Review: Skulls of the Shogun

By Guest Post 11 Mar 2013 0
Let's see you do that, Selleck. Keeping a moustache going post-mortem -- that's grooming on a new level.

With this much-talked-about strategy game exclusive to Windows Phone for the foreseeable future, and lacking a Windows Phone of my own, I enlisted Strategy Core editor and Pocket Tactics chum Geoff Byers to put Skulls of the Shogun through the paces for us. -- Owen

Skulls of the Shogun might be the finest piece of faux-East Asian entertainment produced by Westerners since the Wu-Tang Clan.

Skulls of the Shogun attempts to make a satisfying turn-based strategy game out of a mere handful of unit types and no grid (no. grid.), bucking your expectations for the genre. With a pace maintained by compact force sizes, a five-order per turn limit, and non-renewable and very limited resources, it seems to have mobile play firmly in mind, keeping the tempo up and the tactical range curbed. It can be a visually messy game, because despite the faux-Japanese aesthetic by way of thick-lined Western comic art, the lack of a grid means lots of units gathering for a fight overlap and jumble together. Given that unit colour differs by force, but unit design does would seem to have a formula for confusion. But those brave enough to stick with it will find a game of surprising subtlety and unmistakable polish.

The messy tangles of units in battle is so far removed from the clean, one-unit-per-tile grid you expect from turn-based games, you might miss the shadow of Advance Wars looming over this game. While the Swiss-watch precision clockwork of Advance Wars might be absent absent, Skulls has the finely-balanced units, varied stages, accomplished map layouts, and complexity arising from interwoven simplicities that you'd expect from a game following in the footsteps of that classic.

Don't need to worry about carbs anymore, I suppose. Who's eating all this rice in the land of the dead?

The five-order limit keeps things lean and has you juggling priorities; you don't have orders to waste, you cannot afford to be anything less than consistently sharp if you are to make the most of them. Very wabi-sabi, ne? Another part is the way that even when huddled together, units are easy to select, with several minor graphical effects combining to highlight them, however thick the melee. When there are multiple actions available in the same place, the game sensitively offers you options in text boxes, spaced far enough apart to make mistaken selection unlikely, unless you are one of those unfortunate individuals who requires a dialling wand. I know it might not catch on, but there are plenty of devs out there who might want to take this kind of approach, and think about the problems players will face when navigating their games. If a small studio like 17-Bit can do it, why not others? Oh, and skippable conversations/cutscenes? Thank you, 17-Bit, thank you so much.

It'd be a shame to skip the plot, though: a simple tale of revenge, opening with the betrayal and murder of the powerfully moustached General Akomoto, just as he is a finely-combed geisha's eyebrow hair away from becoming Shogun. As Yamamoto Tsunetomo says in the Hagakure, and is later quoted by Ghost Dog (Forrest Whitaker in the Jim Jarmusch film Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, not an actual ghost dog -- that would be stupid):
When one has made a decision to kill a person,
even if it will be very difficult to succeed by advancing straight ahead,
it will not do to think about going at it in a long, roundabout way.
The Way of the Samurai is one of immediacy
and it is better to dash in headlong.

Akomoto takes this to the usual samurai extremes and pursues revenge in the afterlife, bringing turn-based war to the Land of the Dead as he hunts his betrayer. Assisted by dissatisfied undead soldiers sick of queuing [can't be British ghosts, then -- ed.] and the occasional deity (Raiden, spirit of Storms and Androgyny, Sakura, Goddess of, er, Cleavage, etc), Akomoto carves a path through a collection of enemy forces and commanders in his quest for a post-mortem Shogunate. Although inconsistently funny, the game has been written with so many jokes and references that some of them have to hit home, and they accrue nicely, soon washing away the misses with another burst of hits.

Cool hat. Skulls isn't above the occasional poke at the fourth wall.

Given the modest range of units on offer (footsoldiers, cavalry, archers, three spellcasting monks, and your general) you might be forgiven for thinking Skulls is light in the tactical loafers. It is not. The movement system offers versatility, allowing you to move and act in any combination. A unit's movement radius is displayed, allowing you to plan hit and run attacks and more complex attack/movement combinations involving multiple units. With such freedom of movement, there should be a danger that battles are won by the haphazard use of many individuals, rather than units wielded as a cohesive force, but no. Successful melee attacks force the enemy unit back, into environmental hazards, for instance, yet units which are grouped, forming a 'spirit wall', are immune to this. Spirit walls also inhibit enemy movement and return fire, so this simple mechanic encourages you to use a force, rather than a motley collection of units.

The maps are well-designed and offer a carefully-judged mixture of resources, spawn points, cover, and choke points. Stages are varied enough but never get particularly innovative, introducing periodic or static environmental dangers, never-ending enemy spawns to chase you, stand-up fights, and more thoughtful battles. Winning conditions vary, but one is immutable; if your general dies, it's game over, so deploying that powerful unit early can be unwise.

Christopher Lambert, where are you? Not exactly Mortal Kombat's Raiden.

Even for a game meant for touchscreen devices, Skulls is pleasingly tactile, units have a springy resilience when they bump up against each other, and this even carries over well to mouse and keyboard controls on Win 8 boxes. Thanks to the lack of a grid (I'd like to die now, please) movement is dynamic and flexible, the controls are simple, and the UI is clear. While crowding is more of an issue on the smaller screens of smartphones, especially as mouse selection is more precise than fingertip, the design is there to make it as small a pain as possible. Even the unit banners depicting health, which are the first thing to get lost, are highlighted into glowing white sections when a unit is chosen. With only one crash (which I gleefully attribute to Win 8 rather than the game) and very few mis-clicks under its belt, I approve. While it doesn't offer a huge challenge to seasoned strategy gamers, it's charming enough to feel worth your time. My efforts to 'break' battles (by producing only one unit type, for instance) almost always went awry, and it's a fine line for the dev to walk, with battles being open to different approaches while not becoming easily exploitable.

Skulls not only looks nice but sounds the part, complete with vaguely-Japanese burbling accompanying the text, authentically twangy strings and fluting wind on the soundtrack, and some cries and grunts that could have been gathered from classic samurai films. Combined with an unobtrusive HUD that will courteously move to allow you to access units it was hiding, Skulls is a pleasure to play.

Windows Phone Store: Skulls of the Shogun $4.99



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