There’s not enough games nowadays about balls. Now, I’m not talking the sporty, ultra HD, annually updated EA and 2K kind of balls, but instead the old school Marble Madness or Super Monkey Ball kind of balls. Given the ubiquity of proper analogue controllers in today’s market, this omission feels like even more of an oversight. I have vivid memories of fighting with the joystick-based original Marble Madness and would love a proper update with decent, responsive controls. When I first saw the early footage of Skully, I thought to myself, “Finally! The game about balls I’ve been dreaming off!”
There is something unmistakeable old school about Skully. Whilst not the ugliest game, there is little here stylistically that wouldn’t be out of place in an early 360 or PS3 release. The levels are not particularly distinctive, background details often feel repetitive, and cutscenes are static rather than animated. The latter detail is a real shame, since the claymation aesthetic is crying out for a proper sense of movement. While the characters are adequately voice acted (the mute Skully excepted) the storyline just feels lacking in effect in large part due to this choice.
You play as the titular Skully, unimaginatively named by Terry, a mysterious but wild-looking figure with apparent powers over Earth (hence the name – stemming from terra). He asks you to help him in seeking out his brother and sisters to unite the elements. At first you have no abilities over than being able to roll around the landscape and jump (the latter is never really explained as you have no limbs or obvious propulsive power) and a fairly basic, but well designed opening section helps you to become familiar with these controls.
The use of the analogue sticks allows for some responsive control, even when you build up speed. Throughout the game it was these sections that were the most successful. Sure, the camera occasionally struggles to keep up, but you have control over it with the right stick. This was more of an issue when platforming rather than rolling, an aspect not helped by the small shadow that Skully casts making judging the distance of jumps more difficult.
It isn’t long before the game transforms into a very different beast – one that is devoid of balls. Pools of mud that serve as checkpoints also enable you to shift forms and become golem-esque creatures with additional abilities. There are three of these to unlock as you progress, beginning with a strong form able to break through cracked walls. The secondary ability here can be used to fight off the balls of elemental goo that serve as your enemies whilst later in the game you also unlock a skill that allows you to throw Skully across large distances. The range of abilities here is impressive and well thought out, but it feels more like a last generation game like Kameo than the game I was expecting.
In later levels you unlock a speedy form and a double jump form, both of which can manipulate some blocks to help form platforms. The speedy form can move these horizontally whilst the jump one can lift them up. As you can summon three forms simultaneously, there are some complex puzzles that involve combining their abilities to navigate.
It is these puzzles that really form the bulk of the game’s playtime, which to me felt like a missed opportunity. This style of 3D platforming feels dated, the camera becomes increasingly problematic as you progress, and everything just feels like a lost game from a decade ago. Now I know this may seem like it doesn’t fit with my lamenting the lack of old school marble rollers, but the truth is that many of the style of 3D platformer and character switching puzzles that actually make up Skully were left behind for good reasons. Manipulating blocks and then trying to throw Skully onto them with no real precision is just not that fun – especially as these passages invariably feature instadeaths and irregular checkpoints.
I would like to say that the boss fights with the elemental siblings mix things up and provide a welcome change of pace, but they are pretty one-dimensional and dull. Alongside these bosses there are a couple of chase sequences too which quickly become a matter of trial and error and route memorisation. I wasn’t expecting an into the camera chase this side of the next Crash Bandicoot game and I wouldn’t have missed it were it not included here.