Skulls of the Shogun
As the last of his enemies lay dying at his feet, General Akamoto stands triumphant on the battlefield. Set to be proclaimed Shogun of all feudal Japan, Akamoto’s celebration is cut short as a mysterious figure stabs him in the back, sending him on his way to the Shores of the Dead. But even here, he finds nothing but treachery, as another warrior is impersonating him and attempting to keep him at bay. Betrayed and robbed of his destiny, the general and his band of ragtag warriors set out to carve bloody vengeance in the afterlife, and restore the great general to his rightful position.
It is here, on the Shores of the Dead, where Skulls of the Shogun begins. Vengeance is carried out in the form of a turn based strategy title. During each round of battle, Akamoto may activate and order up to five of the units under his command to move and attack the enemy forces. They come in three flavours: Infantry units are your bread and butter front line troops. They have above average defence which allows them to absorb more damage. Your Cavalry forces have the widest range of movement, and thus are able to cover more ground, whilst only having average attack and defence points. Finally, your Archers can hold back and kill enemy troops from afar, boasting the strongest attacking skills of your entire army. This is offset by their abysmal defensive rating; these guys cannot attack when things get up close and personal, and will not withstand many blows. As general, Akamoto can get involved as well, and boasts the ability to make two actions versus the standard unit’s one. However, if he should fall in battle, the army is defeated.
“Well balanced”Whilst the core of the game is kept intentionally streamlined, Skulls of the Shogun does well to consistently introduce new elements as progression is made. As each enemy is defeated, your troops can devour their fallen skulls. Each one consumed increases the toughness of your unit, and eating three causes your unit to transform into their demon form, a super powered version of the original, gaining an extra attack each activation. Rice paddies and shrines are also strewn throughout the battlefield, which can be captured by “haunting” them successfully for one complete turn. The former give you access to rice, which acts as the games currency and allow you to summon new common units to the battlefield. Capturing a shrine, however, lets you command one of three monks; Fox Monk acts as your army’s healer, Salamander Monk spews fire and lightning from a distance, whereas Crow Monk is the trickiest of the three, using magic to steal rice and move enemies around the terrain with his “Gust” ability.
All of the above combine to make up an extremely well balanced and surprisingly deep, strategic affair. Don’t let the game’s heavily stylised graphics fool you; beneath the colourful exterior beats an extremely tactical heart. Mistakes are severely punished, and each encounter requires a delicate balancing act. Knowing when to push on and attack a particularly troublesome unit, and when to hold back and use a turn to capture a shrine or paddy, or to eat that one remaining skull, are the keys to success. Given that only five troops can be activated and act each turn, prioritising threats and evaluating where resources are required is vital. The positioning of the individual units is also of the utmost importance. Any that dare to traverse too close to a cliff or river make for easy prey, as they can be knocked off for a simple kill. Aligned units benefit from a greater resilience to knockbacks, so synchronising their movements across any narrow ravines or bridges is crucial to avoid the big drop.
“Gorgeously detailed ”Aesthetically, Skulls of the Shogun doesn’t disappoint. Each of the four seasons of the afterlife are realised in bold, vivid colour, yet retain a distinct visual fidelity. The characters therein are gorgeously detailed and gel perfectly with their surroundings. They exude charm, and their grunts and groans in place of full voice work compliments the atmosphere developers 17-BIT set out to achieve.
Aside from the campaign, Skulls offers both on-the-couch and online multiplayer. The biggest selling point of the latter is “Skulls Anywhere”, an asynchronous offering which allows you to complete moves at your leisure, and for your opponent to do the same. Think “Words With Friends”, only with ancient samurai warriors instead of letter tiles. This mode is available cross platform, so Xbox Live players can battle those on Windows 8, Windows Phone and the all new Surface tablets.
Multiplayer works in much the same way as the campaign mode. Each army is placed on opposite ends of the battlefield, with the objective being to knock out the opposing general. All the rules and caveats of the single player apply ten-fold when going up against a human opponent, but the sense of accomplishment when you best your opponent is similarly enhanced. However, in my experience, traditional online games were few and far between, and “Skulls Anywhere” suffers from the same issues as any asynchronous game; there’s no guarantee your opponent will make their move in a timely manner (or at all), which can lead to a sense of frustration with the online offering.
“Downright addictive ”There are also a number of issues which, while not ruining the experience, can hamper your enjoyment. When many units are located in and around the same area, selecting the specific unit to command can be more difficult than it should be. There is also a trial and error element to the campaign, which is inherent to turn based strategy games in general. Many of the campaign levels stack the odds overwhelmingly in the opposition’s favour, and some get to the point where strategy becomes second fiddle to making an all out attack on the enemy general to try and end the level in one turn.
With all that being said, Skulls of the Shogun provides an accessible entry to the turn based strategy genre, whilst at the same time offering both entertainment and tactical nuance. Each campaign stage encourages numerous replays by offering level specific targets ranging from completing the level without losing a unit to controlling all shrines of a particular type, and the multiplayer is downright addictive when you can find an opponent to play against. Overall, it’s a solid, fun experience that will keep you coming back for one more turn.