Skulls of the Shogun from indie developers 17-bit (formed by three Microsoft Games ex-pats) is a tactical turn-based strategy game set in a feudal Japanese afterlife with vector-based animations using a paper-cutout style and whimsical contemporary humor linking a variety of increasingly challenging battlegrounds that at times feel more like puzzles than open-ended combat scenarios.
It’s All About the Outfits
That said, this is a bona fide strategy title and there is no set way to win any combat. A combination of infantry, cavalry, archers, healers, magic users and some special units beyond that provide enough variety to keep things interesting. Units do not level up, nor is there any sort of skill tree, but chomping on the skulls of your felled adversaries provides an upgrade to the units that do. The special units come in the form of monks that must be summoned first – Fox Monks are healers, Salamanders are caster/summoner types, Crow Monks who have an AOE wind attack that can move enemies around and ideally off of cliffs and into the water…to their doom.
I first played the demo wherein the second level available introduced virtually all the mechanics you will have at your disposal. However when playing the proper campaign, these elements and mechanics were introduced level by level for what becomes a very extended tutorial; I was already 45% through the game by the time I unlocked my last unit type and stopped getting help messages!
Regardless, I was impressed by how much the complexity scaled after the first few stages, whence I feared it may be just a simple rinse-and-repeat exercise. That said, the game never becomes super-deep in options. This is more akin to a richer tactical arcade experience than a watered-down strategy title. I’m not sure if that is me being euphemistic. Things do get trickier as multiple armies are introduced – snipers from a second adversary may pick you off as you make your approach towards your primary target, and in the second half of the game, the variety of elements at play can lead to some formidable challenges.
Once you have tested your mettle in the early stages, and are able to start meditating at a shrine to summon the Salamander monk, you can summon an “Oni” – a warrior class NPC that will do big damage to the nearest unit, including your own. A Salamander must have crunched at least two skulls and you must have 150 Rice to summon an Oni. A similar pattern follows for unlocking the other monks’ special abilities. I won’t give it all away, since the devs have chosen not to cover some shrine types that appear later in the game, but there are others introduced that add to your strategic opportunities or perils, depending on who controls them.
In order to summon monk units, you will have to assign one of your units to the corresponding shrine in order to manifest them on the subsequent turn. With long travel range (and low defense and attack) cavalry are ideally suited for this at the start of a level, but any unit, including the monks, once summoned, can be assigned to this task. They do not need to remain at the shrine once they have done their job. Rice paddies at which your side has previously meditated – the game’s currency for spending on purchasing new units from a Soldier Shrine or casting spells – bring in 25 additional units of Rice for every turn they remain under your control, though it appears that rice paddies are eventually depleted. The crow monk has an unlockable power that lets you steal rice from any nearby undepleted paddy.
Living Off the Grid
An interesting aspect of SotS is how it departs from the typical grid-based system of most strategy titles. Instead, you have analog control over your movement across the battlefield. An unfortunate side-effect of this experiment is that the characters, which are often required to stand in close proximity in a critical defensive game mechanic called a “Spirit Wall,” have a tendency to bunch up to the degree that they are hard to pick apart, not just from each other, but also set pieces. While bamboo can be used to decrease their enemy’s hit chance, I often discovered that I had two or three of my own troops hidden in these bushes that I couldn’t relocate after having left them there.
Sure, it is possible to hover over your units to see their stats displayed, but when they are basically stacked on top of each other in 2D space, it can become frustrating. Also, sometimes you have to push yourself against your movement-limits circle (which gets more restrictive as you use up action points) to still reach certain geographic objectives, and though with the gamepad you can shove yourself to the edge just enough to reach some targets, it seems to work in spite of, rather than as part of the design.
The biggest surprise, gripe and game mechanic in one is the fact that any round can be quickly finished by knocking your almighty General (or any unit) into water. This is a problem, because the only way to lose, is your General being killed. Apparently this strategy of pushing a unit into water is the ultimate power move, as water is lethal in the afterlife, for whatever reason. The way to inoculate yourself against this is to move two or more of your units into close proximity so that they form the aforementioned “Spirit Wall” represented by glowing red auras, that shields them from knockbacks. Ignore this at your peril, as fifteen rounds into combat a stray cavalry unit (or it seems, any unit that can attack your general or other units) can defeat you instantly, regardless of any brilliant strategies you may have hitherto demonstrated.
I was pretty upset the first few times this happened, but rather than fault the game, I came to recognize it as a central mechanic that added a new layer of strategy; the possibility of instant death makes you consider every move far more carefully, but if you haven’t remembered to use one of your four available save slots, this can be a serious buzzkill as you go back to the previous checkpoint, cutscenes and all – and though they can be skipped by opening the menu, it’s a few steps too many when you are trying to work out how to solve the level. In short, don’t make this knockback threat an aside, make it the job.
The HUD is fairly spare and while certain important details are tied to the avatars, it would would be nice to see some character/damage stats up there. A unit’s health is displayed as rectangular marks on the flags they bear, but I found it to be a little abstract for the sort of considerations you are asked to make in order to win a battle.
What A Bunch of Yuk-Ups
The dialogue is strongly influenced by pop-culture, referencing movies like Heathers “I’m big-boned” and Anchorman “That escalated quickly” and all sorts of asides in between. Some of it, particularly where they substitute alternate words for expletives made me laugh out loud, not because of their shock value, but because the writing is legitimately funny.
The music is terrific; an anachronistic style of hipster-lounge meets Twin Peaks soundtrack that provides a whimsical backdrop (which is mercifully easy to listen to, since battles can last a while), and the sound design is varied enough to also avoid become annoying, given the relatively small number of unit types you will command along your journey to facing your ultimate nemesis. In fact though they are comprised of grunts and abstract blabber, the voice performances are very well done with enough personality to make Mel Blanc’s ghost smile from beyond the grave.
It’s A Small World, Afterlife…
All told, I had a hell of a lot of fun with Skulls of the Shogun. There are some stylistic design choices I question, but they did not prevent me from pushing forward and enjoying the game to its end. In fact there is enough good actual game design here that it would translate wonderfully to a paper and dice tabletop version, and that is a tribute to the game’s ultimate success.
Not just about number-crunching and particle effects, Skulls of the Shogun is a real, proper and original indie game written by people who know their stuff. In writing this review, I realized how a seemingly simple game actually masked many elements working in concert to create a fairly involved strategy title. This ability to make something complex appear invitingly streamlined belies the experience applied to the overall implementation.
Skulls of the Shogun is a fresh take on the strategy genre and, with additional local (albeit somewhat provisional) multiplayer modes, is ultimately worthy of the asking price, maybe twice over.