Also On: PC
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Skulls of the Shogun is a uniquely styled turn-based strategy game developed by a new studio called 17-Bit Games. It’s an interesting take on the genre, putting you in command of General Akamoto on his quest to become Shogun of the Dead. Even if you’re not a huge strategy fan, I think there’s some definite fun to be had with Skulls of the Shogun, which is easy enough to pick up and play for just about anyone interested, but can become fiendishly difficult in later stages much to my surprise.
Gameplay on the single player side is divided up across 20 stages, which are sectioned off into five distinct areas. You’ll command General Akamoto directly, along with a handful of troop types, usually consisting of archers, infantry, and mounted units. The unit selection is small enough to feel completely manageable; you’ll pick up on what units to use where and when easily enough. Archers are great damage dealers, meant to hide behind the front lines of your infantry units, which have higher defense. Mounted units can dart in for an attack and run back to safety with their increased movement range, and are great units to use for resource gathering or to activate key shrines spread out across each map.
Outside of attacking and defending, you’ll often need to gather up rice which is used as currency for both new units and for casting spells with unique monk characters unlocked via controlled shrines. The game doles out these new monk types frequently enough that every few levels feels like you’re learning something new, which helps to keep the experience fresh and interesting. Later stages, specifically 12 through 20, seem to test your ability quite a bit, often requiring you to make use of multiple shrines in order to either survive or gain victory by defeating the enemy General.
One of the more interesting differences found in Skulls of the Shogun’s gameplay in comparison to other strategy titles is the way it handles unit movement. Instead of using a typical grid-based layout for each map, you’ll be able to freely move a unit around within the confines of a small radius shown while in control that unit. You can move back and forth within that circle as much as you want, until you take a secondary action like attacking. Once you attack, you’ll still be able to move that unit, but only within whatever range was left prior to your attack. This set-up allows for a lot of flexibility in combat, and gives you an opportunity to approach a fight from multiple angles, instead of just turtling up for defense or overwhelming single units with numbers.
The single player campaign feels a bit light on content unless you’re chasing after the three golden skulls that can be obtained in each level. These skulls are quite difficult to get, and usually require certain scenarios to be fulfilled, like killing an enemy General with your own, or taking over every monk/spirit shrine on the map. They’re good for people that enjoy chasing after optional goals, and do tie back into leaderboard scoring, but if you’re not going to bother with pursuing that expect the campaign to clock in at around 4 hours.
That said there is some added value in the multiplayer portion of the game, which can be quite fun and lengthy. Essentially it just pits you against another player, and you’re both able to select from the different General’s featured in single player campaign, differentiating your units by color schemes. You also get access to a number of units from the start, and most maps seem to be filled with a variety of monk shrines to take advantage of. Multiplayer rounds can last for quite a while depending on the skill of players involved, and I think you’ll find some tense back and forth battles of attrition to be really enjoyable. There are some drawbacks, like no penalties for quitters and no timer on players taking moves, so there’s a little opportunity for griefing. But overall my online experience with the game was really positive.
Skulls of the Shogun offers up a fairly unique take on what we’ve come to expect from turn-based strategy titles, and its use of a unique movement structure and simplified unit types makes this a far more accessible venture than most titles in the same genre. But that accessibility doesn’t come at the cost of challenge, which later stages certainly prove. Combine that with a fun, but bare online mode and you’ve got a new XBLA title that’s definitely worth a look.