Release Date: January 30, 2013
Platform(s): X360 (Xbox Live Arcade) / Windows 8 / Windows Phone / Microsoft Surface
When most people think of turn-based strategy games, they immediately have an image in their heads of intricate rules, complex menus, and matches that last way too long. The genre scares many because of the inherent difficulty curve and the feeling that the games require too much effort to really get into. Some games have attempted to remedy this problem in the past, but none of them come as close to succeeding in this regard as 17-BIT’s Skulls of the Shogun. From the simplicity of the game mechanics to the inviting Japanese inspired art style; the game tries to do the impossible. It attempts to make turn-based strategy something that any gamer can enjoy, and I can safely say that it accomplishes its mission. Furthermore, it does so with a level of polish and wit that constantly impresses.
The bulk of Skulls of the Shogun is the excellent and lengthy campaign mode. Through 20 story missions we get to know General Akamoto, a gifted samurai that is slain by a mysterious assailant just moments before becoming the next shogun of Japan. He awakes in the afterlife, is quickly reminded that his accomplishments mean nothing, and is forced to wait in line just for an opportunity to get into the first level of the afterlife. Akamoto doesn’t take this lying down of course, and instead rounds up a makeshift undead army and storms the gates. And thus his new quest begins: to take the afterlife by the balls and become its new shogun… of the dead! To put it simply, the campaign mode in Skulls of the Shogun is one of its best aspects, and offers players not only fun gameplay, but also a humorous and interesting story.
This is particularly thanks to the top notch writing on display. The campaign is broken down into individual levels, and each one has its own little story to tell before the gameplay starts. These range from Akamoto and company trying to cross a bridge, to them being at the mercy of an angry thunder god. Each offers plenty of quips from lowly skeleton soldiers, as well as comical censoring of curse words from ‘mother flippin’ enemy generals. While simple, this story of revenge and intrigue kept me engaged throughout and had me laughing out loud. The individual levels that make up the campaign are also extremely well designed and varied, offering up unique scenarios at every turn. For example, one stage has you in the mountains and constantly being bombarded by avalanches unless you take cover.
Excellent writing and level design aren’t the only talents that Skulls of the Shogun pulls off effortlessly, as it also has a clear identity and personality. This is obvious right away from just taking a glance at the game’s retro-inspired 2D visuals. The character sprites are cartoony, yet very detailed and have almost a cut-out feel to them. In addition, their animations are smooth and are a joy to watch. The environments are also highly picturesque and nail the feel of Feudal Japan quite well. There’s even a subtle film grain effect to make it look like a Kurosawa film from the 1960’s. After spending lots of time in this world, you can’t shake the feeling that 17-BIT designed the game essentially as a love letter to the country’s rich history and culture.
This comes through especially in the game’s sound design. Skulls of the Shogun has a fantastic soundtrack that never grows tiring. The songs are recorded using what sound like traditional instruments from the Japanese feudal era. The soundtrack evokes a very specific atmosphere and perfectly complements the rest of the game’s style. The game’s sound effects are also very authentic and offer plenty of recordings of sword strikes, bows, and elemental sounds like thunder. It’s also worth mentioning that 17-BIT even went out of their way to record dialogue for all the game’s units. I’m not sure if its coherent Japanese or just plain gibberish, but it sure sounds authentic.
The real meat of any turn-based strategy game, however, is the addicting tactical gameplay. And Skulls of the Shogun is designed in such a way that almost anyone—even those who aren’t fans of the genre—can enjoy. It does this by cleverly using the campaign to introduce the game’s various mechanics, doing it step by step so that the player never feels overburdened by complexity. Every mission introduces something new, and the by the time you’re done you have a full repertoire at your disposal. The gameplay itself is not too dissimilar to games of old, yet offers some modern additions. For one, you’re not bound by a grid like in other strategy games, giving you the freedom to place your units wherever you wish.
Skulls of the Shogun’s overall gameplay mechanics are very well designed. Besides certain missions in the campaign with special conditions, matches are usually between two generals and their armies going head to head. Victory is achieved by defeating the enemy general, so keeping yours safe is of optimal importance. Each side is given 5 moves per round to achieve as much as possible, so you must choose your actions wisely. The game will reward tactical decisions and punish stupid mistakes, which is how it should be. Using your units effectively is important as they each serve specific roles. There are samurai infantry that have high defense and protect your other units, cavalry which excel at hit and run tactics, and archers which can deal heavy damage at long range but are easily taken down.
