Like Total War, but dead and loving it.
Cleverly named 17-BIT seem to adore video games of yore, which is quickly evident by their company logo and the kind of thought that goes into their all-star downloadable debut, a turn-based strategy game by the name of Skulls of the Shogun. Heck, its even mentioned on their website. But did you ever wonder why zombies got so popular with our sub-culture, and not their bone-nified, skeletal cousins? Because they couldn’t be bothered to wear samurai armor, that’s why.
If you ever tuned into the turn-based strategy offerings of games such as Advance Wars, Fire Emblem, or even the latest XCOM: Enemy Unknown – Skulls of the Shogun will befamiliar. You play the role as General Akamoto, a recently deceased Shogun general, who now wonders in the land of the dead samurai. Akamoto’s goal is fairly simple: find out who snipped his life line, and maybe become the supreme Shogun of the Dead on the way. There are about 20 single-player stages which you must complete in a fairly linear order, in order to progress the story. Although the focus is purely on Akamoto, you’ll also have some colorful adversaries and unnamed troops at your disposal, with plenty of moxie to boot.
If this is sounding like anything from your regular Disgaea adventure, yet another turn-based strategy affair, you wouldn’t be so far off the mark. However, Skulls of the Shogun is a tale mostly told through tongue-in cheek. Conversations initiating Akamoto are proud and ego-driven, but his soldiers sound like something you’d read from an internet message board. Not that I’m complaining, it’s actually well-written and funny to boot. Not in a “This is clearly geared to a gamer crowd” kind of way, just a “This is clearly geared towards people who are geeks of everything and aren’t embarrassed to find internet memes humorful” kind of way.
However, unlike Advance Wars or Fire Emblem, Skulls of the Shogun doesn’t take a grid-based approach to combat. Rather, everything is played in a wide, side-scrolling playing field, whereas your troops are clearly indicated by their red-coated armor. The number of troops is usually determined based on the current stage you’ve selected, which further gets divided by the type of units made initially available: the Infantry, Mounted and Archers units being your basic bread and butter, with unlockable Monk units down the road. Akamoto is arguably your most strongest, but lose him, and the game is pretty much over. But its the interesting mix of how 17-BIT uses these unit types, along with the advantage of not relying on a grid to move around in, that makes the game fairly easy to pick up and understand and still have enough depth.
For one thing, Infantry units can actually knock opponents back. This is made even more awesome, if said opponents are standing behind a cliff or a ridge. Want to knock that sucker to a plummeting demise? By all means! Or maybe you’re more into hit and run tactics? Mounted units have great reach, and since you’re not limited to moving on a grid, there are multiple approaches to getting around surroundings or taking foliage as a means of cover. Archers can deal some serious damage from affair, and can also have the added bonus of enemies not being able to counter-attack. Movement in general is incredibly important, as you’re allowed to not only attack and move, but also move back somewhere safe before your opponent pounces.
There’s more. Let’s say you don’t wanna knock an enemy into a death pit. Let’s say that defeating enemies will leave them bodiless on the battlefield. What good can come from chatty skull heads, especially since you can’t “kill” them again? Simple, just eat them to gain a boost. Eat three skulls to enter “Demon Mode,” with even better stats. These sort of ideas provide a welcome change to what we usually see in the genre.
As enjoyable it is when it comes to understanding the core game, visuals leave me a bit mixed. On one hand, it’s a fantastic looker. Animation is smooth, with a great jive that comes from seeing units hurdling to your marked positions. Equal attention has been given to visual cues, such as when enemy units start to cower in fear, indicating to the player that they won’t be able to counter. All that is swell, but most of the time, I don’t feel that same surge I get from seeing battles in other turn-based games. That may be because I’ve been so used to seeing the anime-explosion stuff in games like Disgaea or Super Robot Taisen – Original Generation.
Regardless, the real joy of Skulls of the Shogun lies in executing strategies and utilizing resources at the right moments. However, if you’re looking to go beyond the single player campaign, there are other avenues worth checking. Particularly, the inclusion of Local, Online and Asynchronous Multiplayer. The latter is particularly nice, if you’re a fan of how Hero Academy does their match-playing. While I haven’t invested a great deal of time into the online multiplayer, I have read about the lack of a timer for players taking moves, as well as not giving out penalties for those quitting games. Something to keep in mind.
This game was reviewed on the Xbox 360.
Creative approach to the genre. Feels welcoming to those new to turn-based games. Great humor and cartoon-style visuals to help through the learning process. Lots of multiplayer options.
Combat isn’t too flashy. Not a whole lot of replay value if you’re not into perfecting stages. Multiplayer has potential for griefing.
Skulls of the Shogun doesn’t go out of its way to outclass its genre’s peers, but that’s okay. You would be hard-pressed to think of any other downloadable turn-based strategy games out there, that are this different and offering fresh ideas. Here’s hoping for an even meatier expansion down the line.