There are not a lot of turn-based strategy games on Xbox LIVE Arcade, so Skulls of the Shogun deserves a look if just for a change in pace. It has a lot of competition in the gaming world, however, especially as it is modelled more on the Japanese Strategy RPG game (or more particularly, Advance Wars) than the Western version of the oeuvre, and Intelligent Systems is an inspiring but supremely tough act to follow.
Skulls of the Shogun is a clear attempt to make a game in the style of Advance Wars that is a little more bite-sized in concept and in scenario design. It succeeds at this with its humourous writing and clever mechanics, but its snack-like nature is best served on a portable device such as a phone or tablet rather than the Xbox 360.
The story is suitably entertaining. You are Akamoto, a general of Japan. For a few triumphant seconds you were Shogun. But now you are dead, stabbed in the back, literally. When you arrive at the afterlife you find there is a long queue, and being a general you are not used to waiting, so you try to find an alternate way in. There is also another Akamoto claiming to be the real Akamoto who is out to get rid of you, the imposter. You must fight your way through the fake Akamoto’s hordes and the afterlife guards on your way to establish once and for all who the real Akamoto is, and who it was that stabbed you in the back in your moment of triumph. It’s fun, and more than a little self-referential and fourth-wall-breaking. Along with the cartoon-like graphics and animation it sets up the light feel of the game.
The lightness of feel is reinforced by the simplicity of the mechanics and short scenarios. For each map there is a brief set-up told through speech bubbles that furthers the plot, followed by about five to fifteen minutes of turn-based gameplay to determine the winner. You control a set of soldiers (infantry, cavalry and archers), Akamoto the general, and some monks which cast spells. Each unit has an attack, defense and movement rating, and the monks can cast spells too. Every enemy you kill leaves their skull behind and eating it will increase the hit points of the consumer, a vital part of ensuring your skeletal creatures are more powerful than the foes. You can only move five units each turn, which means a large part of your decisions are about which units to move and also means that eating skulls is fundamental, because you would rather have five powerful units than 20 weak ones.
The maps in Skulls of the Shogun are not traditionally grid-based. Each unit has a range they can move but you can move them to any pixel within a circle around the unit. This oddly enough leads to less exact unit placement because it’s mostly impossible to tell whether you are going to be in range of the enemy. After you move your unit you can attack, eat a skull or cast a spell. Depending on how much of your movement you’ve used up you can also move a little bit after this action, which is useful for grouping your units together, which increases their defense as they form a “spirit wall.”
The game layers new concepts in each level very carefully which keeps the pace of learning manageable. Some scenarios allow you to haunt rice fields which bring in an income of rice each turn. Haunting a shrine will allow you to spend rice to purchase new units. Controlling the rice paddies is a vital part of strategy, but building units willy-nilly will just supply the enemy with a constant supply of skulls to consume, a very bad idea. This seems counter-intuitive, and is never explained in any way – a little guidance might mean less trial and error losing maps seemingly arbitrarily before figuring out the winning strategy (or, to be honest, getting lucky). Because of the small amount of units in each scenario, once a side gets the upper hand in power through skull eating, it’s difficult to catch up the difference. A few times I’ve had some unlucky misses mean death for my team too, and I would prefer luck to play less of a role in a game like this.
Skulls of the Shogun shows its mobile phone and tablet platform targets in its boldly outlined sprites, which are more suited to the small screen than a big TV. There are no scaling artifacts – all the art is based on vectors, but the style is designed around the small screen. On the phone the game looks very much at home, while on the big TV it looks more like a phone game blown up big. The quick, punchy maps also indicate a portable game style. It still works well on the Xbox 360 and controls perfectly, which is quite an achievement from 17 Bit considering they have targeted Windows Phone, Windows 8, Windows RT and Xbox 360, which encompass a number of control mechanisms. There is even the ability to transfer your game between devices if you have cloud-save. Skulls of the Shogun supports asynchronous multiplayer across these devices, which is often a great way to enjoy turn-based games against friends (so you’re not waiting for them to go, you’re simply notified when they’ve taken their turn). Even more remarkable is the core team of 17 Bit is only about ten people.
Skulls of a Shogun is a meaty mobile game but is fairly light for a console game, taking perhaps eight hours to complete the campaign. This is a fair length for the gameplay concepts as they don’t outstay their welcome. It would be exciting to see this gridless battle system enhanced further and fleshed out further into a full Advance Wars-type or Fire Emblem-type game. Those who enjoy turn-based strategy will get some enjoyment out of Skulls of the Shogun, while those new to the genre might enjoy it for its humour, writing and punchy maps.