Xbox Live Arcade is quickly becoming one of my favorite platforms for new, exciting game experiences. Looking back on 2012 I realized that for the first time in my gaming career I spent more time playing downloadable games on Xbox Live Arcade, than I did with retail games. The amount of downloadable games, along with the amount of hours spent playing far exceeded the amount of time I put into traditional boxed games. If Skulls of the Shogun is any indication of the kind of XBLA games I can expect in 2013, this year will be a repeat of the last.
In Skulls of the Shogun the Great Japense General Akamoto was betrayed and killed on the cusp of being crowned emperor of Japan. Now he must battle his way through the underworld, amassing an undead army to find the traitor that stabbed him in the back and killed him.
Before the game even allows you to commence your first battle two things become apparent. Skulls of the Shogun has a distinct art style and has sharp dialogue that is both referential and filed with toilet humor. The Japanese inspired art that persists throughout the entire game is beautifully hand drawn and filled with vivid colours. Not only are the cartoony characters great but the environments that they populate are beautiful and full of life.
Characters will often spew out pieces of dialogue that demonstrate the developers’ love for the samurai genre while simultaneously going for low brow humor that one can’t help but chuckle at. There are times when characters will make references to classic samurai movies but the dialogue is often closer to 2011’s Bullet Storm. Skulls of the Shogun doesn’t go for the shock factor of putting together inventive new swear words but in its own cutesy, cartoony way characters will cuss out one another with words that rhyme with bad words, appealing to my juvenile sensibilities.
Despite being a turned based strategy game, Skulls of the Shogun does away with certain genre conventions in order to make the gameplay more fluid and appealing. There is no hexagonal grid system whatsoever; instead a unit’s movement is controlled by moving to any position within a given circumference of the unit.
The main component of Skulls of the Shogun is similar to chess in the vein that each team has an all powerful character, similar to a Queen in their general. The general also plays the role of the king, who once eliminated, concedes defeat to the other team. Teams are made up of more than just the general with infantry, archers and Calvary rounding out the core of a team. Each unit has a different amount of hit points as well as varying strike distances and movement circumference.
Like other turn based strategy games units will try to defeat opposing forces while battling for resources and strategic points that can turn the tide of battle in their favour. A unique mechanic to Skulls of the Shogun is the ability for units to consume the skulls of their fallen enemies. Whenever a unit dies their skull remains for the opposing team to devour. When a unit eats a skull they replenish some health. If a unit consumes three skulls they transform into a demon unit which has greater maximum health and an additional move every turn. This mechanic is very powerful and can turn the entire dynamic of a match on its head, particularly when dealing with a demon general.
Skulls of the Shogun does a great job introducing players to new mechanics and allowing them to become comfortable before throwing them into the deep end. The maps start out relatively simplistic but quickly evolve into various challenging scenarios that will require the player to quickly plan out their attack. The developer consistently introduces new elements to keep the game fresh in the form of monk units that can be summoned by controlling shrines on the map. The fox monk acts as a healer, the salamander monk possesses combat magic while the crow monk magically controls the wind. Each monk makes a great addition to the team but can prove to be troublesome when playing for the other side.
In addition to the stellar single player mode, Skulls of the Shogun has a lot of fun to offer with its various multiplayer modes. Instead of just 1 vs. 1 matches, online battles can have up to five participants for some large, epic battles. Multiplayer is fundamentally the same as the single player but the added element of human opponents changes the way you will play the game entirely. There is a local competitive mode which was a nice addition that many games tend to neglect but the most interesting multiplayer mode is Skulls Anywhere. In this mode players can make their moves over long periods of time, similar to some mobile games or PC games from back in the day where it would send you an email notification when your opponent completed their turn. This mode allows players to make a move and then go on to play a different game only to come back to Skulls of the Shogun later and continue their game against an adversary.
There are a few minor faults to be levelled against Skulls of the Shogun. While the art style is fantastic, units placed too closely together can sometimes get lost in the shuffle. When this happens it can be hard to navigate to the specific unit you wish to control. At times I even forgot about units entirely because they were stacked behind one of their teammates. In some instances once your team is populated with numerous units it can be a chore to cycle through and choose a specific one. The lack of a hexagonal grid can also prove troublesome when it interferes with unit placement. Several times throughout the game my soldiers were pushed off cliffs simply because I didn’t realize they were placed in such precarious positions. It isn’t always clear where the unit is placed and how close to danger they are without a grid. It can be a frustrating experience to have an otherwise strong unit defeated simply because of a placement error.
Skulls of the Shogun is a great turn based game and a fantastic addition to the Xbox Live Arcade library. From the very beginning the game is easy to understand and is paced much quicker than other games in the strategy genre. The hand drawn art style and humorous dialogue gives 17-Bit Studios a unique personality than I will look forward to seeing showcased in their future games.