellboy. It can’t be denied that Skellboy takes advantage of its concept in a number of ways, one of which being the equipment system which has you swapping out body parts for different stats and abilities. The game’s narrative and design are closely knit together in other ways, too, most notably with dialogue and terminology that references your environment’s cubic nature. For example, the inhabitants of the world are called Cubolds, and on occasion, NPCs are prone to saying something like, “Oh, great cube in the sky!” in times of peril.
Skellboy’s dialogue leaves a lot to be desired for me personally. It has that “cutesy, self-referential, indie game” humor that I’m sure you’re familiar with. If you’re not, it’s usually a summation of all or a few of these things:
-Characters make puns about things A LOT;
-The fourth wall is frequently broken, and NPCs will jokingly criticize some aspect of Game Design and/or the industry;
-Characters constantly make jokes at the protagonist’s expense. For example – “Aren’t you just a bag of old bones!”;
-Everyone has to be funny in some capacity, even if it doesn’t always fit into their personality or the situation.
Of course, I’m not saying that the inclusion of these things is inherently bad, but many times it feels like an easy way out of having a nuanced script, and as I’ve played indie titles over the years, I’ve noticed this pattern a lot more. It just so happens that Skellboy is bearing the brunt of this mini-rant about writing in indie games, but it’s important to note that it’s nowhere near the worst offender, and its world is at least consistent, making it much more forgivable.
Something Funny About Cubes
Skellboy’s presentation is vibrant and sharp. As soon as you boot up the game you’re treated to a luscious, bright-green landscape with a stoney building as the backdrop. I kind of wish Skellboy experimented more with its color palette, however. Each area’s color scheme seems pretty one-note, textures tend to stick to one shade of color, and there isn’t much blending to make places more detailed. That said, Skellboy’s complemented by its simple approach in some ways. One such way is that 2D sprites and destructible objects tend to stand out more. Speaking of, each area attains a sense of identity through the objects you can interact with. Simple things like piles of books you can knock over in the library or the groups of red mushrooms you can cut down in the swamp area.
Skellboy’s devs didn’t waste energy on dynamic lighting, instead deciding to thoughtfully place lighting effects in each section of the game. Interiors like the castle and the library have rays of light shining through the windows while darker areas like the dungeon and swamp switch to a dark filter to simulate din. I really liked the way beams of light are square-shaped, sticking to the cubicle nature of everything in Skellboy’s world. There really isn’t much bad to say about this game’s visual presentation. The simplistic, vibrant fantasy land fits perfectly with the cheery music, even if it is lacking in some finer attention to detail in its textures and color palette.
A Little Rough Around the Edges
My biggest gripe with Skellboy comes from its inconsistent frame rate. In both handheld and docked mode, there was nary a moment where frame rate wasn’t bouncing around. Weirdly, I found it’s mostly noticeable when just walking around the overworld, with significant drops rarely occurring during combat or interior exploration. Not that those sections get a free pass, as any change in frame rate that happens that often, whether big or small, is always a massively noticeable problem. Skellboy’s bright world doesn’t help this either, especially in docked mode. The FPS dropping mixed with some accompanying screen tearing and a bright screen really isn’t made better by playing on a big T.V. It’s hard to tell if it performs better or worse in docked mode, but it was certainly a less pleasant way of experiencing this game. I normally wouldn’t bore you with the specifics of my experience with FPS, but it’s too egregious here to pass up and, unfortunately, negatively affected my experience with Skellboy. Luckily, this is an issue that can be patched relatively easily. Which is good because it’s the biggest thing stopping Skellboy from being a much more pleasurable time.
I’ve got mixed feelings regarding Skellboy’s gameplay mechanics. Its RPG elements mainly come from the weapons and body parts you pick up. There’s a pretty good variety here: clubs, spears, swords, magic wands, each of which has a different effect. I found myself mainly using the sword, with the club as my back-up weapon for destroying blockades and groups of enemies. The shallow combat of pressing a button to swing your weapon works well enough due to the playful animations and decent enemy variety, but it renders any weapon that isn’t doing the most DPS pretty much worthless.
Body parts you can swap out offer much more flavor. One pair of boots lets you do damage by jumping on foes, one helmet gives you a lot more health but makes you slower, and there’s a ribcage that knocks opponents back whenever you take damage. Most of the more powerful body parts are acquired via side content, mainly to encourage exploration. Sadly, I often felt discouraged from exploring the world, as the overworld can be frustrating to navigate due to a lack of map and limited shortcuts to make use of. Notably, Umaiki Games provided a pre-written walkthrough with the review copy of the game. I opted not to use it for purist reasons, but I sort of get the sense that they’re aware of their game’s slightly confusing navigation. I’m not asking the game to hold my hand. I do believe there’s value in world design that doesn’t have arrows all over it showing you where and where not to go, but it’s a delicate balance that Skellboy fails to capture. I did put the effort in to do the side content when I could, but if I wasn’t reviewing the game, I probably wouldn’t deem the reward worth the hassle.
Skelly Bone – Esque Vocals
Skellboy’s main theme is probably the thing that adds to its personality the most. I remember being grabbed by it when I first saw the trailer for the game last year. The main theme, which plays as soon as you boot up the game, is a jovial hum of digital instruments along with what I can only describe as “skelly bone”- esque vocals. The title music sets the backdrop for every track later in the game, with each one being a play on its comedic, yet fitting, “uhms” and “ahs”. It manages to stick to its audio style pretty concretely, but aside from the main theme, I never felt grabbed by any other tracks the score has to offer. I noticed and appreciated its shift in tone as I entered darker areas like the swamp, changing to become raspier and invoke a sense of unsettling danger. There were also times when the soundtrack just seemed to not play at all during my exploration of the overworld. A lot of the time, it would play, however, so I’m assuming it was most likely a bug.
Sound effects mostly consist of pixelated “bops” and “chunks” as you hack your 2D opponents in half or jump across a platform. There’s nothing out of the ordinary, really. Enemies themselves don’t really make much sound, and without the music, the game seems decidedly quiet. The little footsteps of the player as you traverse the cube-shaped hills is one of the only sounds that keeps you company. I can’t exactly complain about the audio that is there, but I find it pretty damn hard to come up with something to say. Sound just feels a little undercooked here, and there isn’t really much praise I can give.
Not Much To Offer
Talking about Skellboy has been quite a challenge. Aside from the visual style and main theme that grabs you at the menu, it’s all pretty “meh” from there. Changing your body parts as pieces of equipment is a cool concept, but none of the effects really felt that interesting or useful due to Skellboy‘s shallow gameplay and non-too-impressive level design. There were some cool moments, like the part where you hop around the sewer chasing your body parts as just a head. I do wish they had done more with that and added more complex puzzles to keep levels interesting to explore. The lackluster combat would be a lot more forgivable with the inclusion of more exciting set pieces and a wider sound and color variety.
I fear Skellboy is one of those titles that’s destined to fade into the ether. There’s nothing about the game that makes me want to come back for more. The “quirky” dialogue has long lost its charm on me. Maybe pick this one up if you’ve checked it out and like the way it looks. But don’t expect there to be much more depth past the opening menu.
This review is based on the Nintendo Switch version of the game. A review code was provided by the publisher.
Skellboy has a unique look, a catchy theme song, and some interesting ideas. Sadly, this doesn't mitigate the lack of gameplay depth, uninteresting level design, or the poor framerate consistency.
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