Review: Skulls of the Shogun is a fun, funny strategy game
At a Glance
Slay my foes, and then eat their skulls? Well, that's hardly sporting. Or sanitary. But the horde of undead foes I'm facing in 17Bits' Skulls of the Shogun certainly won't hesitate to tap into the unparalleled power that a calcium-rich snack will offer, so it's a case of getting them before they get us, really. And who doesn't enjoy crushing the occasional skull?
As befits a turn-based strategy game, securing resources is the linchpin for success. And Skulls offers no shortage of resources to manage, some less obvious than others. The most important is rice—rice paddies are strewn about the game's single- and multi-player maps, and while the dead don't have much need for food (besides skulls, but I'll get to that) haunting rice paddies will allow you to stockpile the rice you'll need to acquire resource number two: soldiers.
Can't have much of an army without soldiers; haunt a shrine, and you'll be able to spend rice on the game's three primary units: infantry, cavalry and archers. Infantry will form the backbone of your army, offering decent attack power and strong defensive capabilities. Cavalry have meager defenses, but their expansive movement range allows them to dive in and out of combat quickly, helpful for capturing buildings or harassing enemies. And then there are your archers: their powerful attacks are devastating and the extra range means they can only be counterattacked by other archers, but they can't hit enemies in melee range, so you'll need to keep them protected. And no one needs to be protected as much as your general—he's a powerful fighter in his own right, but once he's slain it's game over.
To prevent wars of attrition the rice supply is limited—your troops are soldiers, not farmers, and after a few turns you'll exhaust the supply of rice in individual paddies. That makes every soldier precious, and figuring out the right unit composition and holding enough ground to keep the rice flowing (and deny the enemy from doing the same) adds a delightful level of strategy—simple but clever game design at its finest.
This leads me to resource number three: space. Skulls of the Shogun's battlefields are small. Not claustrophobically so, but you'll need to carefully consider every move you make, as the limited rice supply means your troops are precious. Positioning is key: you can issue five orders per turn, with each order consisting of movement, taking an action like attacking, haunting a location, or eating a skull, and then making one last limited bit of movement. Leave a solider in a bad spot and they'll be open to a attack, and if can't field more units or properly defend your general, well, game over.
You'll also need to take the environment into account. Ducking into bamboo will make your units 20 percent harder to hit, which I've seen work phenomenally with cavalry behind enemy lines. Rice paddies are also a useful position to cluster around, as they heal any allied unit who's standing on them at the start of every turn. Some maps offer monk shrines: haunting a monk shrine will give you access to monks, whose powerful spells can heal allies or devastate enemies. They're useful but vulnerable, as they can be removed from the battlefield if an enemy captures your shrine.
That all sound a bit simple? Well, sure. The game's charm is infectious; while the campaign isn't especially demanding, it's fun and dare I say, hilarious. You play as General Akamoto, a powerful, arrogant samurai who's rallying an army of undead soldiers to get a bit of old-fashioned revenge on the underling who betrayed him. Along the way, you'll circumvent bureaucracy, flirt with gods, and banter with underlings while exploring beautifully animated landscapes and terrain.
This isn't the most convoluted of strategy titles, but I rather like that—the game is delightfully easy to pick up and play, but like an (undead) onion there are layers here worth picking apart. Units can knock each other about—infantry excel at this—which can allow you to forcibly re-position your enemies into a location that's a bit more appealing to you, or knock them off of a map's edge and get them out of the fight in one fell swoop. You can avoid this positioning your units side by side to form a spirit wall, which prevents them from being knocked about and also keeps enemies from passing through—great for keeping weaker units like archers protected. With judicious use of spirit walls, choke points, and natural barriers like rocks and hills, you'll be sure to rack up plenty of the last and most important resource, skulls.
When a unit dies, their skull falls to the ground. Eat a skull and your troops will regain some of the health they've lost and gain a few additional total hit points. Eat three skulls and they'll become a demon, capable of making two attacks in a single turn: absolutely devastating in the right hands. Being something of a coward I like feeding skulls to my archers and creeping towards an enemy general, hoping to take him out in one concentrated attack. You might be tempted to rack up a few skulls and feed them to your general, which isn't a bad idea. But generals start every battle in a meditative trance, gaining more hit points with every turn that passes without them moving or taking an action.
It's all a very fun balancing act: acquire resources while preventing the enemy from doing the same, and hold out for a shot at the other general (or generals), who will either be meditating to become as powerful as possible, or darting about the battlefield wreaking havoc if they're a bit less cautious (read: craven) than I am. A general who's spent most of the game meditating is a fearsome sight, doubly-so if they wake up from their long nap and consume enough skulls to acquire demon status.
I've neglected to mention a platform (or a price) because Skulls is available just about everywhere—provided you're throughly enmeshed in Microsoft's ecosystem. Starting a match on the Xbox 360 and then switching over to a Windows Phone when you're on the go is phenomenal, and while asynchronous turn-based strategy games might lend themselves a bit better to this sort of thing I can't wait for more games to offer this multi-platform functionality. Skulls' simple gameplay mechanics and structure lends itself well to switching between a console controller, touch on a mobile phone, and a mouse and keyboard, should your choose to play it on a Windows 8 PC or Windows tablet. I found playing the game on a Windows Phone (in my case, the Nokia Lumia 810's 4.3-inch display) could feel a bit cramped, but there wasn't anything I couldn't solve by simply zooming in; if you have a larger phone, I imagine it won't be a problem.
There's another problem here, and that's the pricing. If you want to play Skulls on the Xbox 360, you'll need to pay 800 Microsoft points (that's $10 in real-world currency). It's also $10 on Windows 8. And if you want to play it on your phone, that's another $5. Honestly, that's not very expensive—I think the game is well worth $25, and you only need to buy it on the platforms you'll actually be playing it on. But it sets a really bad precedent.
If you've ever owned multiple iOS devices, you've likely run into this problem before: iPad and iPhone versions of apps that require you to purchase them multiple times. There's a case to be made that developing for a new platform requires new resources and development time, and folks should be compensated. That's totally fair. But to be frank, the average consumer doesn't really care: they see an app they purchased and enjoyed on one device being incompatible with another, and scoff at needing to purchase the same thing multiple times.
To be quite honest, if Skulls of the Shogun were available as a sort of "universal app" and cost $20 to $30, I wouldn't have though twice about picking it up, knowing I could play it on anything with a Microsoft badge. And since my Windows Live account carries across all of the platforms that Microsoft services, it stands to reason that the content I purchase, when feasible, should be available too: my achievements, music and movies already do, so games seem like a logical next step.
Skulls of the Shogun is phenomenal: the combat is simple but clever, the campaign is hilarious and fun, and multiplayer matches amongst friends and random strangers are a great way to pass the time—whether you're sitting on the couch, at your desk at work, or waiting for a bus. Give the free trial a spin and if you're convinced, grab some friends and get to crushing some skulls.