A salute to the greatest turn-based strategy game starring an undead samurai on XBLA ever.
Skulls of the Shogun
Genres: Action, Strategy
Developer: 17-Bit Studios
Microsoft has confirmed that recent independent darling Skulls of the Shogun, a retro-style strategy game that has been receiving a lot of buzz at conventions and trade shows including a Best Strategy Game nomination at E3, will be picked up by the studio for publishing.
The game takes a formula similar to strategy titles like Fire Emblem, where you command individual units once per turn across the battlefield to eliminate your opponents army or capture their base. The game is being developed by Haunted Temple Studios, a new developer founded by former EA employee Jake Kazdal. Kazdal has some great experience in the field, including his tenure in Sega on games like Rez and Space Channel 5. He had this to say on the acquisition;
“Microsoft totally got our vision and have been fully behind it ever since, and the support we’re getting out of them has been seriously as much as I could ever ask for. Our extended team is now more powerful than ever!”
There is currently no release date for the title, although it is expected that the game shall release later this year on Xbox-Live Arcade. Until then, here is a trailer to sedate any curiosity you have, complete with samurai skeleton action!
|PROS:||Great shooting mechanics, Paintball is fun, Diverse gun selection|
|CONS:||Soundtrack is terrible, game has no story mode|
|WTF:||WTF Text Here|
Join General Akamoto as he conquers the Land of the Dead by eating one skull at a time.
A few years back, I heard about a game. All I knew at the time was that it was called Skulls of the Shogun and it had undead Japanese warriors fighting each other. Time passed and I heard a mention here, a whisper there, but I never thought it was a game I could see myself playing. Then, trailers started popping up last year and Microsoft, the game’s publisher, revealed that the game was not only going to be an exclusive for Xbox Live Arcade but was also going to release it on Windows 8 devices, Windows Surface, and Windows Phone. Intrigued, I finally dug into the game and heard comparisons to Advance Wars, one of my favorite turn-based strategy games of all time. Still, I was skeptical. Xbox isn’t known for great strategy games (Halo Wars and some okay ports of PC RTS games being the only titles present in the genre) and I’d come to prefer handheld turn-based games as opposed to titles like Age of Wonders. However, now that I’ve played the game, I can honestly say that Skulls of the Shogun was well worth the four year wait and it’s one of the best games you can get on XBLA.
|PROS||Humor, Well-designed tactical gameplay|
|CONS||Occasional crashes, Unit selection on the 360|
|WTF?!||The reason your units have to give up the skulls they eat during each mission|
Skulls of the Shogun tells the story of General Akamoto, a general in ancient Japan who was seconds away from claiming the title of Shogun when he was stabbed in the back. However, the poor general’s trials were not over, as the boat that took him to the afterlife was delayed, giving his murderer (who had immediately fallen on a spear after killing the general) time to get to the land of the dead and take Akamoto’s name and place as the Shogun of the Dead’s second in command. Now Akamoto must fight his way through the land of the dead, battling his killer’s forces to get revenge and then meet the Shogun of the Dead face-to-face.
Now if that description makes you think this game will be some doom-and-gloom narrative about a tale of revenge, you might be in for a surprise as Skulls of the Shogun is actually a very humorous tale. While there are some dramatic elements and all of the game’s major showdowns are tense affairs, there are plenty of opportunities for humor, whether those opportunities come from puns about your army’s skeletal state, fourth-wall breaking jokes from your soldiers (probably my favorite joke being an exchange where Akamoto sees the highlighted text in his soldiers’ word ballons), body humor, and the many eccentric characters who populate the land of the dead. While some of the humor does fall flat, all it takes is a joke about a salamander monk’s drinking, an enemy general’s pining for the god of spring, or an appearance from the god of thunder and lightning, Raiden, to get you smiling again.
