Skully preview: Satisfying pinball platforming in a unique clay world

I don’t care how cute your mascot protagonist is or how many collectables your levels are littered with, every good 3D platformer needs a satisfying hook. For Crash Bandicoot it’s his ability to endlessly spin; Banjo could glide thanks to his trusty pal Kazooie; and even Spyro the Dragon eventually learned how to breath different elements. In Skully, though, it’s as simple as having you roam around a tropical island paradise as a clay-fuelled disembodied skull. Weird, I know, but it somehow manages to work.

Perhaps best described as a mixture of Yooka-Laylee (but a bit more polished) and Kula World, it all begins when an innocent skull washes ashore on a mysterious island and is suddenly given a second chance at life after being revived by a humble deity. From here it’s all about guiding yourself around the island’s various platforming challenges which, if my short time playing the game’s first two chapters are anything to go by, offers an incredible amount of freedom, fun and a good sense of pace.

Spaces might look fairly open from the outset, but in actual fact Skully’s paths are quite linear. Knowing where to go is made easy by having you simply follow the trail of flower collectibles, though there is some room to venture off the beaten path and find the odd alternate route. This was one of the elements that first surprised me when previewing Skully; there’s more going on than its initially straightforward-looking areas would have you believe. I know this because, after playing the first brief chapter, my collectible count still was still 50 or so shy of the total amount.

This indicates to me that developer Finish Line Games knows exactly what it’s doing with regards to level design and replayablity. And while it’s nice to be able to roll around levels, hopping and zooming over ridges with as much momentum as possible, Skully appears primed to reward those who also take a more thoughtful approach. What do these collectibles offer you outside of a coveted completionist status? Some really nice concept artwork found in the menu screen, which do well to illustrate how the artists eventually settled on the final designs of locations and characters.

Speaking of which, and it hopefully shouldn’t surprise you to learn that Skully itself is incapable of speech – very much taking after Sir Daniel Fortesque, in this regard. Luckily, it isn’t too long until you meet Terry at the start of the second chapter, who offers up the occasional snappy commentary to your in-game actions and helps offset any long stretches of silence. He’s the deity responsible for your rebirth, seeking your help to end the island squabble occurring between him and his two siblings.

I played my preview build on PC but was careful to take note of Finish Line Games’ advice in using an Xbox One controller. Manoeuvring Skully on the thumb stick always felt totally natural, further helped by the fact surfaces – at least this early on in the game – weren’t too slippery. You quickly learn that water will be your worst enemy in Skully, killing you if you spend too long emerged in a pool or get splashed a lot by a blob enemy. Thankfully sporadically placed clay pools act as your checkpoints and there are plenty to go around.

Hopping and rolling my way through this beautiful sun-kissed island as a skull would have been enough to give this 3D platformer a certain edge, but the fun doesn’t stop there. Midway through the second chapter I was surprised to learn that Skully had another ace up its sleeve in the form of transformations. You see, while the aforementioned clay pools serve as your checkpoints and let you restore health, they also eventually grant you the ability to become a golem.

This helps shake up the pace of Skully greatly, as no longer can you ping your way from ridge to ravine at the rate of a speeding bullet, instead having to use this bulk to punch down bridges standing in your way or unleash an devastating groundwave attack to decimate enemies. You can vacate any golem you summon at any time, luckily, sometimes needing this ability to shoot up into the air to reach some particularly tricky collectables.

Finish Line Games has been open about this being just one of three forms set to appear in the final game, which is exciting and makes me curious about the other kinds of environmental puzzles that could potentially feature. It’s in instances like this where Skully flitters with the idea of being more open-ended than it actually is. And while it isn’t strictly a Metroidvania, already it’s clear that playing as the golem is crucial for hoovering up every collectible and opening up alternate routes.

The only knock I can give Skully at this stage is that both chapters I played didn’t offer a lot of visual variety. Rolling around on a cliff edge as the sun starts to set and is reflected in the ocean looks utterly stunning, yes, but after a while some sections I moved through felt a tad repetitive. However, that being said, I’m sure there will be a broad range of eclectic environments to explore when the finished product is released. This is a video game after all.

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In my short time with it, Skully really surprised me. The game doesn’t look to be doing anything particularly revolutionary for the 3D platforming genre per se, but its skull-rolling hook and satisfying sense of momentum helps bring a freshness that should make this oddly serene trip navigating a remote island standout.

Skully officially releases on PC, PS4, Xbox One and Nintendo Switch on August 4th

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