Skulls Of The Shogun’s original release garnered a lukewarm response from users, despite receiving favourable reviews. It was mainly because the initial launch was intended as a Windows 8 exclusive to emphasise the gaming possibilities of the Microsoft Surface device. I do find it utterly baffling that a development studio would limit access to such a minute player base. Of course this is not the first instance of such a contract. Way back in 2006, Microsoft’s flagship title, Halo 2 was restricted to the unreleased operating system of the time, Windows Vista. The rationale behind this was to take advantage of Microsoft’s latest DirectX technology, which wasn’t possible on older operating systems at launch. The developer, 17-BIT, has now employed a new business model, which includes support for Windows XP, Vista, and 7 platforms. This new version available from Steam is entitled, the “Bon-A-Fide” edition featuring additional campaign levels, multiplayer maps and even developer commentary.
During the campaign, you play as General Akamoto, a fearless and inspirational figure who on the eve of his greatest victory, succums to a shocking demise. You are betrayed by Kurokawa, your closest ally who becomes increasingly jealous of your leadership skills. Now in the afterlife, you seek to attain status as a shogun whilst avenging your death. The plot is told predominantly through speech bubbles and is exceptionally charming. Its Japanese setting is executed well containing pop-culture references, which are at times, hilarious.
Skulls Of The Shogun is at heart, a turn-based strategy game. Unlike many other titles in this genre which can be confusing to newcomers, the combat is fairly simplistic. You control a General, and 3 basic unit types. These include, infantry, archers and cavalry to use at your disposal. There is enough variation in their abilities to create a dilemma in deciding which strategy to select. For example, archers long ranged attacks result in a reduction of 5 from the enemy’s health. This comes at a risk as their armour is almost non-existent, only 1 which makes them extremely vulnerable. Your armour reduces the total damage from one turn. In contrast to this, the infantry inflict 3 damage per turn whilst holding 3 armour. However, they are sluggish and can’t retreat too far after an attacking move has been made. Even though having such a small array of unit types creates an accessible experience, I personally would have preferred more variety.
It’s possible for enemies to be knocked over the edge of precarious cliffs causing instant death. In most cases, this can only be achieved by your general or infantry division. These heavy attacks will initialize the enemy to innately move slightly backwards in reaction to your offense. This mechanic in, some circumstances, can be infuriating. There were a number of occasions during a long and hard fought battle that I gained the advantage only to be knocked over the edge in one shot. You could argue that my troops shouldn’t have been positioned in this location to begin with. The problem is, I found it to be tactically advantageous for my archers to be in a wide position granting them a larger scope to successfully hit my opposition.
Each unit which is now in the afterlife, have skull-like faces and contain tactical significance. When you defeat a set unit, they drop a skull which can be consumed. Doing so will increase your maximum HP and revive your current health by 3. Eating a skull counts as 1 move, so it’s important to judge when its necessary to do so. It isn’t possible to eat skulls of your own team members which have been killed. If one individual devours 3 skulls during a mission, they will transform into a powerful demon which allows for 1 extra move per turn. The skull mechanic is ingenious which makes you choose between an offensive and defensive approach.
During each confrontation you only begin with a small number of units. To extend your squad you need to haunt a shrine and then purchase troops with rice. This is obtained from haunting rice paddies which takes up one move. The negative aspect to this is, you are engulfed in the process and prone to attack. However, when successfully doing so you will be rewarded with +2 health. Once you have started accumulating rice, a decent amount will be available fairly quickly. To purchase an infantry unit costs 100 ranging up to 200 for archers. Despite this aspect, I still vehemently dislike the small number of units you control even after purchasing additional allies. I would have preferred to have been commanding battles on a much larger scale.
To complete a mission, the sole aim is to defeat the opposing squad or if you can kill its general. The likelihood of achieving this is slim, as they are usually well protected from lower ranked enemies. When formulating your strategy, the most adept plan is to form a Spirit Wall around your general which eliminates the chance of him being knocked over a hill. Another tactic is to use your inferior units as cannon fodder to ensure the general takes no damage. At the start of each engagement, your general will meditate and increase his maximum health by 1 HP each round. If the situation arises in which you need to awaken him you can, but this move cannot be undone.
Contrary to traditional turn-based strategy games, Skulls Of The Shogun ditches the hex movement control scheme for a circle outlining if a particular enemy can be struck. This is a system which works surprisingly well using the keyboard. The ability to move within this area using the WASD keys is very intuitive. Unlike most tactical games, the circle motion results in an enjoyable playthrough with a 360 controller. In other titles, the mouse determines where your troops move to by clicking onto a specific location. Using the analogue stick to simulate a cursor is cumbersome and makes maneuvering around the map infuriatingly slow. This new system works proficiently as your navigation is designed around what a controller was meant to do, operate in a circular motion. The end result is the ability to move forward and retreat quickly within a contained area. 17-BIT have done a superb job in catering to multiple control layouts.
The difficulty curve throughout is well balanced and slowly introduces the more involved mechanics. Skulls Of The Shogun explains the genre in a simpler form, targeting a casual audience. During the first two missions, you are presented with the basics of battle from unit speciality to general pieces of advice. Later on gameplay elements such as haunting shrines, and collating rice is discussed at a pace which is painless to become familiarized with. Even if you find that the combat is becoming too difficult, there is a casual setting which offers an increased chance of victory.
In addition to the main story which lasts approximately 15 hours, there are a wealth of multiplayer alternatives at your fingertips. You can play on a number of maps, 36 in total, which supports up to 4 players. The contests are a lot of fun, although I would prefer to see more players in the lobbies. There is local play, although using a PC I doubt many users would use this mode. On the other hand, I adore the inclusion of turn based play via e-mail which notifies you of opponent moves. This feature is fantastic, and was one of the premier attributes demonstrated in Frozen Synapse.
Technically, the game is well optimized and ran without any performance-related problems. There is support for multiple resolutions and runs beautifully in 1920×1080. There is a graphical quality option but it is unnecessarily obtuse. This is decided by choosing from 4 skulls which divulge nothing about what each option tones down. You can also play the game in windowed mode. Thankfully, the game isn’t taxing in any way.
Conclusion – Is It Worth Your Money?
Skulls Of The Shogun provides an excellent introduction into the turn-based tactical genre. The combat is satisfying and contains maps with great variety. The controls work well and are incredibly easy to understand. For the base price of £11.99/$14.99, there is a lot of content included ranging from a 15 hour campaign to endless fun in various multiplayer modes. The only major criticism is that there aren’t enough unit types. Overall, 17-BIT has produced a superb game, which is thoroughly addictive.