Skulls of the Shogun is a great game for the Fire Emblem fans out there that want to get their strategy fix on Xbox Live Arcade, Windows 8, or Windows 8 Phone (the game supports play across all 3 devices). Developer 17-Bit’s first game is a pretty straight-forward turned based strategy game. Teams take turns moving up to 5 soldiers around a map capturing monk shrines, rice paddies, and fighting enemies. One of the biggest changes is the movement system. There are no tiles, hexagons or a grid to move around in Skulls of the Shogun. Soldiers move freely within a circle. For the most part this works, but the inaccuracy of this free movement and the circular attack regions makes predicting when enemies can reach you a little difficult.
Skulls of the Shogun takes place in a Japanese/samurai-inspired afterlife where you have to sit in a boring old line to make your way up a heavenly mountain. The story follows General Akamoto, who is literally stabbed in the back. Obviously he’s pissed and doesn’t want to wait in a line, so he gathers up some warriors and starts fighting his way up the mountain. The single player campaign is a good length with a good progression and introduction of additional unit types and wrinkles to combat. It features some varied objectives and also boasts three secondary ‘gold’ skull challenges for each mission. While the story is a pretty straight-forward friend stabbed me in the back I want revenge tale, it never takes itself too seriously and has some witty and humorous banter. Crazy chaos god, Raiden is especially funny and who doesn’t like a good mustache joke? The plot is simple, but I found myself reading every dialog bubble.
The Asian inspired art style and hand painted graphics are a delight. Each unit has its own easily distinguishable look and charm which is uncommon in the strategy genre. As someone who owned a Sega Saturn, I also really appreciated some of the load screens which showed off some nostalgic type concept art and even a sort of Japanese Sega Saturn box mockup. While the amazing Japanese art style gives Skulls of the Shogun a distinct look, it is also accompanied by some solid Asian-inspired music, humorous grunts, and solid sound design.
Skulls of the Shogun is a solid strategy game with a focus on combat, but hardcore fans may get a little frustrated with some of the more casual mechanics. My biggest gripe is with the movement and knockback system. Both are hard to predict and can lead to some annoying situations where your general is just within striking distance and gets pushed off the edge for a loss. While keeping each turn to only 5 units keeps the action moving in Multiplayer, I would have liked to move my entire force during the campaign every turn. When units are clustered together, it can also be difficult to select the correct unit and correct action. Honestly, these gripes are minor in the grand scheme of things and something that you can quickly adapt to.
Despite Skulls of the Shogun simplified movement system, it offers a surprising degree of depth. One thing you’ll quickly learn is that it’s all about eating the skulls of your enemies. Eating a Skull wastes a unit’s turn, but also heals it; eat 3 skulls though and you’re transformed to a badass samurai demon that can perform two actions per turn rather than just one. The game features 3 core unit types (archer, soldier, and cavalry) and 3 monks (Fox, Salamander, and Crow). Think of monks as your mages. Monks can only be summoned by capturing a shrine and just as easily killed if the opposing team captures it. The monks are among the coolest units in the game since eating skulls unlocks new spells. They are also very varied in strategy and use. The fox is a healer, the salamander is an offensive fire mage, and the crow pushes folks with wind. Mix this strategy with capturing rice paddies, electric defensive statues, and barracks to build new units and you’ve got a diverse and interesting strategy game. It’s not quite the number crunching of some strategy games, but it’s enough to warrant a variety of tactics and approaches to each game situation.
Skulls of the Shogun is not perfect and has a few mechanical issues, but I would recommend it for any turn-based strategy game fan. The game’s presentation and story is charming. It boasts a great campaign with a slew of secondary objective challenges. If the main campaign doesn’t have enough replayability for you, there’s always multiplayer. Skulls of the Shogun embodies the charm of other great indie games like Castle Crashers and Super Meat Boy, but in a new genre. I’m not sure if the game is an accurate depiction of the Japanese afterlife, but it is an entertaining one. Despite breaking from the grid, Skulls of the Shogun is still a must for any strategy game fan.[review pros="Charming characters and animation, well-paced campaign, great replayability and lasting appeal" cons="Movement and Knockback system is in-precise, units can be hard to select" score=89]