‘Skulls of the Shogun’ Review

skulls of the shogun title screen

I have been clamoring for a turn based strategy game for XBLA for 7 years. I played Vandal Hearts, played Band of Bugs, and neither satisfied my desire to take turns making challenging, nail-biting decisions. I wanted a game which would let me play it at my pace, analyzing the battlefield, selecting my units carefully and breaking down each mission into both strategy and tactics. 7 years later, that game has arrived on just about everything Microsoft has created in the last year. Now if only Skulls of the Shogun ran on my Zune…

Skulls of the Shogun, developed by 17Bit studios (previously Haunted Temple, previously just 17Bit CEO Jake Kazdal), is a turn based strategy game in which recently deceased General Akamoto fights the bureaucracy of the underworld to earn his rightful spot in the afterlife. When he approaches the line the lowly bureaucrat-skeleton-samurai sir does not believe that he is General Akamoto, so of course Akamoto is forced to slay him. His actions soon net him a small army of ronin-skeleton-samurai and their journey through the four gates of the underworld begins.

Akamoto’s journey is divided into five sections: the intro levels and the missions for each of the four seasons, all with four missions per section. That’s 20 missions for those keeping score at home. The story is pretty irreverent and frequently breaks the fourth wall, but tastefully so. It pokes fun at the fact that the game is a game, but not in a derisive “Hah you’re a video gamer having fun playing games, you smelly nerd?” way in a “Yeah the boss level is going to kick your butt so good luck with that.” kind of way. A great mix of jokes, adventure tropes and a fun, lighthearted tone keep this game’s story enjoyable all the way through.

Each season throughout the story introduces a new element of the tactical gameplay. The whole game is rather straightforward: all teams have a general; if the general dies, you lose. Each turn your general naps (meditates) and gains one health up to a maximum, but once you move them they will remain awake and no longer gain health per turn. You have five orders per turn to move and/or perform actions for up to five units. The main units include the beefy infantry, far-moving cavalry and powerful archer units, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. Haunting rice paddies grants a rice income over six turns which can be used to fund the production of new units from haunted soldier shrines. Haunting monk shrines grants the employ of different monks, all with a different special focus. Instead of attacking, a unit can consume the skull of dead enemies to gain some health, raise their maximum health, and upon consuming three skulls turn into a demon, granting a second action and special abilities for monks.

 

That’s really the core gameplay right there. It’s so simple it’s like explaining a board game, there’s no crazy rules to remember for incredibly specific situations, or a ton of different character evolutions, it’s elegant and clear. This is no “sweep it under the rug” quality, this is the game. The fact that I can explain Skulls of the Shogun in just a paragraph ensures that anyone with the slight inkling to pick up this game can and will be able to play it with a solid understanding of its mechanics.  Due to the limited amount of rice turtling (or playing hyper-defensively) doesn’t last long as a viable strategy, and the scaling power of units due to skull consummation means the game inevitably must end in a fun climax of powerful units.

On top of a solid, 5-hour campaign with multiple optional objectives in the form of gold skulls, there’s also an incredibly extensive multiplayer. There are 2, 3 and 4 play match types including team and free for all deathmatch (which has the ability to make alliances in-game). The features include hotseat multiplayer (playable with even one controller) combinable with bots as well as full online multiplayer and asynchronous multiplayer across Surface and Windows 8. To top it all off, if you have to end a multiplayer game for any reason, it can be saved and resumed with the original players or with bots. Forget the kitchen sink, 17Bit threw in the whole kitchen! This game is decked out.

Skulls of the Shogun has some pretty sleek visuals, basic though they are. All the environments are beautifully designed and the bold color schemes help both the units and the environments pop in their own ways. A Japanese-themed soundtrack accompanies the art to pull of that polished, high-budget feel. Unfortunately some minor hiccups in the interface and seemingly random glitches hurt the experience. Trying to be very specific with movement and attack ranges can get really jumbled when too many units are in one spot, trying to push each other in random directions. On top of that, the cursor only swaps between units and shrines (or just units if you use the dpads) and lacks any sort of free-move cursor. This adds to the frustration when enemies and allies are clustered in one spot (this is not a problem on PC). Beyond those specific situations though the interface is smooth and works beautifully.

Skulls of the Shogun is the closest thing to a universal strategy game that all can play and still enjoy it. It’s a quick paced strategy game, there really aren’t many of those in existence. Or any, perhaps. A vibrant presentation to match the smooth gameplay makes Skulls of the Shogun incredibly attractive, and if shown at a party will definitely reel in players. It lacks the depth and complexity of games like Fire Emblem or Advance Wars but for such a sacrifice it gains the elegance and replayability to match both the casual and the hardcore audiences. Asynchronous modes which can be played against mobile users means you never really have to stop. This is a fantastic game that just about everyone should play, especially if they’re interested in a bout of wit with friends.

A code was provided by the developer of the game to allow us to review Skulls of the Shogun on the Xbox 360.