A Skele-Ton of Fun!
Before now, developer 17-Bit’s masterfully fun Skulls of the Shogun was limited to the world of Windows Phone 8. For those of us who enjoy cleverly executed turn-based strategy titles and are iOS people, this was a travesty. But just when it seemed we might have to travel to the mythical, skeleton-heavy afterworld of Feudal Japan and forcibly bring the game back with us, it hit other platforms like Xbox Live Arcade and Steam. Things looked up, as we spent our days looking at screenshots and dreaming of the day that such a ridiculously charming game might make its way to our chosen devices. That day has come.
You are General Akamoto, a Samurai General who, whilst reveling in the spoils of a recent and particularly glorious victory, is felled by the razor sharp blade of a foe. The next thing you know, you’re little more than a floating skeleton. Spirited away to the afterlife, Akamoto is shocked and chagrined to learn that between him and an eternity of bliss is a line of fellow dead soldiers. It is estimated that from the point of entry, 2,000 years will pass before our hero arrives at the gates of the true afterlife; and so in true Samurai fashion, he chooses to fight his way to the head of the queue instead.
But it won’t be easy. If the line seemed bad, the guardians of the afterlife are worse (and no less annoying than standing around like a goon behind who-knows-how-many other skeletons). And though Akamoto will recruit any number of fellow soldiers who range in class from simple infantry and horse-riding bad-asses to snarkily clever archers, there is no end in sight to the obstacles standing in his way.
At its heart, Skulls of the Shogun plays out in a similar fashion to any number of turn-based games. A longtime staple of gaming, the basic mechanics result in a limited number of turns with which to move your characters and attack. 17-Bit has refined these ideas by adding mechanics that, while subtle, seem so obvious and necessary that veteran gamers will wonder how they ever lived without them. For example, Akamoto can recruit plenty of so-called Dirty Ronin (Samurai who no longer have masters) to his team, but should he fall, it’s game over. By placing your recruits near each other, a sort of wall is created that aids in keeping Akamoto alive. This is called the Spirit Wall, and not only will it keep you safe, but it prevents actions from your foes like knocking your army off cliff faces or even counter-attacks. Placement is everything, and you’ll quickly learn the advantages of your different classes. With semi-weak attacks, mobile infantry is best used as cannon fodder, whereas archers can be placed out of range of similar enemies and pack a wallop.
This makes way for what is perhaps the most satisfying aspect of Skulls of the Shogun, which is to say that it’s endlessly fun to think a few moves ahead and carry out a well-planned series of actions. Akamoto is certainly stronger than his army, but you’ll need to be sure that moving him into the fray is a wise move. Luckily, eating the skulls of your enemies not only heals your various characters, but three skull-feasts levels characters into Demons who can then make two moves for every one the enemy can. Choosing who to feed, and if it’s worth a turn to do so in the long run, is stressful but in the most fun way.
There are story twist and turns as well, and no shortage of legitimately humorous dialogue from Akamoto, his army, and even your enemies. Humor in games is a tricky one, but Skulls of the Shogun manages to not only nail the laughs, but keeps them appropriate for all ages. This is a recurring theme and one of the most compelling achievements of the game; that gamers both old and new can jump in and enjoy literally every aspect of the title is pretty mind-boggling. And it goes even further than gameplay and writing. A mixture of traditional Japanese shamisen plucking over an upbeat, more contemporary soundtrack is a great example. Again, it’s an odd combination of old and new that could just as easily seem ridiculous, but it not only compliments the core components of the game: it shows 17-Bit’s dedication to the actual roots of Japanese lore.
Multiplayer matches are a little difficult to come by just now, but this could be chalked up to how new the game is. Certainly once word gets out that such an excellent game is stalking the App Store, more gamers will pick it up. After all, Skulls of the Shogun is a cross-play title. In case this is a new concept to you, you can begin the game on your PC or iPad and then pick up where you left off on your phone later. If this feature isn’t a selling point, we don’t know what is, and it fully justifies the current $4.99 price point. Oh sure, it might be more satisfying to play on a big ol’ HD TV, but this is one hell of a gorgeous game regardless of where you boot it up. It’s a cartoony style with lovingly rendered characters and backgrounds that evoke Ukiyo-E artists such as Hokusai or Kuniyoshi.
Japan-o-philes, strategy aficionados, gamers old and new, heed my words—if ever there was a game that must absolutely not be ignored, it is Skulls of the Shogun. This game is built on a rock solid foundation that keeps one foot in the realm of classic gaming concepts and the other firmly planted within the world of innovation and fun. From the tremendously entertaining gameplay, to the hysterical writing and brilliant art direction, 17-Bit has somehow provided a breath of fresh air to the genre without overlooking a single aspect. This is not only one of the more charming games in recent memory; it’s one of the most impressive examples of gaming period, regardless of genre.