I remember a day when the turn based strategy genre was full of new ideas and great games. Fire Emblem, Final Fantasy Tactics, and more graced me with a new sense of empowerment and responsibility as I commanded my units. Playing those games became an obsession, as I fantasized about them even away from my gaming devices. Recently, the glorious turn-based strategy genre was reinvigorated by XCOM: Enemy Unknown. Following it were several other entrants in the genre, one of which is 17_Bit’s Skulls of the Shogun – a game that reminded me of those glorious feelings. While it may not be as obsessively engaging as XCOM or Fire Emblem, it is a great joy to play, and a testament to the strength of a genre that doesn’t get the credit it deserves.
Taking a focus on Feudal Japanese culture (the shoguns, the samurais, the glory), Skulls follows General Akimoto, who is the most feared warlord in Japan. He is brutal and has endless fervor for power. Akimoto is finally slain himself by an unknown assailant and is sent to the realm of the dead. The general learns that must then meet with the Shogun of the underworld, and after seeing the comically long queue, decides to take matters into his own hands. He soon learns more about his own death. During cut scenes and battles, Akimoto gains the allegiance of other dead warriors who then fight for him.
Skulls does have a good sense of humor to back up a lack of emotional attachment to the game’s characters. The entire game plays out like a sort of skit – in the best way possible. Dialogue bubbles accompanied by grumbles further the exposition, many portions filled with cute humor. It is hit or miss at times, but the casual delivery of some of the outlandish lines had me laughing. Because of this, the fact that Skulls doesn’t give you powerful emotional strings to the characters involved like XCOM or Fire Emblem, doesn’t take away from a fun story that demands it be taken lightly.
Out of the many legendary turn-based strategy series, Skulls seems to take the most from Advance Wars (with the rest represented perfectly by the combat of XCOM) when it comes to gameplay. During your turn, you have the ability to move your units across the board. Unlike Advance Wars (and more reminiscent of XCOM), the board contains no actual grid, instead units are commanded to move to anywhere within their range.
Skulls adds to this basic formula in many ways, however. First off, you are limited to 5 orders amongst your entire army. This adds an element of tension to the game as the player must figure out at the beginning of each turn what the most important moves are. Especially since, in the heat of battle, your army can consist of more than 5 units at any given time. Because of this, a lot of the time hyper aggressive strategies aren’t entirely effective, nor is simply creating as many units as possible.
Keeping mind of what units are the most effective when is important. Cavalier units can move far, but have low defense, infantry have less range, but are far bulkier, and can knock enemies off of cliffs, archers are insanely strong, and monks are boulders of units who heal others or cast spells. Archers and Monks in particular are pretty unbalanced in the game. Monks can put up as much of a fight as other units, if not better. Archers decimate opposing units, making them the most powerful (and debatably unbalanced) unit type in your arsenal. As long as you properly defend them, they can easily take out tons of enemies with little effort or damage dealt to your own units.
In many ways Skulls of the Shogun is a deeper strategy title than others. The game’s steep challenge and limiting mechanics make for an often tremor inducing experience. My nerves ran high as I fought to haunt rice patches to gain supplies to buy extra units. Your units have no really advantage over the enemy units, meaning your advances will be taken out brutally and frequently.
There is only one way to increase the strength of your units to give you distinct advantages in the heat of battle. Defeated enemies (and player controller units) drop their skulls on the ground. In an act of cannibalistic aggression, opposite units can consume the skulls, which restore HP (thus making the unit stronger, as damaged units lose attack points), and also increase their maximum HP by 2. Eating additional skulls will further buff the units, and when 3 skulls are consumed, a unit ‘upgrades’ to Demon status. The only difference between demon units and basic units are that the prior gets two actions, allowing it to attack more enemies in one move. Due to the aforementioned buffs from a calcium rich diet, they are often a force to be reckoned with. Each game becomes a competition to produce Demon units the fastest. All the while defending General Akimoto, who charges his strength at the beginning of every round, and whose death results in losing, like the king in this Japanese themed chess game.
Skulls of the Shogun’s cartoony style works wonders with the comedic qualities of the dialogue. Bright colors, swift animations, thick borders, and pop art sprites make for a substantial amount of eye-candy. The game is a perfect example of theme meeting tone. I do have a bit of a peeve in the style of the text command prompts that appear on screen. They remind me a lot of a bottom budget Xbox Live Arcade game.
Skulls of the Shogun reminds me why turn-based strategy is my favorite genre of games, from a gameplay standpoint anyway. While it lacks a deep story, or powerful attachment to characters, it’s fun to look at, and is filled to the brim with quick witted jokes with great delivery that left me laughing. As a strategy game, it attempts to compete with the likes of Advance Wars and XCOM, and comes respectably close. As an Xbox Live title, it definitely isn’t one to ignore.