Release Date: January 30
Platforms available on: Xbox Live Arcade, Windows 8, Windows Phone
Publisher: Microsoft Games
Genre: Turn-based strategy
Strategy games are making a rather triumphant return, with games like XCOM: Enemy Unknown leading the charge for squad-based tactics. However, players craving army building in the vein of the Advance Wars series have been out of luck.
That's where Skulls of the Shogun comes in, offering army building with a tight tactical focus and a welcomed sense of humour.
Skulls of the Shogun starts with the death of General Akamoto immediately after winning his greatest battle in life. Rather than waiting in a several-hundred year line, and after discovering his killer holds a prominent position in the afterlife, the deceased Akamoto and a ragtag band of skeletons decide to battle their way through the lands of the dead instead.
There are essentially only three unit types in Skulls of the Shogun, infantry, cavalry and archers. Each has its specialisation, such as the higher defence of infantry or higher movement range of cavalry.
However, while conventional strategy wisdom would be to create a rock-paper-scissors dynamic between the units, Skulls of the Shogun goes for a more nuanced approach.
A big part of that nuance comes in the form of spirit walls. Grouping two or more units close to one another creates a spirit wall, preventing enemy units from moving past the wall. Enemy archers also cannot shoot through these walls, nor can a unit in a wall be pushed off a cliff.
But the key to spirit walls lies in the fact that Skulls of the Shogun is a strategy game without a grid. Units have full freedom of movement within their circle of range, which can make battlefields fairly chaotic. Spirit walls help to give players control of the battlefield, sealing off pathways and protecting hurt units. Having a good defensive plan will pay off for a strategic player.
Likewise, a strong offensive player will see benefits through leveling up their units. Defeated enemy soldiers will drop their skulls, which units can eat to level up. This restores health and increases the unit's maximum health.
Most importantly though, after eating three skulls a unit will transform into ninja version of itself, giving it an extra action each turn to attack or recover health by eating more skulls.
Between spirit walls and leveling up by eating skulls, there is a lot of versatility in the small cast of three units. To get more you will need to spend a turn and have a unit haunt rice paddies for resources and shrines as a spawn point.
- "While conventional strategy wisdom would be to create a rock-paper-scissors dynamic between the units, Skulls of the Shogun goes for a more nuanced approach."
But balance is difficult, in large part due to the restriction placed on each turn. Players can only move five units each turn, regardless of how many units are on the battlefield. And there is no undo move button, so strategies need to be well thought-out many turns in advance to make the best use of an army.
There are also special monk units with unique abilities, which can be recruited by haunting their statues. Some monks offer healing spells, others damaging magic, while another monk pushes units with powerful gusts of wind.
Monks can be a rare and powerful force on the battlefield, even more so if leveled up with skulls to learn even more powerful spells. The salamander monk's Oni spell is a particularly effective example, summoning a powerful purple demon that will attack friend and foe alike for the duration of the battle.
Strategies run deep in Skulls of the Shogun, often far deeper than will be apparent when first attempting a level. This is a hard game, and requires a keen attention to every small subtlety to the environment or a unit's skills.
The game also has a tendency to introduce new elements at a regular rate, some of which have a higher learning curve than others.
The game's mechanics are carefully crafted so that every challenge can be overcome, but testing those mechanics during particularly brutal difficulty spikes can just as easily become an exercise in frustration. Lion shrines, I'm looking at you.
While difficulty spikes can be frustrating, there is another issue that unfortunately pops up with more frequency. It can be difficult selecting the right unit using the Xbox controller, since pressing the analogue stick chooses a unit in that direction rather than letting you control a cursor.
Selecting between a unit and the temple is haunting, or between units in a crowd can be an absolute pain as the game constantly misses the one unit you actually want to choose. The game is turn-based and there is no time limit, so ultimately the problem won't affect a battle's outcome, but that doesn't make it any less frustrating when it happens.
- "[Asynchronous multiplayer] works well with the game's other unique multiplayer feature: cross-platform play between the Windows 8, Windows Phone and Xbox Live Arcade versions."
Along with a challenging single-player campaign, players can also dive into online and local multiplayer matches for up to four players. All told there are 30 maps, split based on the number of players.
Most of the maps are made for only two players, taken from the single-player campaign, though a handful of new maps were also specially designed for three and four players.
Building from the trend of asynchronous multiplayer games on smartphones, Skulls of the Shogun also offers an asynchronous mode along with regular simultaneous multiplayer. This works well with the game's other unique multiplayer feature: cross-platform play between the Windows 8, Windows Phone and Xbox Live Arcade versions.
Admittedly, asynchronous games are a bit of a hassle on Xbox 360 , since it isn't exactly convenient to turn on the system just to take a quick turn like it would be on a smartphone or tablet, but it is still nice to have the option in order to play with those users. Since both asynchronous and simultaneous multiplayer are included, it really is an option rather than forcing players into one game type.
Skulls of the Shogun, with its colorful art style and tendency toward comedy, might take players off-guard for just how harsh of a challenge it can be.
The enemy AI is deviously smart, and will not hesitate to take advantage of every trick you can think of and more. That also only means it is all the more satisfying when you finally learn to outsmart it, making Skulls of the Shogun a must for all hardcore armchair generals.