Like a moth, I can’t help but be drawn to crappy games. I get too curious. Can the game really be as bad as people say? How can human beings come together for years to create something so misguided? And what kind of ‘bad’ is it’? Is it so bad it’s good, or is it plain old dull-bad?
You can probably guess why I was drawn to Skull Island: Rise of Kong. Its badness has already become legend, much like The Lord of the Rings: Gollum earlier in the year. But the general sentiment was that this was worse. It has scraped the bottom of the barrel and found a secret compartment below that.
Trying to keep an open mind, I jumped into Skull Island like a lumbering silverback only to be hit by a claymore of crapness. The first issue (and we would argue biggest, and most sustained) is how much it fumbles the core fantasy of playing as King Kong. The great ape is meant to be a battle-scarred veteran, gargantuan and verging on a god. He grapples with T-rexes and Godzillas and wins. He’s absolutely massive. But Skull Island: Rise of Kong doesn’t just fumble this ball, it accidentally kicks it over its own post.
Kong feels so small in Skull Island: Rise of Kong. He’s dwarfed by the environments, and is barely bigger than a worm or crab. There’s a narrative reason for it – we’re seeing the origin story of a younger Kong – but that neither makes sense (he’d have to be a tenth of his future size) nor is it what the people want. We want to be a simian colossus, not a naughty little chimp.
Then there’s the graphics. Plenty of mocking YouTube videos have been made to showcase how bad it is, and it’s only marginally better than they make out. The main problem is that everything is so uniform and drab. Skull Island: Rise of Kong has you wandering bloody huge labyrinths of chasms and valleys, and they all look alarmingly like each other. It’s all the same texture applied to nondescript layouts, and you’d have to go back two or three generations of console to find an era that would suit it.
Those environments are glitching and popping in when you’re only inches away from them. Textures seem to melt off of cliffs like the Ark of the Covenant has been opened. Clearly not enough time has been spent on optimising the levels, which tracks – there are rumours that Skull Island: Rise of Kong was made in a year.
A cheap laugh can be had at the cutscenes, which are plain unfinished. One cutscene has an enemy standing with a blank billboard on their face. Meanwhile, the cutscene director is determined to zoom into Kong’s face so you can see every last graphical glitch and low-res texture. Unblinking, dead eyes stare back from every frame.
Things marginally improve after these shocking first moments. Because, at its heart, Skull Island: Rise of Kong is a simple hack-and-slash melee adventure. It doesn’t get a whole lot wrong with its move-set. There’s a cool dash-stun maneuver with LB, and there are plenty of attacks that can supplement the traditional light/heavy combos. We’d open up with a jump smash, stun the enemies with a dash, plug away with the X and Y buttons and then dash out of harm’s way. The combat is actually okay; it’s fine. It’s been entirely done before in other games, but it works here.
What that combat needed was variety, and Skull Island: Rise of Kong can’t deliver anything close to it. None of the enemies, nor their miniboss equivalents, can muster up a distinctive attack between them. Crabs, worms, little dinos and bigger dinos are all, effectively, the same creature. They approach, they get stunned, they have slightly different health pools. So you approach each combat encounter in the same way for the five or six hours until the game’s end. We can’t underline just how boring that is.
Bosses are better, as they crash rocks from the ceiling or charge at Kong, introducing at least one attack that’s different from the basic enemies. But when the best you can say about combat is that once per hour, you get to see a new attack, you’ve got a problem. We thought back to the movies, with Kong fighting absolute units of monsters, and here we’re fighting dinos that movie-Kong would have accidentally stomped underfoot.
There’s some platforming stuff in there to make the navigation more interesting than go here, smash that. But they’re so badly designed that we wondered whether we should be heading in that direction. We were grinding up against rocks, trying to glitch ourselves out of arenas just for kicks, only to find out that we were meant to head that way. The correct route looks anything but.
Which is a consistent criticism, as it happens. The designers are cruel bastards and stretch out their levels to be about three times the size that they should be. Jacking up the play time, no doubt. But these mazes have circular routes, routes that return you to the start of the level and they all flipping look like each other. Knowing where to head is half the battle; accidentally returning to the start of the level with respawned enemies is the other half.
There is a map, but it gets the Chocolate Teacup award for total uselessness. It doesn’t label where you are or where you’re heading. Nor does it add the sections of the level that you accessed but couldn’t pass, thanks to a missing upgrade. It’s a completely non-interactive painting of a level, and it can absolutely do one.
We could rattle off some choice words about the threadbare upgrade system, or the frustrating way that it gives you attacks in the tutorial and then rips them away from you (can we stop doing this in modern games, please?). But we should reserve our energy for the lack of polish. It deserves the final word.
Much like Kong himself, Skull Island: Rise of Kong is riddled with bugs (that fur must be an ecosystem of its own). We’ve played for five hours, but we’ve found ourselves stuck in rocks five times, falling through levels twice and, in one extremely worrying moment, lost all of our upgrades and currency for those upgrades. That’s a crazy crash-to-minute ratio, and it’s on top of all the visual hiccups that we’ve already mentioned. This is so underbaked that you can still taste the dough.
Let’s be kind for a moment. We suspect that, if Skull Island: Rise of Kong was a budget release – less than a tenner perhaps – then the internet would have left it well alone. That £34.99 price tag leads to expectations, and it’s not got a chance if you have those. We also didn’t hate the combat, although it didn’t have any decent enemies to use it on.
But against every other metric, Skull Island: Rise of Kong is a turd. It’s a turd the size of which Kong would be proud. And it’s bad in the least entertaining way. It’s an empty series of valleys where it’s easier to get lost than killed. We wanted the kind of bad that is stupid, ridiculous and embarrassing – we might have had fun with that. Dull-bad, though? That’s the worst.