Developer: 17-BIT / Publisher: Microsoft Studios / Played On: Xbox 360 / Price: 1200 MSP ($15) / ESRB: Teen [Blood, Suggestive Themes, Violence]
Strategy games are not often the most approachable, but they can be the most engaging once you dive into the heart of the mechanics. Just as Popcap made tower defense games accessible with Plants vs. Zombies, 17-BIT wants audiences to experience the addicting nature of the strategy genre. Skulls of the Shogun is a turn-based action strategy game fashioned for the RTS-curious and arcade enthusiasts, and after three and a half years in development the team is at last able to share its final product with the community.
Skulls of the Shogun’s cartoon exterior is the first indication that the game does not take itself too seriously. From the first lines of dialogue in the campaign, spoken in fake Japanese, that message is driven home. The game has a simple interface with no menus, hexes, and grids to clutter the screen. There are only a few units to choose from: cavalry, infantry, and archers, all with their own movement ranges, attack and defense points. You also have a general, who plays as a combination of the king and queen in chess. Protect him at all costs because if he dies, you lose the match.
Akamoto, your general, is a warlord ready to be named the shogun, ruler of all Japan, when he’s stabbed in the back by an unknown assailant. Akamoto arrives on the shores of the dead, fated to wait in line for over 500 years before reaching limbo. He’s then informed that there’s already a General Akamoto running around, sparking his quest to reclaim his name and avoid long lines.
Along the way he gathers allies that admire his cause, his strength, and his sweet ‘stache.
Everyone in the Skulls of the Shogun world is self-aware; characters provide witty commentary on video game clichés they imitate. Couple this with the abovementioned playful characteristics, and you have a tongue-in-cheek action-strategy experience you’ll enjoy.
You unleash five turns per move, with each action requiring the unit to be within range of their target (represented by a circle). The farther your target is from the circle, the more likely you are to miss because the percentage of a successful hit decreases by twenty percent. After the action is complete the soldier then has leftover movement to travel to a less vulnerable position. This comes in handy when trying to protect units with little health behind troops with better defenses.
When one unit rests next to another, they form a spirit wall. Spirit walls are essential to winning matches; when an enemy attacks, your soldiers are knocked back from their original position. Get hit near a cliff and down goes your beloved archer. With a spirit wall, you can prevent knockback, stop enemies from moving through your ranks, and prevent counterattacks to your ranged attacks.
The lack of grids removes the constraints strategy games usually present, but it comes at a price. At times a soldier can only attack an enemy if at a specific edge of the circle range, and it can be difficult to press the attack button right when you find that sweet spot. If too many units are grouped together, enemy or not, the heavy inked lines of the characters make it look like a huddled mess. There is an option to individually select your units using the d-pad, but you’ll be too accustomed to the analog stick.
Aside from your units, there are monks you can summon. Monks are summoned from shrines, shrines that must be claimed or ‘haunted’ first, and monks have the power to heal, conjure powerful onis, etc. Other shrines can summon soldiers, but only if you have the necessary amount of rice. To earn rice, you must haunt rice paddies.
With each enemy you kill, you have the option to eat their skull. By eating skulls, you regain health and increase your max HP. Eat up to three skulls and your unit becomes a demon, earning an extra action each round. Demons become very useful in tough situations; I won rounds with just my demon general more than once. Tough situations are not uncommon in Skulls of the Shogun, the enemy usually has more troops and resources than would seem fair.
The campaign took five hours to complete, but the draw of the game is its multiplayer. You have the option to play locally, online, or to use the Skulls Anywhere mechanic. Skulls Anywhere allows Xbox 360 users to play with anyone who owns the game on their Windows Phone, Windows 8 PC, or Surface tablet. Skulls Anywhere uses asynchronous multiplayer, one player takes a turn and waits on their friend to take theirs at their leisure.
Skulls of the Shogun is a fun game to pick up and play whenever you want a quick fix of imitation Japanese and skull munching. It’s a fine introduction to strategy games for those intimidated of the genre, even if it has its challenges along the way. If you’re still not sure if Skulls of the Shogun is worth the investment, remember that you always have General Akamoto’s sweet mustache to look forward to.