Undead. Samurai. Ok, review’s over, enjoy.
Oh wait, you wanted to know a little bit more? Well, I suppose that’s fair. Skulls of the Shogun is a turn-based strategy game developed by 17 bit games and published by Microsoft Studios. It’s available on Windows 8, Windows RT, Xbox and Windows Phone currently. Read on to get the full scoop.
As I said in my intro, Skulls of the Shogun is a turn-based strategy game about undead Samurai. The action kicks off in feudal Japan, where the great general Akamoto has defeated all of his enemies, and stands poised to become Shogun, leader of all of Japan. But then, at the moment of his triumph, he’s stabbed in the back and falls to his stumpy little legs in death. Next thing you or he know, he’s being deposited at the shores of the Land of the Dead and being told to queue up for a 512+ year wait for his eternal reward.
Not wanting to succumb to this ignominy after almost achieving his life’s goal, and finding that an impostor is running around posing as Akamoto, the real general recruits a bunch of undead Ronin and line-waiters and goes on a quest to wrest his access to the afterlife from the twice-dead fingers of any who stand in his way.
This somewhat silly plot is supplemented by some vibrant and intensely stylized cartoony hand-drawn graphics, along with some surprisingly deep and interesting mechanics that make the game quite fun to play, even if turn-based games aren’t normally my thing.
Gameplay and Achievements
At its core, Skulls of the Shogun is actually a strategy game, though at first pale it might look more like a turn based tactics game. A Skulls of the Shogun match sees each player start with several infantry, cavalry, archers, and the General. Much like in Total Annihilation or Supreme Commander, if your General dies, you lose the match. Generals start out “meditating” – they can‘t move or attack, but each round they spend meditating, they gain 1 maximum hit point. Allowing the General to meditate over the course of a match turns them into an incredibly tanky terror, and they already start out fairly formidable with 2 attacks to the typical 1 per turn that units get.
On most maps, you’ll see Shrines, Rice Paddies, rocks, bamboo and water. Shrines summon units – Mixed Monk shrines can summon any of the 3 types of monk, and the Fox Monk shrine will only allow you to summon the healing Fox Monk. An interesting mechanic here ties the Monk to their shrine: A Monk Shrine will allow only 1 Monk of each type to be controlled at a time, and if the Shrine is captured by the enemy, the Monk tied to that Shrine is lost.
Soldier Shrines will let you choose to summon a new cavalry, archer or infantry (a total of 1 unit per turn can be summoned in this way). Soldiers are paid for with Rice, which is gained at a rate of 25 per Rice Paddy you own. Rice Paddies or Shrines must be captured before they are claimed by a player: a unit must give up a turn to capture a Shrine, and while they’re capturing they won’t be able to defend against attacks.
Each turn, each player gets 5 actions. Each unit (unless they’re a demon) can move and attack once per action. Well, here’s exactly how it works. Each unit has a maximum distance it can move, and gets one attack. A unit can move, attack, and then move again in a turn, or attack and then move, or any combination of the two, until its move pool is used up. Each unit also has an attack radius. This means that a unit can attack in a small area around its max move distance, which can make estimating the area threatened by enemy units a bit tricky. Towards the edge of each unit’s range, its hit chance drops off from 100% to 80%. If a unit is hiding in Bamboo, it also has an 80% chance to be hit, meaning that it’s possible to have a 60% chance to hit a unit on the edge of your range if they’re in Bamboo.
Rocks and Water are tactical considerations. If units of the same faction are standing in close proximity to each other, they form a “Spirit Wall” which enemies cannot move or attack through, and which makes them immune to knockback (the General, infantry and cavalry have a small knockback on their attacks). This makes tall Rocks, which cannot be passed or attacked through anyway, into excellent chokepoints. Also, if a unit is knocked back into water, they’ll be killed, so forming Spirit Walls on bridges or near water is very important to avoid water-related casualties.
One of the things I like most in Skulls are units' hitpoint bars. In most strategy games, hitpoint bars are, well, ugly. Like, sore thumb ugly. But Skulls makes it work very well. Each unit has a little flag on their back, which when they’re selected or attacked shows pips which indicate their hitpoints. As units lose hitpoints, the flag shrinks, getting torn. When they die, units disappear with a little puff of smoke, and drop their skull. This is actually an important mechanic, as you might expect from the title of the game.
