Skulls of the Shogun breathes a breath of fresh air back into the dying lungs of the Xbox 360 strategy genre. Games like Advanced Wars and Final Fantasy: Tactics were loved for their strategy elements and rigid structure. 17-Bit was not content with creating a flashy and silly strategy game that followed this structure. Instead, the studio took the usual formula for strategy games of this nature; grids, move by move strategies, and rock-paper-scissors mechanics and injected a dose of modern gameplay. The art of Skulls of the Shogun is eye-catching and beautiful, its dialogue is snappy, self aware and clever, and its tutorial levels give a player everything they need to know in order to win a battle. What makes Skulls of the Shogun a great game is its ability to provide immense depth in deceptively simple mechanics.
You are General Akamoto, a fearsome samurai who has just one his greatest battle. Unfortunately you are betrayed after the battle has been won and arrive on the shores of the afterlife. Since you were such a great leader in life you immediately set out to find the culprit responsible for your death and the dead begin to fight at your side. As your army grows, the game introduces new mechanics including; new units, new dangers and tricks, and other ways to tip battles in your favor. At first, you're given three basic unit classes. The archer, infantry and calvary all control the same but what differs is the way you use them on the battlefield. Archers are great long distance snipers but can't defend themselves with counterattacks when attacked up close. Infantry can take a beating but make easy targets for archers, and calvary units can move further per-turn than any other class but suffer from being the weakest in terms of attack power. The brilliance between the three classes is that an archer will not always defeat a calvary unit simply due to distance. For example, an archer may get a shot off one turn but that will leave them open to a calvary attack the next turn. It's not black and white when it comes to the classes and their combat skills, it's a team effort through and through.
The objective in Skulls of the Shogun is often a simple one: defeat the enemy general. As you move your units around the battlefield like chess pieces you soon realize that, as with most things in the game, the simplicity is a lie. There are times where you may have an entire force ready to strike but in two turns the enemy has taken on that force and completely destroyed it. Winning in Skulls of the Shogun requires understanding of the units and gameplay, along with a great deal of patience. Patience wins over the brute force of an all out assault every time.
For those that have played strategy games like Advanced Wars you will no doubt be familiar with the grid system. The grid is a layout that shows where a unit can move and which units it can attack during any given turn. Skulls of the Shogun gets rid of the grid in favor of analog control in the form of a circle. Each General is given a set number of actions per move and each unit can preform one movement and one action within each of these set actions. That means a unit can move and attack or move and haunt a rice fields to gather resources. The size of the circle varies depending on the unit but the circle gives the game a much more free-flowing feel to the movement and combat. Not once did the game feel like moving game pieces across a board, instead it felt like I was controlling each unit individually.
After a unit moves, or before if you choose not to move anywhere, you are given the chance to preform an action. Actions include attacking, haunting, eating a skull, healing, casting a spell, and other tactics. Haunting replaces build orders in Skulls of the Shogun and instead of constructing barracks units, haunting a building allows you to create more units each turn. Units can also haunt rice fields to gain rice each turn which is used for unit production and some spells or units can choose to haunt shrines as well. Units can eat the skull of an enemy player, allowing that unit to gain health and power up to "Demon Form" if they eat three skulls. The amount of choices in a single turn can be a bit overwhelming but when the perfect strategy is put into place, controlling the battlefield from every corner feels like a true accomplishment.
Shrines, a structure that can be haunted, makes room for some unit-differentiation in the game. Each shrine corresponds to a different "Monk" character. The three different monks; fox, crow and salamander, allow players to heal or damage units in different ways. Fox monks can heal friendly units while crow and salamander monks have special spells that inflict massive damage. Monks can be killed like any other unit or stolen if an enemy haunts their shrine, making monks a sought after and often valuable unit. With the few units listed here, there doesn't seem to be a lot going on but trust me, the game gets pretty hectic. Each level adds a new element to the gameplay and while not every element seems particularly important, like units dying by falling of a ledge, they can be essential to winning or losing a game.
Skulls of the Shogun requires patience and a knowledge of the gameplay. This is not a game that can be won by brute force or guesswork like some strategy games. Sure, your army of infantry units may get close to the General but in a few turns he'll be rampaging through your units like an unstoppable twister of death. The choice between attacking a unit, eating a skull to gain health, or backing off can make all the difference in Skulls of the Shogun. The game is at its best when the witty dialogue is making you laugh before each match only to have you bearing down once the game starts in anticipation for the oncoming battle. Skulls of the Shogun can be a difficult game and many people will find it frustrating, a few specific levels come to mind, but that's part of the appeal. It's not that the game is unfair or "too hard" but it is instead giving you all of the knowledge you need to overcome your obstacles. It's up to you to adhere to that knowledge and use it wisely to take out your enemies.