Day of the dead.
Skellboy is an action-adventure game with an engaging central mechanic: playing as a skeleton raised from the dead, you can mix and match your body parts with those dropped from enemies or looted from chests, with varying effects. Ironically, this Frankenstein-esque gimmick feels representative of Skellboy as a whole, fastened together from bits of other games. And while not quite horrifying, the result is a groaning, shambling creature with its rough stitches clearly showing.
As you’re resurrected in Cubold Kingdom, it soon becomes apparent that you’re not the only newly-undead creature in town. An evil wizard, Squaraman, is amassing an army of zombies and other nasties, and as the only corpse with a conscience, you’re gonna do your best to try and stop him.
Skellboy has more than a whiff of similarity to classic The Legend of Zelda games, played in a typical fantasy world from a top-down-ish perspective. From a purely aesthetic standpoint, however, it’s part voxel like the post-Minecraft indie trend, part Paper Mario, with characters having a 2D, almost papercraft feel. It’s an eclectic mashup of styles, colourful and busy to the eye, but it’s serviceable at the very least.
The ability to mix and match body parts is a neat idea and throws a dash of originality and humour into the mix. In the first level, for example, you can pop on a zombie head with princess garb and the town guards will address you as “Your Highness” and be none the wiser. But more than a cosmetic feature, the parts you choose also affect your health and abilities. Zombie parts will actively reduce your health, while a plant head lets you spit seeds and a bomb head can set off a big explosion – albeit, leaving you headless afterwards.
Combat is very hit and miss, literally – the combination of your weapon floating oddly in the air, uncooperative camera and controls, and aiming at 2D enemies within a 3D space lead to a lot of failed attacks. You can find a variety of weapons, such as swords, clubs and axes, and switch between them at will. But not all of them are born equal – while I found myself sticking to the club for a good chunk of time due to its destructive properties, lances are a little feeble, hard to aim and need to be picked up after each throw.
Skellboy’s levels, too, are a mixed bag. It feels like the devs were learning as they went, with the first area being very uninspiring to play but some of the subsequent levels being more interesting in design, less linear and with more traps and interactive elements. There are some clever instances of Dark Souls-like shortcut doors, too, which crack the levels wide open as you explore them. There’s even a surprisingly decent stab at physics, with environmental elements you can break apart and push around.
That said, as the levels become more complex and open, they also get harder to navigate. At times when I managed to progress it felt more like dumb blind luck that I’d wandered down the right passage or triggered something by accident, rather than having a proper sense of direction.
Even worse for my ability to progress was the couple of times I got completely stuck in scenery and hard to restart. The Switch version I played also suffered from stuttering and framerate dips, more so in some areas than others. The devs have assured me a patch is on its way to boost performance, squash some bugs and work on niggles like the poor lance aiming, so hopefully this will improve its playability.
But while Skellboy is pretty rough ‘n’ ready, it’s still generally playable, and its charm manages to shine through. The writing is playful and doesn’t take itself seriously at all, giving the experience a shot of personality. For a monster of a game formed from a mass of ill-fitting parts, they at least didn’t forget the heart.
[Reviewed on Switch]