Skulls of the Shogun brings together turn-based combat, cross-platform multiplayer and, er, undead samurai munching on each other’s skulls for a peculiar game of strategic warfare. Is the mix to die for or a grave mistake?
An army of undead samurai are at your command and you’ve just killed a group of enemies. Their skulls lie on the ground, but it wouldn’t be right to just leave them there. So, naturally, you order your men to…eat the skulls? Boom! Your units just gained more health, and after devouring enough skulls, are now also powerful demons capable of attacking twice per turn.
It’s things like the skull eating system that make the aptly-named Skulls of the Shogun such a bizarre, strategic delight. Using General Akamoto’s army of skeletal Infantry, Cavalry and Archers, you’ll charge through the Land of the Dead in an attempt to assert his position as Shogun in the afterlife with your superior skill at the art of war.
When selecting a unit, you’re able to freely move it around in a given area, and you’ll soon learn that the placement of units is of the utmost importance. Your forces can get bashed off ledges if left in a precarious spot, they can hide in bamboo for a chance to evade enemy attacks, or they can be placed next to each other to create a “Spirit Wall” barrier that not only prevents units from getting knocked back, but can block enemy movement and attacks.
If enemies are trying to cross a bridge to get at your General, for instance, one strategy is to block them off by forming a Spirit Wall with Infantry, while Archers use them as cover to deal damage without the fear of getting hit. Calvary can then finish off injured foes, or even knock them off the bridge if they’re close enough to the edge. And because Calvary have such a wide movement range, they still have room to retreat behind the Infantry for safety at the end of each turn too.
The art of war
It may sound simplistic, but there’s enough depth to combat, and battles are always kept fresh and interesting thanks to a continual flow of new features and mechanics as you progress. Shrines are one such important point to capture on the map, as when under your control they let you spawn more units, or summon a number of different magic casting Monks.
They add their own individual twists to battles, by giving you the power to heal and resurrect allies, conjure a powerful Oni creature that can cause a distraction or blow away enemies in a gust of wind. Their abilities can be expanded by feeding them skulls too, although these more potent skills also require rice, which can be obtained by capturing rice paddies dotted across the map. These resource points eventually run dry, so you need to make sure you spend the limited rice you have access to wisely. Do you bring reinforcements on to the field, or do you put that rice towards delivering a devastating lightning storm onto your foes?
Skulls of the Shogun can be challenging with all these tactical options whirling around your head, but it never overwhelms. I regularly found myself not playing as aggressively as I wanted to, though, whether it was because I was outnumbered at the start of a match or because enemies were right next to a unit spawning shrine from the get-go and kept summoning reinforcements every turn. Nevertheless, battles still ended up being enjoyable, and those that like a good challenge will appreciate the optional in-game tasks that force you to replay stages and rethink your plans in order to achieve them.
Outside of that, the game’s multiplayer will keep you going once the campaign in done and dusted. Four-player online matches, as well as an asynchronous multiplayer mode let you battle others in a play-by-email fashion across the Xbox 360, Windows 8 and Windows Phone. A couple of silly bugs crop up now and then, but nothing so drastic as to dull the enjoyment of the game.
With its kooky cel-shaded art style and characters, deep turn-based combat and constantly evolving battle mechanics, Skulls of the Shogun is a jovial, solid and especially delicious strategy game.
Skulls of the Shogun, by Microsoft Studios and 17-BIT, is now available for Xbox 360 (reviewed), Windows 8, Windows Phone, and Windows Surface.