Skulls of the Shogun review: no bones to pick
by Jeff Mattas, shacknews.com, Jan 30, 2013 10:00AM PST
Back in 2009, in a small cafe in Culver City--peripheral to that year's IndieCade festival--a friendly, deep-voiced indie developer named Borut Pfeifer gave me my first taste of Skulls of the Shogun, a vibrant and colorful turn-based strategy in which rival teams of undead samurai would beat the tar out of each other. It was a very early build running on a laptop, but was more than enough to get the neglected turn-based strategy gamer in me to sit up and take notice.
As I sat down last week to begin playing through the game for this review, I really hoped that developer 17-Bit Studios--formerly Haunted Temple Studios--could live up to the growing expectations they'd built up over several years of development.
Skulls of the Shogun's main campaign puts players in the boots of a powerful samurai, General Akamoto. After being betrayed on the battlefield, the (now skeletal) player must battle his way through the underworld on a quest for vengeance, and ultimately, the title of Shogun of the Dead.
Skulls of the Shogun uses its colorful, Japanese art style with traditional flourishes. The game's writing is silly, irreverent, and peppered with modern vernacular, but it all works together really well. I didn't really expect the developers to use an admittedly dark premise to such great comedic effect. I almost never laugh or chuckle when playing strategy games, but Skulls of the Shogun's dialog--which bookends each mission and is sprinkled throughout--somehow manages to be referential and snarky without being obnoxious.
To make a quick comparison: The excellent XCOM reboot made classic TBS systems more elegant, whereas Skulls of the Shogun fundamentally changes how it feels to play such a game. Though foes still take turns moving troops and executing orders, Skulls of the Shogun make the proceedings play out with the quicker pace of an action title. Gone is the hex-based grid prevalent in most TBS games, replaced instead by a radius of movement for each unit. The tactile feel of moving units around the battlefield is much more fluid, as a result, making the game feel less stilted and Chess-like. Commanding units is a quick and easy process, and once you're comfortable with the different unit types, turns can go by incredibly fast. For a genre that often receives complaints of being "too slow," Skulls of the Shogun is the answer. Deep thinkers need not worry either. There are also plenty of options to accommodate traditional, slower-paced, and more thoughtful play-styles.
The single-player campaign is long enough to satisfy, and it's made even better by some clever and entertaining AI that won't necessarily implement the same strategies, even when the same map is replayed. It basically means that, as a player, you'll never really be able to go on autopilot when it comes to your on-the-ground commands.
Resource management in Skulls of the Shogun is also handled in a very clever and innovative way. Each map contains rice paddies, and "haunting" them with one of your units claims the currency you'll need to summon more units from various types of shrines. Some shrines produce the standard archer, infantry, and cavalry units, but others allow the recruitment of special monks. One type of monk can do things like heal wounded units, while another has powerful offensive spells. Yet another monk type can summon a gust of wind to blow friendly units to safety, or enemies off cliffs. Powerful and unique units such as these could really turn the tide of battle.
You'll typically start with a handful of units, whose ranks you'll need to supplement in order to take out the enemy forces. During the campaign, victory conditions can vary from mission to mission, which also goes a long way to keeping the gameplay feeling fresh.
Most often, you'll be tasked with slaying a rival general, but some levels will simply ask you to progress from A to B, or eliminate all the enemy troops. A particularly fun twist in one of the missions involved an avalanche that would traverse a central pathway every round, damaging all the units still in its path. Part of the joy of playing the campaign was wondering what surprise would come next. New gameplay twists and units are introduced throughout most of the campaign. Besides keeping things new and exciting, the progression serves as a great primer for multiplayer.
Multiplayer consists of online matches and couch-based grudge matches, in addition to cross-platform, asynchronous options. In short, players on Xbox Live can play against folks on Window 8 PCs or mobile devices. Though I haven't personally played the final release on anything other than XBLA, I did get to see how the game worked on a Windows 8 tablet, during an earlier demo. As one would hope, the controls work really well on both an Xbox 360 controller and a touch-screen. It's a really elegant cross-play effort that loops in PC, mobile, and Xbox, hampered only by the fact that Windows 8 isn't exactly ubiquitous. Regardless of how much time you have, Skulls of the Shogun can serve you up an appropriate multiplayer match. I fully expect that Skulls of the Shogun's multiplayer is something that I'll keep in my gaming rotation for quite some time.
Skulls of the Shogun is a deceptively brilliant strategy game that basically streamlines things to a degree that it often feels like one is playing an action game, rather than one of turn-based strategy. Witty writing and engaging art serve as the presentational support for some really solid gameplay systems that interlock to create a comparatively fast-paced experience that rewards smart, tactical player decisions. The multiplayer might be the star of the show for many, but it would be a mistake to avoid the game's immensely entertaining single-player campaign.
This Skulls of the Shogun review is based on a copy of the final release on Xbox Live Arcade, provided by the publisher.