Those dropped skulls can be eaten by any unit. If a unit eats a skull, it gains 2 maximum HP and 3 hitpoints are restored. If a unit eats a total of 3 skulls, it becomes a Demon, and gains a second attack. A general, who has 2 attacks, gains a whopping 4 attacks when he becomes a Demon. Add this in to the fact that Generals can gain tons of HP just from meditating, and a lategame General can be a terror if they're allowed to eat 3 skulls.
As with many games these days, Skulls has some fare for completionists. Each mission has conditions that can be met to earn players a “gold skull.” In some cases, these conditions are mutually exclusive, meaning you are encouraged to play through some levels multiple times if you want to earn all the golden skulls. Also, being an Xbox Live title, the game boasts 20 achievements, ranging from campaign completion to multiplayer victories.
Platforms and Mechanics
As I said before, Skulls of the Shogun (or Skulls, as the game happily calls itself) is available on Windows 8 for full PCs (you can get it in the Windows Store) and since it’s a Windows Store app, you can play it on Windows RT devices like the Surface as well. The full game is also available on Windows Phone and Xbox, though the user interface seems best for touch devices with screen sizes of over 7 inches. As preparation for this review, I played Skulls on Xbox, Surface, a traditional laptop, and my Windows 8 phone. I don’t mind it on the phone, but I vastly prefer the game on the Surface, and try to play there when I can.
With a traditional mouse and keyboard, the UI seems a bit sparse and many of the interaction mechanics are not quite spot on… It feels to me that when the user interface was developed, some concessions to touch were made that feel a bit awkward if you don’t have that input option available.
For instance, to move your units, you click or tap on them to select them, and then click or tap in the direction you want them to move. Tapping and holding on the screen feels OK as a way to move units on a phone or touchscreen windows device, but clicking and holding is a little awkward when players of RTS games are used to clicking or right-clicking where they want their units to move. Additionally, the UI is split between the top left and bottom right of the screen, and on a full PC you’d think that having the few options grouped together would be the most efficient thing. Lastly, there’s no minimap, and this necessitates a lot of scrolling in, clicking, and scrolling out, followed by more clicking. You get used to it, but at first it can be a bit frustrating. Couple this with the fact that most interactions are easier using the keyboard than the mouse and it can be a bit awkward to maneuver with traditional peripherals.
But the game is amazing with any touch device. As I said, it feels a bit cramped on the phone (selecting units can be frustrating if your army is clumped) and you feel like you have a lot of control when using your finger. It’s not really quick, and the PC can be more precise, but darn it if it just doesn’t feel right on a Surface, Lenovo Yoga or other touch Windows 8 device. With their smaller screens, the UI doesn’t feel as much of a reach, and scrolling in and out (which is still necessary) is done with a simple pinch… Yeah, if you can play this on a touch device, or if you have a touch monitor, that’s the way to experience this. Of course, if the game looks interesting, whatever platform you have available provides a good experience.
Cross-platform & Multiplayer
Hands down, one of the best features of this game is its cross platform compatibility. Own the game on Windows Phone? If you pick it up on Windows 8/RT as well (this is the same app, just so we’re on the same page – buying it for your PC would also purchase it for your Surface etc) you’ll have the same campaign, the same multiplayer games, the same everything. Likewise on Xbox. All of your progress carries across all platforms. Beat a level at work on your phone, play the next one on your Surface in bed at home, do a multiplayer turn on your Xbox, then the next turn on your Lenovo Yoga… it’s fairly seamless regardless of what platform you choose. Only leaderboards for each level don’t seem cross compatible – each platform you play it on (phone/PC/Xbox/WP8) seems to only want to display the stats of your friends who are playing on that platform. It seems like it’d make the most sense to lump this all together into a single integrated leaderboard.
The multiplayer is… surprisingly fun to me. As I mentioned before, I’m normally not much of a player of turn-based games. But darn it if multiplayer in Skulls isn’t oddly addictive. As of this writing, I’m playing 3 multiplayer matches side by side. It’s a little odd to enter a multiplayer match, watch my opponent’s move, make about 30-60 seconds of movements, and then wait for up to 24 hours to see what my opponent does, but it’s really hooked me. I end up checking and re-checking to see when my friends have made their moves (especially when I’m doing well in the match) and eagerly anticipating getting a notification of a new turn on my phone or on the app’s live tile in Windows 8.