It’s not often that your hero dies before the game’s even started – but that’s exactly the fate that befalls the moustachioed Shogun Akimoto, when one of his generals stabs him in the back, rather literally. Waking up in the afterlife, Akimoto finds that his murderer has befallen a similar fate, by actually falling to his death on the battlefield and has stolen his identify in the realm of dead, and so begins a pun-laden quest for revenge.
Skulls of the Shogun is a vibrant and stylised tactical, turn-based strategy title in the vein of Advance Wars and Fire Emblem – but it has its own unique structure that places emphasis on accessibility, without sacrificing much in the way of depth. Set entirely in the afterlife of Japanese warriors game, it has an accessible and entirely charming aesthetic based on Japanese folklore to match.
Some missions might set specific goals, but there’s generally one rule; vanquish the enemy team’s leader without losing your own. The most common units to help you do this are the familiar sort of cannon fodder you’d expect— infantry, archers, and cavalry — but each is unique in how it moves about and functions. Archers have great range, but are unable to counter direct attacks. Infantry units have strong defensive capabilities, but limited movement, while horse mounted-cavalry are best for scouting. Instead of the movement and attack tiles you’d normally find in games of this ilk, units instead have a radius in which they can move each turn. Lose your general and its game over; beat the oppositions and you’re a winner. It sounds simple, and it is; but there’s some depth hidden on the battlefield.
Isolated units are knocked back when they take damage, which could send them off cliffs to an early second death, or in to thorny bushes for extra damage, but if you group units to form a “spirit walls,” those huddled soldiers are unlikely to be knocked in to the drink. Archers who fire from behind a defensive spirit walls are safe from retaliation from enemy ranged units.
Each side can only make five moves per turn, regardless of how many units are in play. It all means the game requires some clever planning and shrewd unit placement to make the most of each level. It rewards patience – and even helps foster it. Your super-powerful general, so long as he remains undisturbed, gains +1/+1 to his stats every round, and patience ensures he’s formidable by the time you’re forced to start using him. There are more units beyond your general and his minions; Once the game really gets going, each level is littered with has statues and soldiers can spend one of your five turns per round to haunt these monuments, summoning a monk in the following round. There are a few different types of monks; some spouting fire, others healing and others just spreading chaos that can greatly influence the tide of battle.
And then there’s the important mechanic that gives the game its namesake. Devouring the skulls of vanquished enemies grants extra HP to the offending cannibal, and when that units sucked on three such enemy skulls it turns in to a demon, earning another action per turn. Monks who consume the skulls learn new spells and abilities; my favourite of which is probably the Salamander Monk’s ability to summon an Oni; a Japanese Ogre who gets his own turns and is just as happy to slap your enemies as crush your own fleshless skull. This skull mechanic very nearly defines the game, and it becomes a tactical battle of timing;when to attack, when to chow down on craniums or when to capture resources. And as a tactical strategy game, it’s sublime.
Sporting four main modes; the solo campaign, local multiplayer, online multiplayer in deathmatch and team deathmatch for up to four players, plus a chess-by-mail style of asynchronous online multiplayer, Skulls is excellent value for money, coming in at 1200 MS Points on Xbox Live or R70 on PC and windows Phone 8. There’s a neat trick up the game’s sleeve too, in that it features cross-platform play and cloud saving. I bought the PC version (which is Windows 8 only, I’m afraid) to test it and it all works flawlessly. I loaded up the PC version and picked up right where I’d left off on the 360. The caveat here being that you do need to buy each version to make use of the feature.
If you’re looking for a tactical, turn-based strategy title that’s oozing charm, humour and playability without sacrificing depth, Skull of the Shogun is worth the investment, and a shining example of the genre on consoles. Plus, it’s full of moustache jokes – and that alone makes the game worth buying.