Ask a hardcore strategy gamer to name a turn-based tactical title set in Japan, and they’d probably offer up Total War: Shogun 2 and Romance of the Three Kingdoms before starting to struggle. Japan is no stranger to tactical play but given its remarkable feudal history it’s surprising how little the period is mined for gaming gold, and of the few that do emerge, fewer still make it to western shores. 17-Bit’s debut Skulls of the Shogun comes to this near-deserted table with several bold hooks: catch the eye, simplify the numbers and, most importantly, make the game look and feel accessible. There’s an interesting twist thrown in too - the game’s entire cast are dead.
Playing as the newly deceased General Akamoto, ruthlessly betrayed and sent to the underworld, you are bent on revenge. You want justice, you want to find out who had the gall to slay the world’s greatest military leader, and you’re damned if you’re going to wait in line for a few hundred years to get into the afterlife. A threadbare plot typical of many turn-based strategy games is lifted from the doldrums on the back of superb writing and excellent humour, and is one of many areas where Skulls shines.
The campaign eases you gently into the role, cleverly providing you with examples of the game’s rule set at each stage whilst seamlessly merging puns and asides from your friends and foes alike. Deceptively simple to pick up, the difficulty soon ramps up several notches and the more nonchalant player will find themselves tested sooner than the cutesy cel-shaded graphics and light-hearted banter might suggest. Each scenario takes place in beautiful hand-drawn environments which range from snow-covered mountains to colourful Japanese gardens. The graphical style is quirky and mixes anime and pop art for a distinctive effect. Similar liberties have been taken with the soundtrack which successfully melds an approximation of traditional Japanese music with trip-hop beats.
There are three main units to control on the battlefield: archers are defensively weak and have a limited movement range but are powerful remote attackers, infantry are the foot soldiers who soak up hits whilst dishing out meaty punishment, and cavalry are the long-range scouts who can cover greater distances and deal moderate damage. Unlike many similar titles there’s no hex grid in sight. Movement is dynamic and open, and your units can move anywhere within a defined radius of their starting position. Unused movement can then be spent after any action is taken, so a cavalry unit can swoop in and inflict pain on the enemy before retreating back - at least partially - the way they came.
You have five turns to split over your units each round. One turn comprises movement followed by an action, such as attacking. As you battle and defeat your enemies, their skulls will be left behind. As any undead Japanese warrior can tell you, eating enemy skulls is good for your health and it is no different here. Each skull will increase the maximum HP of a unit whilst also replenishing lost HP, and once you eat a third skull your unit is transformed into a demon who is granted two actions per turn. The risk/reward gamble is a tightrope, making you think carefully about whether to try nabbing that nearby skull on the battlefield or use your turn attacking. Occasionally you’ll come across potions too - these can be used to increase attack or regenerate health and are equally tempting.
Extra units can be purchased from normal shrines with rice, which is harvested from paddies dotted around the playing field. These are captured by your unit “haunting” them for a turn, after which you will reap their currency until the paddy is empty. The trade-off for haunting a paddy is that whichever unit you decide to use to do so will be incapacitated for the entire turn, and unable to counter-attack. You’ll need to decide whether your unit is strong enough to withstand attack for a turn, or if the risk is too great - a concept that you’ll encounter frequently during play.
Animal shrines can also be haunted and the reward for doing so is significant as you’ll receive one of three spirits to help you on the field. The fox heals your troops, the salamander blasts foes with fireballs, and the crow can blow your enemies away with gusts of wind. Animal spirits can also eat skulls, and each one grants them an extra power which makes them even more useful on the field. For instance, the fox spirit can improve the defence of a unit or even resurrect them entirely if they die, whilst the salamander can summon an ogre into battle. Whilst powerful, the animal spirits are not without a weakness: if an enemy captures their shrine, the spirits switch sides. Do you leave units behind to defend the shrine and risk a weakened attack? Or do you launch a full-frontal assault and hope that no-one attempts to steal your summoned spirit? It’s delicious choices like these which hone a relatively simple game into a far deeper one.
