Skulls of the Shogun Hands On

Developer: 17-BIT / Publisher: Microsoft Studios / Platforms: Xbox 360, PC, Windows 8 Phone, Surface / Release Date: TBD / ESRB: Not Yet Rated

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If you’ve been closely following the indie scene, you’ve probably seen Skulls of the Shogun. The developers at 17-BIT, formerly known as Haunted Temple Studios, have been hard at work polishing their game all this time, and they’re ready for everyone to marvel at their undead samurai.

Skulls of the Shogun is what they’ve deemed an “arcade-style turn-based strategy game,” and that does seem to describe what I experienced. Donning a 2D cartoon art style, SotS gives off the impression of silliness and approachability, two traits it embodies well. In the campaign you play as a general named Akamoto, a warrior close to attaining the title of shogun, commander-in-chief of feudal Japan, until an unknown being kills him. Now in the after life, he must find out who would dare backstab him and why there seems to be an impersonator running around claiming to be him.

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Stripping away menus and movement grids to allow for faster combat, you start off with a few soldiers with different attack ranges, damage, and defense points. You have five allotted orders, meaning you can only move your soldiers five times per turn. To attack, you physically move the selected soldier to the closest enemy and attack in real-time, as opposed to issuing a command in standard strategy games. The aim of the game is to keep your general safe at all times while defeating the enemy forces.

Playing defensively is just as important as your offensive tactics, which is where spirit walls come into play. On top of using soldiers with higher defense points to your advantage, placing samurai next to each other forms a spirit wall that prevents the enemy from moving through your units. This helps protect your general. There are even maps in the game where you can be pushed off the edge should you get careless, and a well-placed spirit wall can keep you from falling to your doom.

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One of the more interesting aspects of the game is the ability to eat the skull of your defeated enemy. By eating a skull, you regain health and gain HP. Eat three skulls and that samurai will enter demon form, giving them the ability of two actions times per turn. You can see how a powerful a general who eats three skulls can be.

What’s a strategy game without multiplayer, right? Skulls of the Shogun has local multiplayer as well as online, but the best selling point of the game is a mode called “Skulls Anywhere.” With Skulls Anywhere, you have the ability to play your game on the Xbox with someone who owns the game on a Windows Phone, Windows 8 PC, or Surface tablet. Similar to games like Hero Academy, with asynchronous multiplayer one player takes a turn and waits on their friend to take theirs at their leisure. It’s a brilliant mechanic that is sure to promote many competitive matches across all platforms.

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In all modes of multiplayer up to four players can play at a time; yes, even in Skulls Anywhere mode. There’s free-for-all, where it’s every skull for itself, and team deathmatch where two players work together to defeat the opposing duo. You can also partner up in free-for-all, as you do have the ability to form a deadly alliance. Offer up some rice (the game’s currency), and if the player decides to accept the offer you get to heal and spawn soldiers on your partner’s territory and even share spirit walls. Do all this to then backstab your partner when they least expect it to win the game! At least that’s how I’d play.

Skulls of the Shogun is a strategy game that doesn’t overwhelm you with combat menus and statistics; it’s a game that’s easy enough for anyone to pick up and play. With its Skulls Anywhere mechanic, the game will offer much replayability, but it’s yet to be seen how the servers will act come release time. You can look forward to claiming the title of Shogun soon, 17-BIT promises.

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