Queuing in the afterlife
The philosophy behind the traditional samurai warrior is called ‘bushido’. It is a set of guidelines for spiritual and moral behavior based around seven central virtues: Loyalty, honor, honesty, respect, benevolence, courage, and righteousness. General Akamoto, the almost Shogun of Japan, lived his life to this code before getting unceremoniously stabbed in the back after his final victory. Therefore, he is understandably surprised to discover that, in the afterlife, there is a hitherto unknown virtue known as Queuing. Feeling that standing around waiting for his turn is beneath him, General Akamoto attacks the guards and leads a band of dead warriors into battle. Which starts Skulls of the Shogun, a strategy game based around waiting for your turn to attack.
Skulls of the Shogun (which I totally didn’t initially read as Skulls of the Shotgun) is a turn-based strategy game by 17-BIT, formerly Haunted Temple Studios. Though this does put them in the awkward position of having more studio names than released games, they felt the new title better reflected the classic feel of their games. They certainly deliver on this point, the 2.5D playing field, simple controls, and pleasantly cartoony visuals do bring to mind a game from another time, just more stylish and easily available than those piles of floppy disks.
In Skulls, you play as the aforementioned Akamoto, the honor-and-impatience-driven general seeking revenge and a quicker route to the promised rewards of the afterlife. Despite the overdone themes of honor and vengeance, the game maintains a sort of wacky feel throughout. The visuals combine feudal Japanese art and design with that of Flash-style animations, topped with characters that appear to exist in a permanent DK Mode. This goes well with the witty banter and ridiculous characters that occasionally break the fourth wall. The net result of this is a game based around feudal Japan that doesn’t take itself too seriously. Consequently, the player is allowed to simply enjoy himself.
Good thing, too, because there is much to enjoy in Skulls. As console strategy games rely on keeping the game playable without mouse and keyboard, Skulls keeps the gameplay simple and easy to pick up. There are three army units (infantry, cavalry, and archers) and three monks (fox, salamander, and raven). The army units can be purchased at troop shrines with rice from rice fields on the board while the monks are recruited from their respective shrines. Both sides feature a general who acts as both a heavy hitter and objective as the game is lost once your general dies.
However, Skulls does throw in some curve balls to keep things different and interesting. Unlike many turn-based strategy games, the units are not confined to a grid but, rather, free to roam within a circle of movement. Move two units next to each other and they form a “spirit wall” which can block paths, shield archers from counter-attacks, or simply prevent an ally from falling off a ledge. Additionally, each player only gets five moves per turn so all decisions have to be very well planned. Finally, after killing an enemy, a unit can eat the skull left by his foe (look, I finally made it to the Skull portion!), giving him additional health. After eating three skulls, that unit becomes a demonic bad-ass complete with two attacks per turn and powerful spells for the monks.
Of course, some of these ideas have drawbacks. The lack of a grid leaves players unsure whether a passageway is actually blocked off or merely overly decorated. Limited moves also means limited army sizes as having a large attack force means simply leaving half of it behind each turn. Honestly, what annoyed me the most was unit selection. Without a grid to guide my cursor, I would often circle a unit for several seconds before actually giving it orders. May sound petty but, trust me, it seems much less so the bajillionth time it happens. I imagine it’d be downright infuriating during timed multiplayer games.
This game also features one last unique aspect: it has been release on Windows 8. That means it can be played on anything that runs Windows’ new OS, be it Xbox, PC, laptop, Surface, Phone, or Big Ass Table (is that still in development?). What’s more, the multiplayer can be played cross platform. That means while I sit at home in front of my beautiful 42-inch TV, soaking in each attack in 1080p, my opponent could be riding the subway, squashed between the homeless man yelling obscenities and the woman with the unsightly growth on her forehead.
Actually, I wasn’t super excited about the concept until I wrote that last bit but now I feel like the mere possibility of that scenario playing in my head will make every victory as delectable as the skull that I’ll eventually dine upon!
Review copy supplied
Tested on 360