However, even without its humor, Skulls of the Shogun is still a gripping game thanks to its fantastic gameplay. While Advance Wars has been mentioned when talking about this game, it’s a rather poor comparison. In this game, there’s no grid, you can only move five units each turn, your units can move before AND after performing an action, and units get powered-up from eating skulls instead of beating enemies or CO powers. Combat in Skulls of Shogun is turn-based, but there are a lot of factors that add a heavy emphasis on action into the mix. For example, while playing defensively can lead you to victory on some maps, the game also throws in maps where you need to move quickly around a map if you want to prevent enemies from controlling the map’s resources (rice paddies for currency and forts and shrines for unit summoning) or snatching up some of the game’s stat-boosting potions (one which adds a recovery effect to a unit and one that adds two points onto a unit’s attack). You also might miss out on opportunities to knock enemies off of cliffs, instantly killing them, if you try to play too safe.
Speaking of knocking enemies off of cliffs, the knockback and spirit wall systems are two of the innovative features that Skulls of the Shogun brings to the genre. Knocking back enemies is a pretty straightforward concept; if you have a unit with a strong melee attack or special skill, such as the Crow monk’s gust ability, attacking an enemy (even a general) who is near a ledge or pool can send them flying over the edge, killing (re-killing?) them instantly. This transforms landmarks in some maps, such as bridges and narrow paths, into kill zones. This gets even worse on ice-covered levels, where knockback attacks are more effective, letting you send soldiers flying to their deaths from far away. While this skill can seem like an afterthought early in the game, it plays a much larger role later in the game, where you can quickly lose a battle if you don’t take advantage of this technique and learn to use spirit walls to counter it.
Spirit walls are another innovation Skulls has that makes that action more tactical as opposed to strategic. While it is a common tactic in strategy games for a player to shield a unit with another, spirit walls shake things up a bit. To form a spirit wall, all you need to do is put two or more units next to each other until their auras merge into a gout of flame. Once you create a spirit wall, you can use it to block up narrow passages, creating a chain of bodies to reduce or negate knockback effects, or create makeshift shields to protect important units from enemy archers (since they can’t shoot over obstacles but your archers can shoot through friendly units). While this system may seem straightforward at first, it’s a great little addition that allows you to immediately respond to enemy advances and defend your troops.
Of course, the spirit wall mechanic only works so well because of the games movement system. While I do know that there are other turn-based games that don’t lock units onto a grid, Skulls of the Shogun was still a refreshing change of pace. All units have a set circle they can move within and you’re free to move a unit within that circle as much as you want until you have that unit perform an action, which even allows you to find potions or spring traps. Then, if you have any movement left, you can continue to control that unit, giving you the opportunity to continue farther into the enemy’s territory or run away and try to find cover behind a log or in a bamboo thicket.
Talking about the game’s movement leads into the units you control. Your basic units are infantry (good defense and high knockback but limited movement), cavalry (higher attack and great mobility but weak defense), and archers (highest attack okay mobility but practically no defense) and each one has benefits that go beyond their basic descriptions (for instance, cavalry are great for capturing rice paddies). However, there’s also special units you can include in your war machine, like your General, who has the second highest mobility in the game, the highest attack of any unit, and the default ability to take two actions in a turn. There’s also monks, who are servants of the gods you meet and the only units who can use magic, whose abilities go beyond simple attack and defense. For instance, fox monks have the ability to heal other units and, after they eat some skulls, can cast protective and purifying magic, as well as resurrection spells in their final “demon” form (the form any unit takes after he eats 3 skulls; a form that gives that unit two actions per round). Salamander monks, being Raiden’s disciples, are an offense-oriented class that start off as a copy of the archer unit but can later summon monsters and use area-of-effect attacks. The final monk, the Crow monks, are wind-based and use wind to knock back opponents, steal rice, and raise evasion. Monks are also special because you don’t have to spend rice on them, you only have to haunt their shrine for a turn.
