Reviews
Skulls of the Shogun

By Seán O'Sullivan - February 13th, 2013

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Turn-based strategy games tend to exist in a rather hardcore niche, but 17-BIT’s Skulls of the Shogun features an aggressively streamlined interface and structure, packaged in a charming style that should do plenty to broaden the appeal to this oft-overlooked genre.

Skulls of the Shogun is set in a twisted afterlife; a purgatorial setting that the fallen soldiers of feudal Japan’s armies must endure for millennia while they await their eternal rewards. This bizarre setting is an inspired choice, as it means that most of the troops at your disposal are easily-understood military units like calvary and archers; but it also allows for fantastical elements, such as fireball casting salamanders, or soldiers levelling up by eating the skulls of defeated enemies.

Each army gets five moves per turn, which means you’re rarely waiting long to resume control, and each troop has a clearly outlined movement radius (and typically one attack per turn). There are numerous strategic wrinkles to keep things interesting: clustering units together makes them less susceptible to certain attacks; some ranged units can’t counter-attack against melee opponents; and players must often decide between using their turn to attack, or eat a skull to try and level up their unit. The number of strategic choices increases with the light-resource management – units must spent a turn to ‘haunt’ rice paddies to earn currency, which can be redeemed at soldier shrines for basic infantry (which also cost a turn to activate).

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One word that strikes fear into the hearts of your enemies.

The campaign does an admirable job of gradually increasing the complexity, packaging everything with a great deal of humour and silly nods to other games and conventions. There are a handful of levels with interesting gimmicks that stand out as highlights, making it a pity that there wasn’t more of a focus on subverting the player’s established strategies with more environmental variety.

Unfortunately, since the objective on each stage is ultimately to kill the enemy general, it means that a lot of the subtlety and finesse is often for naught. Once you’re in range of the General, there’s rarely a point in attacking any other troops, since you start each level with a predetermined number of troops anyhow. This single-minded goal, coupled with the regularly buffoonish AI, leads to a lot of anti-climaxes. One of the later levels involves a drawn out slobberknocker with a heavy enemy force, and my feeling of tactical superiority evaporated when the enemy General moved himself into position to be gently nudged off a cliff by one of my lowest pawns, granting instant victory. Each battle lacks that sense of catharsis, so when I completed the campaign mode, there wasn’t much of a feeling of satisfaction, even though most of the battling was quite engrossing.

The controls however, are a disaster. The game does a great job of conveying how much damage each unit will give out or take by doing a certain action, and the distinct animation cues make processing the information second-nature after a few hours of play. Unfortunately, the very process of selecting a unit is maddeningly difficult. There’s no cursor that you can use to select, but rather, the game toggles to the next unit or shrine based on what direction you tap on the analog stick. Sometimes I’d do a few laps of the map, highlighting every unit but the one I wanted, until I got frustrated and gave up.

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This is the effective radius of armpit stank.

The control issues are so galling, that I was never able to enjoy Skulls of the Shogun without thinking about its production. It’s a flagship release for Microsoft, in that that allows Xbox 360 users to play with Windows Phone, Surface, and Windows 8 users. Naturally, to bring such a cross-compatible game about, there’d have to be some compromises along the way. The graphics are wonderfully styled and easily read, but it’s clear that the assets are of a lower fidelity than comparable games – surely a consequence of developing to the lowest-common denominator.

What Skulls of the Shogun does best is the presentation, which was just enough to keep me going through the short campaign’s myriad control issues and overall disappointments. Now that I have seen it through to the end, I don’t feel a need to go back; but completionists will be tickled by the assortment of bonus objectives to collect on later play-throughs. A week after launch, leaderboards and multi-player don’t seem to be working, but I would imagine that this is where the most engaging strategy will take place once the issues have been wrinkled out.

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“Ah-CHOO!”

For those who are itching for the best turn-based strategy the Xbox has to offer, I’d suggest looking at XCOM instead. If you like the sound of something portable and accessible, consider picking up Pokémon Conquest. All told, despite its meagre payoffs, and a campaign that ultimately amounts to a protracted tutorial for the multi-player mode, Skulls of the Shogun is a worthwhile strategy game, and I would suspect, a gateway drug for the genre as a whole.

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