Skulls of the Shogun Hands-on: The Art of Advance War

When indie developer Jake Kazdal told me his studio's game, the still in development Skulls of the Shogun, was heavily inspired by his love of Nintendo's Advance Wars series, I was already on the hook.

I was pleasantly surprised "inspired by" didn't mean "a clone of." While elements of Advance Wars are apparent in Skulls of the Shogun, currently planned for release on Xbox Live Arcade (and elsewhere), this strategy game is a very different beast.

Kazdal, founder of Haunted Temple Studios, offered me a peek at his turn-based strategy title just before Tokyo Game Show kicked off officially. In Skulls of the Shogun, undead samurai take to the battlefield to fight for dominance over plots of land, engaging in strategic combat that is light on troop management and resource building, heavier on smart, carefully planned battle tactics.

A Small Army

Skulls of the Shogun features a comparatively small set of units. Matches start with just four available troop types: Cavalry, a mounted unit that has a wide range of movement, but relatively weak attack power; Infantry, your front line, hand-to-hand combat unit; Archer, which excels at long range attacks; and your General, a powerful commanding unit. If the General dies, you lose.

The General unit features an interesting twist. If you leave him idle at the start of the match, his hit points will increase, up to a maximum amount. Move him too early and you may send an unnecessarily weakened General out onto the field. But given his strengths as a unit, a full scale attack right from the get-go might just be crazy enough to work.

Players can also call in Monks by sending units to capture—or "haunt"—Fox Shrines, which start as neutral structures. There are different Monk types featured in the game, which can cast healing and defensive spells. Summon Shrines, analogous to the factories of Advance Wars, can also be captured to summon in new undead units.

How do you pay for all this stuff? By capturing rice paddies. Rice is the era appropriate currency of Skulls of the Shogun. Paddies offer a finite amount of funds and the game's maps don't appear to be flush with these resources. There were maybe 10 on the small 1-versus-1 map on which Kazdall and I played. That limited amount of raw materials looks to put the game's emphasis on attacking and defending, not land-grabbing and building up massive armies.

While the limited number of units may make Skulls of the Shogun appear a tad shallow, every unit in the game can be upgraded. When you kill an enemy soldier, he'll drop his skull. Eat that skull and you'll power up a unit's defense, hit points and attack power. Snack on three skulls with the same unit and you'll transform it into the Demon Lord version of itself, a big, scary and tough variation on a stock unit.

Chowing down on three enemy skulls is no mean feat—especially since Monks can cast Purify on the skulls of downed friendly units, sending them into the ether—so these super units are appropriately bad-ass.

Skulls of the Shogun Hands-on: The Art of Advance War

Circle Based

Instead of the grid-based combat of an Advance Wars or the hex-based layout of other strategy games, Skulls of the Shogun is circular in its movement. Units can move within a certain radius while advancing through a map, lending a more organic strategic element to turn-based attacks. Some units, after attacking, can move again, but within a much smaller radius to shift out of harm's way.

Units can form defensive walls by huddling close together. When one is successfully formed, a series of colored circles appears under each protected unit. Enemy infantry can't break through these walls to attack, say, your archers in the backfield, limiting an enemy unit's effectiveness.

I was lucky enough to form such a defense during my hour-long match against Kazdal, which I was happy to lose. That wall of infantry was a great boon to my side as I sent units back to my captured Summon Shrine to heal, sending my monk toward my front line for some healing. Still, I lost, thanks to Kazdal's late game skull grab and the ensuing slaughter of my regular powered troops.

Multiplayer will support up to four players in 2-versus-2 and free-for-all matches. Kazdal says Skulls of the Shogun will feature asynchronous multiplayer options, letting players save in the middle of online battles and revisit them when its more convenient.

Skulls of the Shogun Hands-on: The Art of Advance War

Sakura Wars

Skulls of the Shogun is lush, colorful game. Surprisingly pretty for a turn-based strategy title about a war between undead Japanese soldiers. The map that we spent the most time on was based on the spring season, with glowing cherry blossom petals raining down on a dark battlefield, a slow creep of shadows from the clouds above painting the ground.

The game's heavily stylized look, Kazdal says, draws from elements of anime from the 1960s. Matches take place on gorgeously rendered battlegrounds with high resolution assets that zoom in and out smoothly.

Those art assets will scale well to the other planned platforms for Skulls of the Shogun, Windows-based PCs and Windows mobile phones. Haunted Temple is planning on a multi-platform release for Skulls of the Shogun starting in 2011.

Kazdal says that Haunted Temple Studios is close to locking down a publishing agreement for Skulls of the Shogun.