Skulls of the Shogun Review
Skulls of the Shogun is a turn based strategy game in the same vein as the Shining Force and Fire Emblem franchises. Its numerous strategic possibilities as well as its play-when-you-want gameplay options make it more assessable than a game with this level of difficulty normally would have. However, that difficulty coupled with a lack of diversity in its gameplay keep Skulls of the Shogun from being a great game, settling instead for a decent outing.
In the game’s single player campaign, you play as General Akamoto who has just been backstabbed (literally) right when he was to become shogun. In the afterlife, he is granted no respect and assembles an army of undead samurai to help get his just reward as Shogun of the Dead. Along the way, the game presents the plot with lines of dialogue, which is light hearted and is genuinely funny as it mixes feudal Japan language with current day dialect. Akamoto constantly saying he’s going to use the enemy’s skull as a toilet is a good example of the kind of humor Skulls uses. Although the plot is pretty standard and with no real urgency, that’s fine as it’s just a vehicle for the gameplay and the jokes.
To further the playfulness of the game, Skulls has a cartoon graphical style with thick outlines around the characters and a hand drawn-like design. When the characters talk, their heads flap up and down and speak only in grunts, the text and camera doing all the emoting. With small touches like characters burping after eating an enemy skull (more on that later) and the cast featuring some beautiful drawings, the game has charm to spare and will endear you to the game. Furthermore, the battlefields are beautifully drawn and really evoke a stylized look of feudal Japan. Unfortunately, Skulls doesn’t run well on the Xbox 360 and the frame rate skips often, especially on later levels. This doesn’t tend to effect gameplay, happily.
However, all the charm in the world doesn’t matter if the game itself isn’t fun and luckily, Skulls holds up well. This is a turn based strategy title similar to Advance Wars and Final Fantasy Tactics so each army will take turns moving their units around the battlefield (which isn’t locked on to a grid), capturing shrines to summon more units or monks that have special abilities, gathering rice which acts as currency to summon units and monks, eating skulls of dead samurais for health and class upgrades and, of course, attacking.
Each unit has different attack, defense and maneuverability statistics that you must take into consideration. Infantry have strong defense but low maneuverability, archers are weak but have strong ranged attacks, and cavalry have fairly average attack and defense but have high maneuverability. Monks also have their own stats but can only be summon from shrines as they are gradually introduced in the campaign. Other factors such as hiding in tall bamboo to increase the likelihood of a missed attack or pushing enemies off a ledge for an instant kill are also present.
There are even more aspects to the gameplay than mentioned here and it all makes for many strategic possibilities. Manipulating the battlefield and your opponent in a way that has them fall right into your calculated plans is very satisfying every time it works. Similarly, pulling out of a losing battle only to win despite a clear disadvantage is an elated experience. Each battlefield is also fairly distinct, keeping you from developing a tried and true strategy for any situation.
However, the game isn’t without its problems. Despite the game giving you many options as with what to do with your units, the campaign essentially shows you everything the game has to offer quite early. Aside from the different battlefields and slow roll out of monks introduced in each new area, you will have seen just about everything Skulls has to offer in the first few missions.
In addition, the campaign can be quite brutal for those uninitiated with turn based strategy games. The computer AI is very intelligent and will not hold back, even in the early levels. There is a tutorial integrated with the first few missions but it doesn’t quite do an adequate enough job explaining the intricacies of the game. The game’s clock logged in around eight hours for me to complete the campaign but that doesn’t include the numerous times I had to restart a mission due to losing or being completely dumbfounded. The game is really twice that long as a result. The game does have a checkpoint system so you can go back and load up a previous point in the battle but when it saves tends to be sporadic and ultimately ineffective. Luckily, you can manually save your progress at any point.
Multiplayer is not much different from the campaign except that you can have up to four armies at once either against each other or divided into two teams fight it out on one battlefield. Playing online, the connection was fairly stable with only a few hiccups. However, not many people are playing this game. I couldn’t find any matches in either Player or Ranked matches and had to create my own. I typically waited for around 10 minutes to get enough players. For those with little time, the play anywhere feature is a welcome addition but I found even less people using that.
While playing online with strangers is fun, there’s no penalty for leaving the matches early, though you can save your matches progress for later if you need to leave. Luckily there’s a local multiplayer mode both on one TV or with System Link and this game would probably be best played with friends, either online or even better, on the couch.
Skulls of the Shogun is a very enjoyable game that’s less accessible despite its attempts to be just that. The final battle was a very arduous hour and a half skirmish that I was beyond confused about. However, once I did emerge victorious, I felt a huge sense of accomplishment that many games today don’t provide. That’s the wonderful thing about Skulls of the Shogun. The barrier to entry may be misleadingly strong but the rewards are great.