In addition to your units the landscape itself can be used as a weapon, courtesy of a mechanic called “knockback” which allows your melee units to push enemies back with a strike. In some cases this may mean pushing them out of bamboo cover (which reduces the chance of a successful hit to 80%) or into the paths of damage-inflicting snow boulders which roll down the hill at the start of each round. In more extreme cases though, you can instant-kill enemies by knocking them off cliffs and into water - sometimes whole groups at a time, if you use the crow spirit’s powers effectively. Your placement of troops on the battlefield during play is as vital as everything else, and can immediately change a game.
Your general is the lynchpin of each encounter. He begins the start of battles meditating and racks up an additional hit point per turn, but once awakened he can take two actions per turn (which changes to three upon the consumption of his third skull), move a hefty distance and pack a mean punch. This power comes at a cost: if your general dies, your game is over. To use a chess analogy, the general has the power of a queen and the weakness of a king. Moreover, generals are as susceptible as other troops to environmental hazards which can be frustrating in a campaign, as the AI have an uncanny knack of spotting a precariously placed leader and will ruthlessly move to topple them into an abyss. Unlike similar games such as Advance Wars and Fire Emblem or the more recent XCOM, the death of a unit or a general doesn’t have as big an impact - you can simply start that particular campaign scene over. You don’t need to worry about protecting units you’ve kept with you since the start since they build up within one scenario and reset during the next one. Some may find this a comparatively shallow design choice, but the lack of attachment to units can actually be quite liberating as it focuses you solely in the moment and on winning each scenario on its own terms.
Multiplayer options come in three forms: Skulls on the Couch (local multiplayer), Skulls Online (Xbox Live play) and Skulls Anywhere (asynchronous play, available on all current Windows platforms). Couch and online games are customisable, can support up to four players, and are great fun - although like most similar games, the quality of the online aspect depends entirely on who you are playing with. Skulls Anywhere is a nice concept - asynchronous play means it’s essentially a fully-featured variation on the umpteen chess apps available - but its audience is limited by its Microsoft-exclusive status. It is, however, a nice alternative to spending your commuting time reading the newspaper.
The polished sheen and slick mechanics of Skulls can’t hide a couple of significant problems. A crippling bug encountered when playing a couch game meant that it was impossible to save a game and reload it at a later date. Upon loading the save file, the main menu flashed up and couldn’t be dismissed. The only option was to quit to the dashboard. Several attempts later over various levels and we had to admit defeat - saved couch games simply do not load. This is especially galling when you’ve spent a good couple of hours fighting a tight game and put it on hold, only to find your effort was for naught when you return to complete it. Other crashes to the dashboard were intermittent as well, usually following a round where none of your units were able to move. Hopefully 17-Bit will resolve these issues soon.
Less detrimental, but still equally frustrating, are problems caused by the units themselves. Archers and infantry look remarkably similar and are difficult to pick apart, especially if they are bunched together (which can happen often), or if they are hidden in the undergrowth (which can also happen often). As a result, timed games - the maximum cap for which is inexplicably set to one minute per round - suffer as you try and locate specific units from a horde of identically dressed skeletons.
That said, even with these annoyances it’s hard not to like the game. Skulls’ sheer force of character batters you into submission with its quirky characters, tongue-in-cheek dialogue and immediately accessible gameplay. With the lengthy campaign, the cunning AI and the replay value from both online and offline multiplayer, it’s one of the best value turn-based packages currently on offer and the depth of gameplay means that, like chess, it’s difficult to master but easy to pick up and play. Eschewing the reams of statistics and options that can often burden similar games, Skulls of the Shogun focuses on combat and fun which means it is the ideal introduction to turn-based gaming and, making no bones about it, is something we can heartily recommend.