Speaking of shrines and rice, all of the resources and bases you can capture in this game require one of your units to haunt the area for a turn. While this seems straightforward, your unit is also incapable of defending itself during that turn and your enemies can steal back anything by haunting a location (including monk shrines, which kills your monk, regardless of how many skulls it’s eaten) for a turn, regardless of what the object or location is or the unit’s health. At the same time though, if you or your enemy is trying to haunt an already possessed location,that location is still under the control of its owner, meaning that a cavalry unit that is trying to haunt a soldier shrine can suddenly find himself getting attacked by freshly spawned enemies. Then again, spawning a unit uses up one of the five orders each side can issue on their turn, so it might not be in a player’s best interest to retake the shrine.
The five order limit, while it may seem like a severe handicap at first, is actually a great equalizer when it comes to the single and multiplayer. One reason that I always have trouble getting into the multiplayer of games like Starcraft 2 is that the outcome of a battle can be determined in the first ten minutes if a player fails to set up their base as fast as their opponent, due to it focusing on overall strategy as opposed to tactical movement. Skulls of the Shogun however, makes it so every turn matters and offers a chance for one side to take control. Since you only have five orders a turn, there’s less incentive to create a giant army as one bad turn can have your forces getting turned into food for your enemies since you can’t move all of your units to get away from a good tactical strike. Similarly, rice paddies only offer around 200 baskets of rice before they are completely harvested. However, the benefit of having extra soldiers and currency for spells means that there is still a strong incentive for players to capture these locations, which means that there will still be scrambles grab resources; it’s just that the game won’t be over if a player doesn’t take the lead in capturing them.
Another thing I liked from the game is the amount of variety that the single player campaign has. While it can be very tempting for a turn-based game’s developer to toss in a couple of filler missions to expand a game’s play time, Skulls of the Shogun always makes sure to put a spin on the formula. For example, some missions don’t have any resources and have your general fighting alongside your units as you clear multiple maps, while others have you fighting on a single map that has tons of environmental hazards. Even when my 360 started to break down and I had to marathon the game to finish it, I never felt bored or found the game repetitive.
As for multiplayer, the game has a surprising amount of options and features. In addition to playing the game online with up to three other players, you can also play the game locally or even play across the different platforms it is on. There’s also the ability to set turn time for each player and the maps range from blitz maps where teams start out practically next to each other, to sprawling maps from the single-player campaign. One of the more interesting features of the multiplayer is the “Deadly Alliance” system, in which one player can temporarily ally his or herself with one or more players (sometimes after offering rice), which allows him or her to create spirit walls with that player’s forces and crush the competition… until one of the players breaks the alliance. The system adds a lot of fun and tension to sessions, since the players engaged in the alliance both know that their fellow/s might betray them at any moment. There are also team modes but, come on, what fun is a multiplayer game if you can’t engage in a little treachery?
Now, while the game is very good, there are a few flaws. First, the game can crash without warning and did so several times while I was playing, forcing me to start a mission from square one. Second, unit selection in the 360 version is troublesome. While the other versions allow you to simply tap on another unit to switch to it, you have to make a unit wait first and then use the d-pad or left analog stick to scroll through your units. While this doesn’t sound so bad, the execution is where it falls apart, since the game can have you jumping around every unit on the map except for the one you want when your soldiers get grouped together. Finally, a few of the multiplayer maps are poorly balanced if there are only two players.
In the end though, Skulls of the Shogun is a ton of fun and offers a lot of content. If you only play through the single-player campaign once without trying to unlock golden skulls, you can still expect to get around 12-15 hours, depending on how long it takes you to learn the combat system and multiplayer can easily tack on a few more hours. Overall, the game is a good use of your $15 and is probably the best turn-based strategy game to ever feature undead samurai as protagonists.
A copy of the game was provided by the publisher for review purposes. The title was played on the Xbox 360 for 15 hours (12 to complete the single player, 3 on multiplayer) and is also available on Windows Phone and Windows 8 devices.