It is a good day to die for General Akamoto. Well, it isn’t at first. Being killed by an unknown assailant, being forced to stand in line to reach eternal rest, and having to eat skulls to push your way through the afterlife may sound obnoxious, but it’s a small price to pay. From up-and-coming development house, 17-bit Games comes Skulls of the Shogun, the highly-anticipated strategy game for XBLA that shows Japanese war history in a weird, but incredibly funny light. Accessible gameplay and a bottomless reserve of humor keep Skulls of the Shogun from stumbling, even when some gameplay inconsistencies do their best to make that happen.
Skulls of the Shogun is a playful story of a general’s rise to power, only in this one, the protagonist is dead within the first three minutes of the game. After being assassinated by a mysterious enemy, samurai general Akamoto is transported to the afterlife. He then encounters a lengthy, DMV-quality line to eternal rest. Instead of waiting his turn for centuries, Akamoto takes the more direct approach and fights his way up the ranks until he can rest, while also discovering some secrets about his mysterious death. The game is a remarkably funny venture through limbo, as the general and his eventual followers make plenty of goofy, internet-meme-esque remarks about the bureaucracy of death, the stupidity of their enemies, and even Akamoto’s love life. The writing is witty and self-conscious at every turn, resulting in a funny twist on both Japanese culture and the scourge of war.
Unlike other turn-based strategy games, Skulls of the Shogun doesn’t weigh down the battles with an overuse of micromanagement and bizarrely complex mechanics. It’s quite accessible, focusing more energy on keeping the battles streamlined. Earning units is easy enough by capturing specific environmental locations and spending the harvested rice resource. Attacking enemies can deliver either victory or a nasty counterattack depending on the unit, terrain, and stat modifiers. You get your share of healing units, magic spells on the map, and even some leader-specific techniques to keep the gameplay from growing stale. While these gameplay ideas definitely add depth to the mechanics, it’s not something to break out a strategy guide over. Diverse maps and some surprise motions from adversaries keep the battles dynamic. Skulls of the Shogun never dumbs down the mechanics of a turn-based strategy game, instead rewarding the player for experimenting with their battle plans.
But accessibility doesn’t hide the few gameplay irks that appear during each round. One major issue is the lack of a proper grid-based movement system. Instead of having specific squares to control, Skulls of the Shogun allows the player to move units in a circular radius. This does add some interesting depth to battles, but it can make the strategy a bit clunky. A single nudge of the analog stick can mean the difference between a victorious attack and an annoying retaliation. Some other gameplay features like the “knockback” element tend to be too ambiguous to use effectively. One significant issue is that the death of your shogun is an instant game over. While it makes perfect sense that a general should be the cornerstone of a successful army, it does make some battles significantly more difficult, or in other cases, significantly easier. Just as the enemy can keep your shogun in its crosshairs, you can do the same back at them, so targeting the leader can make the rest of the battle almost negligible under some circumstances. While some of these problems are innovative for a strategy game of its variety, Skulls of the Shogun’s gameplay hindrances can make some of the higher-level battle encounters more a headache than a pleasant trip through the afterlife.
With a solid campaign length and some interesting gold skull challenges to complete, Skulls of the Shogun has a good amount of content to explore. Still, some more modes or twists on the gameplay would’ve been even better. The multiplayer, despite being cross-platform for XBLA, Windows 8, and Microsoft Surface tablets, suffers from some connection issues and a lack of a turn timer, making the battles a bit more frustrating than they should be. The game is a welcome change from the Civilizations and Disgaeas of its era, keeping the humor on the front lines while the innovative gameplay backs it up. It’s a game with style to burn, even through the frustration.
Skulls of the Shogun emits a flash-cartoon vibe with its presentation, with exceptionally animated actions and plenty of witty and clever dialogue between the undead shogun and his followers. The units’ and secondary creatures’ wacky quips during a fight lighten the mood considerably and the Shogun himself is a real character. While some animations are a bit too redundant, it’s great to see a game recapture that sense of humor that was originally reserved for cartoons from Newgrounds. If anything, the clever presentation elements keep Skulls of the Shogun on a higher note, even while some gameplay problems rear their ugly heads. It’s a funny, funny game.
Skulls of the Shogun may not lead strategy veterans away from their more venerable series, but if you’re new to the genre, it will likely be a refreshing glass of water from the complexities and confusions of the category. A streamlined resource management system and interesting unit abilities keep the gameplay fluid, while the ridiculous humor constantly offers a goofy vibe. Still, the game’s potential is pressed with its unrefined innovations, which differentiate it from its peers, but do more to make the motion and strategy a bit clunkier than it needs to be. Overall, though, Skulls of the Shogun demonstrates some very unique ideas in action and even when the frustration appears, it’s worth pursuing through. 17-bit Games have made a solid start with Skulls of the Shogun. It’s a funny, deep, and surprisingly accessible journey through the afterlife, one that will hopefully convince other developers to step outside their comfort zones when attempting to develop games for established genres.
Great sense of humor | Unique approach to turn-based strategy | Slick animation style
Interface can feel clunky | Multiplayer network issues | Some features are unintuitive and hard to use
It began with a hand-me-down Sega Genesis from his cousin and since then, he's been fascinated with video games. He enjoys the blissful platforming of the 16-bit era and the rich adventures of the 64-bit era. Favorite games include Metroid Prime, Banjo-Tooie, and practically every 16-bit Sonic the Hedgehog title.
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