Skulls of the Shogun brings a unique take on the turn-based strategy genre to Xbox Live Arcade, along with cartoony, feudal Japan-styled art direction. The final product isn’t a game that reinvents the genre’s metaphorical wheel so much as it fine-tunes and polishes it, and the result is a fairly fun and challenging game.
The single-player campaign revolves around the adventures in the afterlife of the recently deceased General Akamoto, who is reduced to a skeleton in the land of the dead after falling in battle. As a result of both being mistreated by the realm’s guards as well as news of someone impersonating him, an angry Akamoto recruits fellow warriors fed up with the world’s unfair customs to take a stand.
From there, the plot is fairly light, but what’s there is successfully appealing and funny. There’s no proper voice acting save a few character grunts, but the text-based dialog given to everyone provides many good moments. The campaign itself succeeds in both presenting a gradual climb in difficulty and slowly expanding itself to incorporate all of the game’s features that are available from the start in multiplayer.
As for the actual gameplay, the individual players (Anywhere from 2 to 4 in multiplayer) are given color-coded drone units, as well as the most important unit, the General. Generals have more health and deal more damage than the average unit, but it can be very risky to bring them into the battlefield. Having their General killed will cause the player to lose the match, with Akamoto’s defeat in the campaign forcing a restart of the level. Add the fact that you can choose not to move your General for several turns at first, and have their max HP increase until you choose to activate them for movement, and you can see there’s careful planning to be made.
Default units come in three types – the all-around average infantry, the long-range archer, and the close-range cavalry. Additionally, the multiplayer maps and later single-player levels have shrines that players can place a unit on to summon animalistic monks – those being a crow, a salamander, and a fox, each with their own special powers (The crow having wind-based spells, the salamander throwing fiery projectiles, and the fox being able to restore allies’ lost health).
Unlike most strategy RPGs out there, the movement of individual units isn’t limited to a set of grid-based squares. Instead, each character is given a circular area around them for each turn that allows them to walk anywhere within it using the analog stick. Any enemy units within the circle (Or even outside, when it comes to the projectile-based units) are in immediate danger of being attacked.
Additionally, the game incorporates a leveling up feature, though not in the form of automatic experience being gained when enemies are defeated. Successfully killing an enemy reduces it to an inanimate skull. Any unit on an opposing team afterward can walk to the skull and eat it to gain some health back as well as increasing their maximum health capacity. If a unit eats there skulls, they will level up, giving them the ability to perform two options within a single turn.
Despite everything described above, the game is easy to get the basic grip of, though difficult to master right away. Things aren’t so difficult right away that novices to the genre will be turned off, but those who press forward through the campaign will find some challenge as it continues, as well as when playing against human players in multiplayer instead of the computer.
The multiplayer itself can be played locally, online, or asynchronously across multiple platforms (The game is available for Xbox 360, PCs, and Windows Phone). The matches I played worked fine in terms of functionality, but fair warning: Matches can take up a lot of time online, especially when there are more than 2 players involved. The last match I played in particular took almost an hour to reach its conclusion.
With a playful aesthetic and solid gameplay, Skulls of the Shogun should make fans of strategy games feel right at home. This isn’t a genre that sees console representation very often, and it’s nice to see one that gets things right and has fun with its presentation instead of being another serious war-based title. Hopefully it will serve as a good introduction to many.
This review is based on an XBOX 360 copy of the game that was provided to us.