In addition to these three basic unit types, there are also an assortment of special monks which you can summon at shrines that have various uses. Fox monks will keep you healed, while salamander monks offer various magical abilities. While the game teaches you what each unit does, mastering them and learning each of their strengths and weaknesses is where the real fun lies. The last unit that you should never underestimate is your general himself, who can easily turn the tide of any battle. He tends to meditate through the match in order to build up his HP, though can be awoken at any time and sent into the field to do some serious damage. Generals have the most health, can attack multiple times right away, and are not easy to defeat.
Things get especially interesting when you throw in the game’s unique mechanic hinted at in the title, skulls. After you slay enemy soldiers, you can have one of your own units eat their skulls in order to get stronger. Each skull eaten will increase HP, and once three are consumed the unit will transform into a very powerful demon. This concept adds plenty of strategy to matches, as every time you make a mistake and lose a unit, you make your opponent stronger. Then there’s the need to capture resources like rice paddies, which will give you the necessary currency used to summon more undead warriors. Capturing or ‘haunting’ a resource leaves units wide open and they cannot fight back, therefore the game constantly has you weighing your options and thinking of the best course of action.
While the AI found in the campaign is pretty intelligent and always puts up a good fight, it’s nothing compared to a real human opponent. This is where Skulls of the Shogun’s other half shines through, in its multiplayer mode. The game offers local and online multiplayer for up to 4 players, and they can battle it out in Deathmatch and Team Deathmatch modes. Once you’ve learned the basics through the campaign and step into the online battlefield, things get even more interesting. Humans are much more unpredictable and sneaky than the AI, and will keep you on your toes.
After playing a number of matches, I still got plenty of joy from just watching my opponents make their moves and plot against me. It’s tense because you can see their cursor moving around the map as they decide on what to do next, and this can provide some insight into their strategy. Online games also tend to last much longer since players tend to play much more defensively. This makes winning all the more satisfying when you land the finishing blow. On the other hand, you can limit the time between turns to 20 seconds, making matches much more expedient.
For those who enjoy playing the game at their own pace, they have one final option at their disposal in the form of the ‘Skulls Anywhere’ mode. This special match type allows you to asynchronously battle other players on Xbox 360, Windows 8, Windows Phone, or Microsoft Surface tablets. You simply join a game, make a turn, save it and come back later when your opponents have done the same. Matches can last from hours to days, but you can wage multiple battles at the same time. It’s an interesting feature that’s unique to Skulls of the Shogun which adds extra game time. The game’s replay value can also be extended greatly by trying to unlock special golden skulls in the campaign. Each require you to win under specific conditions and greatly change the way levels are played.
About the only thing wrong with the game is some technical and control issues. The game seems to suffer from odd glitches every once in a while that can end up ruining a match. For example, I sometimes had computer opponents get stuck trying to decide their next move. Thankfully you can reload a checkpoint and salvage it, but it’s still bothersome when it occurs. Similar glitches can happen in the online mode, creating situations where turns get skipped and other oddities that render some matches unwinnable. A patch will likely be released eventually that may fix these nuisances, so what I say now may not be true in the future.
The controls on the Xbox 360 version of the game is something to keep in mind though. These work for the most part, although selecting units with either the analog or D-pad can be unreliable. This is especially true when your army is tightly grouped. This causes players to lose time unnecessarily as they fumble around trying to find that one particular unit to use. Now, I did not have a chance to try out the other versions of the game, but I’m sure using a touch screen or mouse would help with this problem immensely. It’s the Xbox version’s only weakness, as it controls well otherwise.
Regardless, if you’re looking for your next strategy game then Skulls of the Shogun is your best bet. It offers deep and strategic gameplay that’s easy to learn but hard to master. It also has a deep campaign mode with great writing and wonderful level design that always keeps you engaged. And when you’ve had your fill of computer slaughter, taking your battles online provides even more thrills and options to give you your money’s worth. Taken together, the game is a wonderful and complete package that I believe is destined to bring this relatively niche genre to a much larger audience.
- Fun, robust multiplayer modes
- Soundtrack is memorable and very atmospheric
- Deep and rewarding tactical gameplay that’s easy to learn
- Excellent 2D retro-inspired visuals and wonderful art direction
- Campaign mode is lengthy, well written, and offers plenty of replay value
- Glitches in single and multiplayer modes can sometimes hurt the fun
- Selecting units using Xbox 360 controller can be a pain