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Skulls of the Shogun Review: Death is Only a Minor Setback
Platform: PC (Steam), Xbox 360, Windows Phone
Price: £11.99/$14.99 (PC Special version), £6.99/$9.99 (Xbox regular edition)
Release Date: 29 July 2013
Developer & Publisher: 17-BIT
Skulls of the Shogun is a disappointing game. Not because it’s bad – it’s definitely not – but because certain technical flaws stain the hilarious dialogue, charismatic style, and unique mechanics that would otherwise rank it as an amazing game. While heavily inspired by the classic Advance Wars series, Skulls of the Shogun takes a brave stab at breathing new life into the turn-based strategy genre with original gameplay and by throwing away the traditional grid system.
Firstly, the removal of the usual grid format expected of a turn-based tactical game is both liberating and frustrating. Your units move fluidly around the map and this works especially well when using a controller. On the other hand, while strategy games are largely based around being able to predict your enemy’s possible movements, this new method makes it very difficult to estimate how far enemy characters will be able to hit. This wouldn’t be so bad if the game wasn’t quite as difficult as it is – in a game where nearly every unit can be killed in two hits, misjudging an enemy’s range can be disastrous if you’re aiming for a shiny golden skull trophy. It can also become quite difficult to select units, especially when there’s an army bunched together in a clumsy formation, leaving you to randomly hit directional buttons until the game decides to finally swap to the archer that’s squashed in the middle of the pack.
One of the biggest strengths of Skulls of the Shogun is its design: the levels are drawn beautifully and while the characters have a much more cartoon-like style it doesn’t seem mismatched. It would be easy to come across as unoriginal with fully Japanese-inspired art and music style but it really creates an immersive and fresh atmosphere. Often games struggle to convey humor well and just rely on being as silly as possible in an attempt to appear wacky. However, in Skulls of the Shogun there is plenty of genuinely amusing dialogue, mostly arising from trash talk between the different armies.
Some of the more interesting mechanics in the game include being able to consume the skulls of your enemies in order to improve your units, as well as the ability to haunt rice paddies on the map and spend the gained rice on buying new units. This results in plenty of strategic decisions: which unit should eat the skull and is it worth wasting their turn and possibly making yourself a big target to the enemy? You are also especially vulnerable to being hit while haunting rice paddies, but it might be worth the reward of being able to summon new units and cast bigger spells with your monks. Generals (the boss for each team) also start each level meditating, in which state they generate 1 maximum health point per turn until you awaken them to enter the battle. This forces you to make a judgement on when you should utilize your general, whether it be to try to save some weaker soldiers or to start an aggressive offense, possibly at the risk of making him weaker than the enemy general who is still biding his time.
A big element that is lacking in Skulls of the Shogun is customization. It’s hard to become attached to your army when you are given a set of generic soldiers that you can’t personalize in any way. The units do not level up and even though you can choose who gets to eat the stat-boosting skulls, it all resets after you complete each level anyway. Being able to differentiate your units, equip them with items, or at least pick where you place them at the start of the battle would really spice up the game and add replay value. Currently, you start each level with exactly the same units in the same position every time, so there isn’t much incentive to replay the game as you will likely just use whichever strategy was successful for you last time. This is the aspect that damages multiplayer the most, as it is hard to become engrossed in a battle when you are just handed a set of soldiers that are pre-placed with no say in your setup. Admittedly the game doesn’t really need replayability as it boasts a 10-12 hour campaign – and that’s not including multiplayer, or how long it would take you to painstakingly complete every extra objective in each mission.
The amount of variety in Skulls of the Shogun is decent towards the end of the game but could be improved overall. You are generally stuck with 3 units: the defensive infantry, high-mobility cavalry, and the long-range archer, not including your general of course. Compared to the selection of units available much later in the game, these classes can become very boring. As you play through the campaign you unlock a variety of monk soldiers, including the fox monk that can heal, revive, and provide evasion buffs for your team, and the crow monk that let’s you blow enemies off of the map with gusts of wind, killing them instantly. The problem however, is that you can only summon these class types by haunting their specific shrine on the map. This means that you will only ever have access to whichever shrines are actually placed in that level, which is generally only 1-2 types until you get much farther into the game. It’s a shame that by far the most interesting units in the game aren’t more easily accessible. This is not a problem in multiplayer though, as the maps often contain universal shrines that will let you pick whichever monk type you want. If you do manage to get a few different types of monk up, running the game becomes vastly more interesting with many more strategies available to you. On the other hand, the multiplayer maps assume that you have played the entirety of the single-player campaign, as you have access to all of the mechanics and units that you learn about as you play through the story line.
Even veterans of the turn-based strategy genre will find the game to be a challenge, although not necessarily always in a good way. All of the units have very low health pools and it takes no more than 2-3 attacks to kill any type of soldier (except maybe a powered-up general), which means it’s extremely easy to lose a few men if you’re not paying attention. Typically, archers sacrifice their ranged advantage for health and damage, but in Skulls of the Shogun they are power-houses. They have extremely high attack and can easily snipe an enemy and slip out of range in the same turn. Eventually your default tactic will simply be to retreat, and then fill whichever unfortunate AI that follows you with arrows, because you sure aren’t going to get away with a melee assault without any casualties. Supposedly one of the features of the game is that it is fast-paced, and while that may be an admirable ambition it ultimately proves to restrict your tactical options. Speaking of restriction, you are only allowed to move a total of 5 units per turn. This is supposedly to make the game feel faster as you will get back to your round more quickly, but it becomes extremely frustrating when you get to the second half of the campaign and have more than 10 soldiers in your army. It does make you think harder about the choices you make as they have more weight behind them but it discourages you from having large-scale battles when you don’t have enough commands to actually control everybody.
Skulls of the Shogun is ultimately a game with as many flaws as it has features but 17-BIT’s originality and creativity are undeniable. The price tag for the PC version may be a little steep for some but it’s a recommended buy for turn-based strategy lovers if only to experience the uniqueness of the game, especially if you catch it on sale. Alternatively the Xbox version is considerably cheaper but doesn’t come with the Bone-A-Fide expansion pack which includes a new monk type, more multiplayer maps and several new campaign levels.
Check out the Skulls of the Shogun Bone-A-Fide trailer below: