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Review: Skulls of the Shogun17-Bit Microsoft XBLA strategy
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
Platform: 360 (XBLA), Microsoft Surface,
Windows 8, Windows Phone
Release Date: January 30, 2012
This review is based on the 360 version of the game
A download code was provided by the publisher for this review
Lately, we have seen a handful of very prominent strategy games arrive. XCOM: Enemy Unknown, and more recently Fire Emblem: Awakening both have received much praise and love from fans of the genre as well as newcomers. Although there’s certainly nothing wrong with either, there is something to be said for a game that offers its own vision of strategy that manages to be pretty good without a powerful name behind it. With that said, it’s more a question of whether people will give Skulls of the Shogun a look when they could just be playing something more polished instead.
Skulls of the Shogun is a game which entrenches itself in a Japanese afterlife filled with sword-wielding skeletons. All the warriors who had fought in life are simply waiting in line to get to a promised eternal existence. General Akamoto is hurled into the afterlife after he is unceremoniously backstabbed after a victory. He isn’t content to simply wait in lines for hundreds of years, though. Instead, he rallies up the warrior spirit in some men and takes them on a journey across the ethereal landscape.
From there, you command a small band of troops throughout a whole bunch of missions. Your skeleton samurai go against enemy teams and battles are usually unfavorable for Akamoto. The challenge primarily comes from the tight functionality of each character type. In many ways, Skulls of the Shogun could be compared to chess. Each main type of character you control has its main purpose, and players do best to keep them in mind at all times. For example, archers can certainly shoot targets from a foot away, but they would do best behind infantry to keep them safe from return fire. Similarly, each character has their own best use which requires planning to execute efficiently.
To help make this easier, there are only a few varied troop types under your control. At the start you have only two, but the game manages to teach you about the rest soon enough. Overall, the game gives a great primer for what to expect but afterwards doesn’t hold your hand at all. The tutorial is only available in single player as well, so don’t jump straight into a multiplayer match. Difficulty is one factor that fans of strategy games will enjoy, but it does seem unfair at many points. Still, having a disadvantage makes the battles even more sweet to triumph over.
One way the game manages to set itself apart from others is the art style. It emulates a traditional Japanese art style infused with chibi depictions of samurai and does so pretty well. Although there are some flourishes which seem unauthentic, it mostly manages to convey a certain style. There is some utility to the art as well. For example, one of the easiest ways to check how much damage your character will do to an enemy is to simply look at the flag they carry on their backs. The damage is represented by small bars, and once an enemy is hurt, their flag will be torn to show just how weak they are. It’s a shame there are not more flourishes like these. However, it must be noted that even this is not perfect as sometimes enemies' own bodies will obscure their flag, hiding the otherwise useful at a glance information.
Although the visuals are worthy of praise, they also are the cause of some issues. Each small, squat character tends to look fairly similar to the rest, save for your massive General. At many times you may find yourself wondering where exactly one character went and shuffle to find them in the fray. It becomes a frequent issue considering one feature of the game is making sure your troops are close to create a barrier. Smushing troops together as a gameplay mechanic would work better if there were more obvious distinction between the main character types at the very least.
After learning how to come with the sometimes problematic visuals, one can dig into the meat of Skulls of the Shogun, which makes it a very tense, but fun experience. Various character types have already been mentioned, but that’s far from all the strategy required of players. Specific levels have other additions, such as allowing you (or the enemy) to heal their troops, summon new troops to the field, or make use of other special character effects. For example, there are a trio of monk types which each bring their own benefits to those who summon them. Of course, there is also the incredibly odd power up of eating enemy skulls. Eat three of them and the troop will level up further and be able to carry out two attacks in one turn.
Then there are the battlefields themselves which offer pluses and minuses depending on where you stand. Rice paddies will heal the character who “haunts” the field, but that leaves them open for attacks. Environmental elements such as high grass lessen hit probabilities when a character is hiding there. It is even possible to knock enemies off of the play field if they stand too close the edge. You’re always required to have troops in check lest something horrible happen to the ones you’ve forgotten about.
Death, or failure, is inevitable. There are times when levels will seem downright impossible. However, since each one lasts from 10-20 minutes, it won’t be a massive time sink to retry a couple times. In instances where things seem too tough you must simply view the field and try to work out a new strategy. Oftentimes a retry of a match proves much easier than the initial run when you had no clue of what to expect. Those who do not enjoy a challenge should definitely avoid this title, though.
There is a lot that Skulls of the Shogun gets right. It manages to be a strategy game which is both simple enough to understand that it lures you in. Once ensnared, you’re stuck fighting fairly difficult battles which often leave the player at a severe disadvantage. If winning against the odds weren’t so satisfying then this game would not be nearly as appealing. There is definitely work that should have been done to create a clearer visual appearance of troops, but beyond that, the game is solid. Give it a look if you’re interested in finding a less known strategy game to get familiar with.
+ Small number of classes keeps game simple to learn
+ Simple ruleset creates a tight, smart strategy game
+ Fairly long single player campaign aside from multiplayer modes
- Character art for main troops isn’t very distinct which becomes confusing
- Troops sometimes obscure pertinent information due to their design
Overall Score: 8 (out of 10)
Skulls of the Shogun excels at bringing a simple and challenging strategy experience to players who aren’t already obsessing over another genre title.
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