Review: Skullduggery!

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We’ve been told that the only certainties in life are death and taxes, which perhaps helps explain why, in the bizarre and fun iOS app Skullduggery!, you’re cast as an angry skull with a slingshot-elastic brain whose job it is to seize assets and collect taxes (in the form of gold coins) from undead/underworld scofflaws.

Sounds like somebody’s version of hell, that’s for sure.

Thankfully, the gameplay’s significantly more heavenly, and doesn’t involve filing a single 1040. Imagine a free-form Angry Birds ratched up to 78 rpm, with bullet time added in for extra measure, and you’ll have your noggin wrapped around it. In each level, you use your finger to draw back your bubblegum-pink matter and fling your skull, sometimes to collect coins and gems, sometimes to smash or avoid obstacles like crates, brick walls, cannons and desks, and sometimes to headshot the skeletal denizens of these underworld hideouts, none of whom seem especially interested in having their assets seized. Maybe they’ve been listening to too many tax-refinancing commercials on their infernal radios.

The game’s aesthetic, based in the style of 1930s-era classic animators, is both fun and clever, with little touches like skeletal hands that jut from the sides of the environment to serve as shot-staging waypoints, and Rube Goldberg-esque pipes that rocket you to different areas in the level. Drawing your brain-sling back while you’re in mid-air activates a brief bullet-time effect, allowing you to string shots together. This is critical to navigating the trickiest of Skullduggery’s obstacles and for taking out most of the game’s enemies, who’ll bat and blast you into brain-mashed oblivion if you’re foolish enough to try a frontal assault. Pulling off a well-staged bullet-time fling feels exhilarating.

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For the most part, the touch-screen controls are able to keep up with the pace of the game’s action, a feature that’s particularly important when your l’il skulll has to navigate a maze-like set of tunnels and obstacles while a ginormous enemy—maybe a boulder-sized skull, maybe an advancing wall filled with spinning buzzsaws—is rolling inexorably after you. In these situations, a single errant sling generally spells squished skull, so memorizing patterns becomes critical. There’s a Peggle-esque trajectory feature that can help you aim your flings, but that kind of deliberate approach becomes a lot less useful when you’re full-speed flinging for your life.

If there’s a complaint to be made, it’s that the content breezes by awfully quickly—three worlds with eight levels each are all you’re getting for your admission price here (which is only $1.99), plus a small local versus mode. The completists won’t object, as they can rub their fingertips raw trying to collect every asset and reveal every secret area, but I’d love to see what else ClutchPlay can do with this concept and their impressive level-design skills. God knows there are more themes to explore than gangsters, a graduate school and a ginormous pyramid. How ‘bout a pirate ship and a haunted house?

BuyIt

Pros:
+ Clever spin on the Angry Birds flinging mechanic
+ Cartoon aesthetic and design touches make levels fun to explore
+ Bullet-time fling kills are a blast

Cons:
– The 24 single-player levels fling by too quickly

Game Info:
Platform: iOS
Publisher: ClutchPlay Games
Developer: ClutchPlay Games
Release Date: 10/9/2014
Genre: Action Platformer
Age Rating: 9+
Players: 1-2

About the Author

Aaron R. Conklin has been writing about games and games culture for more than 15 years. A former contributor to Computer Games Magazine and Massive Magazine, his writing has appeared on IGN.com and in newspapers and alt-weeklies across the country. Conklin's an unapologetic Minnesota sports fan living in Madison, Wisconsin, home of the Midwest's most underrated gaming vibe.