Platforms: PC | Windows Phone | XBLA
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
Death is only the beginning for General Akamoto. Killed at the moment of his greatest triumph, the haughty warlord discovers that heaven is little more than an enormous queue, and decides that eternity could be better spent conquering the afterlife and smashing all who oppose him into bonemeal. Something we can all relate to after waiting in the post office for a tax disc.
This daft premise introduces players to a colourful and humorous take on Feudal Japanese folklore, complete with anarchic gags aplenty and gorgeous, hand-painted assets. It frequently resembles period artworks and Kabuki theatre brought to detailed life, all cherry blossom, swirly scrolly ornaments and proud ranks of undead Samurai resplendent in their armour. All of which are quickly disarmed by numerous glib asides and laugh-out-loud one liners. Appearances can be deceiving though, because underneath the slick style and belly laughs beats the heart of a stone cold strategy game, with an eye to ruthlessly cut the fat from the turn-based genre.
Using a katana. Obviously.
Though it's available on the Windows 8 app store (sorry Steam customers and Windows 7 owners), Skulls Of The Shogun is very much designed around crunching the turn-based strategy experience into a digestible console format without losing any of the nuance. Your telly, monitor or touchscreen will be filled by a breathtakingly attractive isometric battlefield, which typically pits your relatively small force of skeletal samurai footmen, cavalry, archers and powerful general against a much larger enemy force. It's a familiar setup that Advance Wars or Fire Emblem fans can instantly get to grips with. With no fog of war, grids or hexes to worry about, however, Skulls Of The Shogun eschews much of the micromanagement inherent to the genre in favour of decisive manoeuvres.
The movement and attack mechanics are a revelation. Rather than being locked into action points or a strict 'move then attack' regime, units can freely move a set distance per turn depending on their mobility, and can attack at any time without resetting their movement allowance. What this effectively means is that units can engage an enemy, make their assault, and then use up the rest of their movement before ending the turn.
Since your forces can freely move around the map instead of following a grid, this allows players to quickly gain ground and set up defensive formations before passing control over to the AI, using both slower but sturdy footmen to create stalwart barriers and harrying foes with nippy cavalry before moving them back into safety. Pleasingly simple controls make this an absolute breeze, and provide a perfect balance between deep versatility and accessibility. In fairness, mind, it can sometimes be tricky to distinguish between your similarly-coloured units when they're tightly packed, leading to a fair few confusing moments.
Positioning is key. Enemies will cunningly exploit gaps in your formations and target General Akamoto when possible (if he dies... again... it's game over), but they're equally vulnerable to well-timed assaults of your own. See an enemy loitering near a cliff edge? Move up a soldier, punt them into the abyss and then retreat to safety. See an opening to assassinate the enemy general? Damn the risk, throw caution to the wind and engage! Since you're constantly outnumbered, Skulls Of The Shogun favours ruthless aggression over attrition, and allows you to concentrate on your overall game plan without struggling against overcomplicated mechanics. Most battles don't last beyond half an hour, giving you a deep and dynamic experience without bogging you down in some of the stodgier aspects of the genre.
Or to put it another way: deep fried strategy, low fat.
There's more to it, of course. Throughout the 20-mission campaign, you'll learn the intricacies of haunting rice paddies to earn resources, which you'll use to replenish your small stock of troops. Better yet, haunting shrines grants you the use of a powerful undead monk unit who packs a range of magical skills, from healing to elemental ranged abilities. Denying these key locations to your enemy and securing them against attack is a key part of the experience, while the continual range of new monk types constantly change the pace and face of the battlefield.
Oh, and you can also eat skulls.
Perhaps giving us some insight into how monstrous Akamoto must have been when he was alive, the hulking general commands his forces to consume the skulls of slain foes, which replenish hit points and buff maximum health. Scoff down three, however, and a unit turns into a demon form who deals more damage, and becomes a formidable force who can completely turn the tide of the battle. Packing increased damage, more attacks and a mean new look, these menacing powerhouses are the key to winning many a tough battle. Should the demon in question be Akamoto himself, the fight may be all but won. "I like you," he quips, "I shall eat your skull last!" Before mediating to buff his survivability even further.
It's worth noting that Skulls Of The Shogun can get rather tough, especially if you don't exploit the raw (perhaps slightly unbalanced) power of Demon Akamoto. Though battles tend to be fairly short, between 15 to 30 minutes, most tend to ramp up enemy numbers in an effort to increase the challenge. Some of the later stages can take up to an hour to complete, much of which can be fairly repetitive. Replay value is also relatively limited; with only a few 'stars' to collect on each level by fulfilling optional objectives for Gamerscore. Six hours of campaign, give or take, will not be enough to satisfy more value-savvy gamers, but luckily this is where the multiplayer comes in.
The small skirmishes between evenly-matched forces don't match the scale and scope of any number of turn-based strategy games I could mention, but they absolutely hit the sweet spot that Skulls Of The Shogun strives for: that zen state between being involved and boring. There's little turtling or dancing around, just ferocious strikes, feints and diversions that last just long enough for the most skillful player to claim a decisive finishing blow. Since the battles are asynchronous, you won't have to wait for your enemy to respond, letting you take things at your convenience.
Finally, it's worth noting that singleplayer and mutiplayer progress can be synced between all three platforms. Microsoft missed a trick by not including the Windows Phone version with the XBLA or PC download, because using your phone to finish a battle you started on your console is by far one of the most novel innovations that Skulls Of The Shogun brings to the table. We've been promised this sort of functionality since Windows 7 phones first released, so frankly we're glad to finally get to grips with it.
- Bite-sized battles with no busywork, just decisive agression
- Colourful and attractive visuals, anarchic humour
- Enjoyable asynchronous multiplayer and convenient multiplatform syncing
- A few battles overstay their welcome, limited replayability
- Can be hard to distinguish between friendly units
- Better as a gateway to the genre, may be too streamlined for fans
The Short Version: Fast and strategic, deep and accessible, Skulls Of The Shogun successfully trims the fat from the turn-based strategy scene. If you've been looking for a way into the genre, go scoff down some skulls.