Review: Shiver me timbers, Skull and Bones has finally come out and it’s a game indeed!

skull and bones

At its very best, Ubisoft’s newest high seas epic Skull and Bones sees your impressively sized pirate ship cresting restless waves, your port cannons exploding loudly as searing balls of iron impale black sailed enemies just off your bow, their wooden deck bursting into flames as their mast wobbles and collapses, before their entire ship heaves one final sigh and sinks beneath the torrid waters, angry clouds overhead heralding your victory with a loud rumble of thunder and the caress of lightning across your sails.

The journey of a pirate in this case, begins, somewhat inauspiciously, as Skull and Bones opens in the wake of a large naval battle.  You’ll soon find your way to Tortuga-ish pirate den Saint Anne, where you’ll enter into the employ of head honcho and reasonable facsimile of Captain Flint of Treasure Island fame, Captain Scurlock.  Among Scurlock’s many virtues is a profound dislike of the French Armada, and he’ll offer you a number of Pre-K quests to get you up to speed in the art of pilferin’, plunderin’, piratin’ and profiteerin’.

Your first ship is little more than a few boards tied together and fitted with a stout pole and a dirty sheet, presumably from one of the brothels in Saint Anne, so one of your early tasks is scrounging for the materials for a proper seagoing vessel.  Building a ship is a fairly straightforward process.  First you need a blueprint of the ship you need to build, these can be found at various outposts in and around the world or acquired through quest rewards. 

Once you have that, it will show you a list of materials you need to collect for said vessel.  You can either buy or harvest/gather these.  Once you have all of the mats, you simply go to the shipwright and craft your new ship.  Crafting tools and weapons works exactly the same way, albeit on a smaller scale.

In Skull and Bones, ships can be equipped with weapons in up to five different slots, the bow, stern, two broadsides and an auxiliary slot, typically reserved for mortars.  They can also be fitted with up to five furniture pieces, which add passive benefits to your ship.  One piece of major furniture can be slotted on each ship.  Furniture can have a wide range of effects to assist in combat, everything from regenerating crew stamina faster, to automatically healing ship damage to increasing area of effect or elemental damage.

skull and bones
A ship full of thirsty sailors!

The ship combat, originally on display in Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag and refined for inclusion in Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey is at its best here.  The combat itself is tightly focused and fast paced and you’ll have little trouble veering in and out among the waves while targeting multiple enemies.  Your various weapons are available depending on the position of your ship versus an enemy.  For example, if an enemy is off to your side, your broadside weapons aiming reticle will show up.  If your ship is behind an enemy, the weapon you have equipped at your bow will be available.  This may not sound particularly intuitive, but it works surprisingly well. 

There is a bit of an art to maneuvering your ship optimally in combat in Skull and Bones.  You can also brace your ship to mitigate damage, at the cost of crew stamina and enemy ships often have weak points, indicated by glowing red areas on them, hitting these can cause massive damage.  Your motley crew of scallywags can even get into the action as well; getting close enough to an enemy ship will prompt a crew attack where they can either board the other ship and get a bit more booty or toss a hail of firebombs which will quickly spread, setting your opponent’s ship ablaze in a flaming effigy.

Skull and Bones offers ships in several MMO-esque flavors, those of DPS (damage), Tank or Support.  While the majority of available ships are damage dealers, the tanks and support vessels obviously have their uses.  The differences between them are typically that the damage-oriented ships contain bonuses to several kinds of damage, such as explosive, burning, ramming, etc, while the category of tank ships usually come with a larger pool of health (sturdier hulls), and bonuses to bracing (increased damage reduction or stamina regen while bracing).  Support vessels are interesting in that they can equip and use repair weapons, which when fired, heal friendly player ships.

There are two ranking systems in Skull and Bones, these being your player rank and your ship rank.  Interestingly, each of these systems is independent of one another, yet both are inexorably linked.  Your player rank is determined by your infamy which is gained by performing acts of piracy.  Your player rank determines which ships, weapons, tools and even cosmetic items you can purchase.  Your ship rank is the base rank of your ship plus all the weapons you have equipped.  This is important because enemy ships with a higher rank do more damage to your ship, while those with a similar or lower rank aren’t nearly as punishing.  

skull and bones
Land ho!

Visually, Skull and Bones is gorgeous.  Sporting some of the best water effects this side of the East Indies, the game features a lot of lovely eye candy to behold such as towns lit up by glowing lanterns at night or hazy sunlight peeking through quickly evaporating fog.  There are a lot of little visual details that bring the game to life, like a torch burning in your crow’s nest at night, or the reflection of an eerie green bonfire on your character.  Everything looks as sharp as a cutlass impaling a dried-out skeleton.

Per the recent release of Season 1 that presumably begins the year of activities that Ubisoft has mapped out, there is an abundance of content right now (we haven’t even touched on the current endgame activities, which include elite pirate sinking, fortress raiding, legendary treasure map hunting, player vs player, etc.)  There’s also the option to engage in the illegal opium and rum trade by distilling poppies and sugar cane and fulfilling orders to earn pieces of eight which can be used to buy various black-market goods.  This process can be improved through various talent trees and eventually you can have distilleries generating profits spanning the entire world.

With luscious visuals, pulse pounding combat and a veritable sunken armada worth of content to explore, there’s no better time to hoist your mainsails and engage your inner pirate.

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