Originality is an overrated buzzword in the video game industry. Horizon Zero Dawn cherry-picked a bunch of ideas from other open-world titles and is now regarded as one of the best games of its generation. As long as they’re done well, copycat games can be just as enjoyable as the properties that inspired them. Skellboy, the new Nintendo Switch indie game from developer Umaiki Games, owes much of its action-RPG design template to The Legend of Zelda. That’s as good a starting point as any but while Skellboy has the bones of a great game, someone forgot to put any meat on them.
Skellboy’s premise is familiar but with just enough quirkiness to draw players in, at least in the early stages. The pixelated Cubold Kingdom has been overrun by an evil court magician and his hordes of minions. Rather than a young heroic boy chosen by destiny, Cubold’s fate falls into the bony hands of Skippy, an ancient hero accidentally summoned by the magician’s dark spell. Much like Link, Skippy has no discernible personality of his own and must rely on the Cubold citizenry to bring him up to speed on the current crisis. It’s a thin plot that gets players from Point A to B, but is made a little more engaging thanks to some mildly amusing, witty dialogue. Skellboy’s sense of humor is decidedly square in the most literal sense, as the game throws every four-sided pun it can think of at you (the main villain is named Squarumon, for crying out loud). While there aren’t many zingers in the mix, it’s hard not to admire Umaiki’s dedication to the joke.
Unfortunately, once players actually take control of Skippy, Skellboy becomes considerably less enjoyable. Played from an isometric perspective, Skellboy’s core gameplay consists primarily of simplistic close quarters combat and avoiding environmental hazards. The problem is, everything about controlling Skippy feels, well, terrible. It’s hard to think of a game where the act of swinging a sword feels less satisfying. Fighting enemies mostly boils down to whacking them until they’re defeated but there’s a laziness to the way Skippy hits enemies that makes it feel like he’s constantly wading through a pool of honey. This feeling extends to Skippy’s movement as well. He moves painfully slow and given the sprawling nature of the level design, this makes navigation feel like more of a chore than it needs to be. This problem becomes heightened during the game’s boss battles. While these encounters are more engaging than fights against regular enemies, Skippy’s sluggishness makes them more frustrating than they should be. Even with a boss’s patterns figured out, collision detection is all over the place, so a successful dodge could just as easily be damage received.
The good news is Skellboy’s unique body-swapping feature saves combat from being a total drag. Instead of skill trees or experience points, Skippy upgrades himself by picking up new body parts off of downed enemies. While some of these parts are just cosmetic, many of them offer stat buffs or even power-ups. One early head swap grants projectile attacks, while another lets you set bombs. Players also have to be on the watch for body parts with negative attributes. One of the most memorable of these is a zombie head that will drop from ceilings and attach itself to Skippy, inverting the movement controls in the process. Unfortunately, the novelty of the body-swapping mechanic quickly wears off. Once you learn which parts an enemy drops, there’s little reason to fight them again. Between this and its poor combat mechanics, Skellboy is a game that ironically teaches you to avoid combat, which is a problem given how much of the game revolves around it.
When it comes to visual design, Skellboy is kind of a mixed bag. The art direction is reminiscent of a pixelated Paper Mario and it doesn’t entirely work. While “upresed N64 game” is an inspired visual choice, it’s hard not to wish Umaiki had gone with something a bit cleaner. Navigating the game’s 3D environments can be needlessly confusing (and not just because there’s no in-game map) Skellboy doesn’t fare much better from an audio perspective. The chiptunes soundtrack primarily consists of the theme being recycled and warped in various ways to fit the current environment. Unfortunately, hearing the same music over and over quickly becomes grating and since Skellboy has no voiceover dialogue, it’s arguably a game best experienced with the volume turned all the way down.
Next: 5 Zelda Clones Better Than The Real Thing (& 5 That Are So Much Worse)
Skellboy is available for Nintendo Switch and releases on Steam later this year. A Switch code was provided to Screen Rant for the purpose of this review.