Skulls of the Shogun: Become a Legend
In a genre as long in the tooth as the turn-based strategy, it can be difficult to find a game that feels fresh. Skulls of the Shogun in many ways embodies the standards of the genre, but presents them a very accessible way. It’s easy to get into and the pace is nice and fast, making it a good entry point for those who might be put off by the extreme complexity that tends to go hand-in-hand with the genre. Don’t take this to mean that it’s an easy game, though. The AI is aggressive and fairly intelligent, and the way the game flows means that if you start losing it can be very difficult to stage a comeback. It’s even possible to lose during the tutorial stages if you don’t properly defend your leader! Once you get past the first few stages, the gloves are off.
A lot of its charm comes from the slick presentation. While there have been some good-looking examples of the genre, strategy games tend to be focused more on their mechanics and content than their presentation, which tends to be lower on the list of priorities. Skulls impresses with excellent art, great music, and sharp writing. A brief cut-scene introduces the story. The powerful warlord General Akamoto perishes in battle and finds himself in the afterlife. He’s told to wait in line with the many other masterless samurai, but he’s not so good at waiting. Really, he’s not so good at anything except violence and conquering. He decides to take over the underworld, and immediately recruits some allies to go on a reign of terror. It’s not long before he runs into a face from the past that only spurs him on further.
This plot could have been played straight, but instead its tongue is planted firmly in its cheek to marvelous effect. The dialogue feels like something out of a good old Saturday morning cartoon. The story provides enjoyable context for the battles without ever becoming overbearing, which is a difficult balance to strike in this genre. There are a lot of pop culture references but they’re done with enough subtlety that if you don’t catch them, they won’t seem particularly out of place.
The game is a turn-based affair, with a fixed number of actions you can take each round regardless of how many units you have. You’ll start off with a preset group of units, but most stages will allow you to summon new units at a shrine if you’ve harvested enough rice. Each of the three main unit types is useful in its own way, with the lowly infantry providing strong defense and good knock-back capability, the archer being able to attack at a distance, and the cavalry providing excellent mobility and powerful attack strength. These three core units will serve as the heart of your campaign to become the ruler of the underworld.
As you reach new areas, you’ll also be able to summon monk units, who can use various types of magic to bolster your main forces. Of course, you also have your leader unit, the ruthless General Akamoto himself, who is very powerful intially and only gets stronger as he racks up victories. The risk in using him at the frontlines is that if he falls, you’ll immediately fail the stage and need to start over. Akamoto also becomes more powerful the longer you leave him untouched at the start of a level, so you really have to consider when you want to use him. It’s a great risk-reward set-up that encourages you to use all of your units rather than rely entirely on the General.
The most unique part of the gameplay is tied into the title of the game. Whenever a unit on either side is defeated, they’re reduced to a skull. These skulls can be consumed by the opposing force’s units to restore health, a simple act that can occasionally turn the tides of a battle. If a unit eats three skulls, it enters a powered-up demon state that can take extra turns, giving them a massive advantage. A powered-up General Akamoto is a devastating force, but having him in munching range of skulls generally means he’s within reach of the enemy. It’s another element of danger to keep Akamoto slightly in check. No matter which units eat the skulls, once one side or the other has an advantage in demon units things unravel pretty fast. Making sure you’re that side is part of the fun.
Skulls of the Shogun has both a single and multiplayer mode, and both have a lot to offer. The single-player campaign offers hours of entertaining challenges and a lot of laughs along the way. The first few stages roll out most of what you can expect from the gameplay. New units pop up here and there throughout the campaign, helping things stay fresh for the duration. Each stage offers additional goals beyond simply clearing the map, some of them very tough, giving you a reason to go back and play them again. On top of that, you’ll be given a score at the end of each stage, adding a further layer of depth.
The local multiplayer mode allows up to four players to face off against each other on a good selection of maps. Depending on how many players you have, a portion of the 36 multiplayer maps will be available to battle on. It’s a hefty selection that provides a lot of variety, with each setup requiring a slightly different approach. This mode can be enjoyed on one device thanks to its pass-and-play nature. Just take your turn and hand your device to the next person. The fast pace of the game is a big favor to these wild multiplayer battles, since each turn tends to be pretty quick.
Skulls of the Shogun embraces many of the traditions of this long and storied genre, while mixing in plenty of elements to help it stand out. It’s a very stylish strategy game with enough content and bite to keep a solo player happy for a long time, and a great spread of multiplayer maps and options to satisfy those who like to ride into battle against their friends. Its accessibility makes it great for those looking to get into the genre, while the challenge of completing everything and getting the highest possible scores on each stage provides a robust feast for veterans. Add in a funny, well-written story and you’ve got plenty of reasons to take a trip to the underworld.