E3 2011: Skulls of the Shogun hands-on
As I spoke with Jake Kazdal of Hunted Temple Studios, I realized instantaneously that I was speaking with a kindred spirit. Jake was talking about his disappointment in the recent lack of quality, easy to play turn-based strategy games. Citing the Advance Wars franchise as the best, modern example of the genre, Jake spoke fondly of growing up with series such as Fire Emblem and Shining Force; he had me at Advance Wars.
The problem with many turn-based strategy games have been their reluctance to innovate, and in many cases, shed the unnecessary baggage the genre has saddled itself with. The sole representatives generally fall into two categories: hex based war simulations, or super hardcore Eastern developed strategy-RPGs – such as Disgaea. Haunted Temple Studios wanted to eliminate all of the boring micromanagement associated with those other titles and concentrate on delivering a simple interface that emphasized strategy – and their charming senses of humor.
The first difference you’ll notice playing Skulls of the Shogun is the lack of a grid – no hexes, no squares. Selecting a unit displays a circle surrounding the character, clearly illustrating the distance that can be traveled. Units are moved one at a time, and if they are moved close enough to an enemy unit during that turn, they can attack. And, it’s pretty much as simple as that. Both the player and the CPU get five orders per turn, allowing them to command up to five characters per round.
While Jake and I were speaking, a trio of players engaged in Skulls of the Shogun’s local multiplayer, which supports up to four players. I was given the impression none of the players involved had been familiar with the game previously, but watching them, it was clear that the simple mechanics had clicked. Once their match was over, the Haunted Temple team was nice enough to set me up with the first pair of missions from their campaign, which included some helpful tutorials.
Everything you need to know in Skulls of the Shogun is clearly evident. One of my favorite, tiny touches about the game is the seemingly obvious but clever design choice to represent unit HP via the samurai banners that each character wears. By tying the HP directly into the fiction if forgoes the need for an out of place health meter, or stamina gauge. Other pieces of useful information are displayed via scrolls on the outside of the screen.
As I slowly worked my way through the two opening stages I got to see many of the little gameplay quirks that should keep Skulls of the Shogun interesting. Attacking an enemy would always illicit a counter-attack, unless the initial blow killed; certain unit types delivered more knockback than others, which could be used to push enemies off of cliffs; bamboo thickets could be hidden within, boosting the evasion rate of your unit, thus making them significantly harder to hit. All of these little touches add subtle layers of strategy to the title, allowing the player to pick and choose his/her preferred course of action.
It also must be said that Skulls of the Shogun is a beautiful game to behold. Character art and locales are all lovingly crafted, having their own specific animations that set one another apart. The colors are also quite vibrant, echoing the colorful antics of your undead samurai warlord. Rounding out the stellar presentation off are the small bits of inspired voice work, which lends the protagonist the afterlife gravitas he so obviously deserves.
As a representative of Indiecade, Skulls of the Shogun was one of the best titles I saw at the entire show – indie or not; the booth was consistently slammed with traffic. If all goes according to plan, Skulls of the Shogun should be available later this year.