Skulls of the Shogun: The Kotaku Review [UPDATE]

I want to tell you that Skulls of the Shogun is excellent.

I want to tell you the game is fantastic, and that it has some of the best writing this year so far. I want to tell you about how lovingly crafted it is, about the small details it includes. I want to tell you these things, without including all the technical issues.

I can't do that. Skulls of the Shogun is absolutely a game worth playing, but at times, glitches can get in the way of the experience.

What happens in the afterlife? In Skulls of the Shogun's rendition, it's not much different from what we already do in the real world. In General Akamoto's case (aka you, the protagonist), that means he continues making ample use of his tactical prowess—only instead of meatbags, he commands skeletons.

The premise: just as Akamoto is about to become a shogun ("great general who subdues barbarians" according to Wikipedia), he is stabbed in the back. No poetic moment, you don't go all et tu, Samurai?—no, you get something better: the chance for revenge.

In the land of the dead, nobody treats you like the great general that you once were—and even worse, an usurper took your name and rightful, prestigious place in the afterlife. Thankfully, some of the undead join your payback crusade, either out of admiration, or out of a devilish desire to see the world burn. Turns out, the afterlife is a funny, playful place.

Skulls of the Shogun is a turn-based strategy game. You command an army, and every turn you get five actions.

There are three main unit types: infantry (high defense, limited movement), cavalry (average attack and defense, but great movement) and archers (high attack and range, but awful defense.) These are your bread and butter skulls and crossbones of battle, though as the game progresses, you use what are some of the most creative units in a turn-based strategy game I've seen.

You get something better: the chance for revenge.

The game lifts from Japanese folklore, which means you battle with Oni (possibly Yokai?) and special animal monks. It's a delight to use a new unit. Some do magic spells, like thunder or fireballs. Some heal and resurrect. Others exist simply to be a nuisance thanks to the ability to alter the positioning of friendlies, enemies or even power-ups.

All are a joy to command, and not just because they're interesting in battle. Small details suggest care was put into creating these units: moving the cavalry means watching your undead horse gallop and hearing it neigh across the map, for example.

The game as a whole has stuff like that, really: there's the serene drift of cherry blossoms overlayed on maps, units attack in slo-mo when dealing a final blow, or having units recoil if they're incapable of retaliating. There's probably stuff I missed, too.

Back to the units: it gets better. If you defeat an enemy, they drop a skull. It's, uh, their actual skull. And you can eat it. Kind of gruesome when you think about it, and yet it gives us a glimpse of just how monstrous Akamoto must've been in battle when alive—what kind of a man commands his forces to eat fallen foes?

You'll want to eat them, though. They'll up your health, and, should a unit manage to eat three, the unit transforms into a demonic version of itself—capable of taking multiple turns and sporting fancier stats. Some units even unlock advanced abilities with skulls, allowing everyone a chance to become as frightful as a reaper.

Skulls of the Shogun: The Kotaku Review [UPDATE]

I like to think of it as the closest thing a strategy game has to a curbstomp: something you do to either finish someone off, to rub your superiority in, or simply because the crunchiness feels oh-so-good.

Perhaps skull-eating is better than a curbstomp, because it's useful and comes with the visible reminder that you're a badass. Every skull you eat revolves around your unit ominously, and when you turn into a demon, your appearance becomes menacing. I love it.

Skulls of the Shogun: The Kotaku Review [UPDATE]
WHY: Skulls of the Shogun is a creative take on the strategy genre that manages to be accessible while not dumbing itself down. And, you'll get to laugh while you mull over tactics.

Skulls of the Shogun

Developer: 17-BIT

Platforms: Xbox Live Arcade, Windows 8, Windows Phone, Windows RT (and features cross-platform play between these platforms!)

Released: January 30th

Type of game: Turn-based strategy.

What I played: I spent 15 hours going through the campaign, currently at the end of the third area—there are four areas in all. I haven't meaningfully touched multiplayer yet, but it's there, and if the single player campaign is any indication, it's probably fun.

Two Things I Loved

  • The skull-eating mechanic is fantastic—it heals you, and turns you into an awesome demon.
  • Anticipating the moment you get to awake your general: the whole battlefield will know.

Two Things I Hated

  • Argh! These bugs!
  • Hey, let's play 'find the exact pixel' to get a chance to attack.

Made-to-Order Back-of-Box Quotes

  • "I had no idea skulls were such a great snack. Maybe I should try some." -Patricia Hernandez, Kotaku.com
  • "Fear me, mortals. I'm a demon." -Patricia Hernandez, Kotaku.com

Much of battle revolves around skull management: either seeking them out for ultimate power (and hoping that you don't get destroyed for being a glutton), stopping enemy forces before they gain a demon, or snacking on skulls to heal. Trust me: you do not want an enemy to gain a demon. And if the GENERAL becomes a demon? Ho, boy. More on that in a bit.

You move all these units on a gridless battlefield, which gives you flexibility in movement, but also means it's imprecise. You don't know exactly how far away you have to be before you can hit without selecting a unit and looking at its range. Finding the precise location which grants you an action can be frustrating.

Unit positioning is also crucial here. If a unit is on an edge or a cliff, you can push them off for quick and easy kills. This is also used against you, though—so pay attention! You can preempt knockbacks through spirit walls, which requires friendly units to defensively stand shoulder to shoulder.

The game does an admirable job of keeping battles fresh, too. Most battles introduce novel elements, and it's rare to find a battle that can be reduced to simply ‘destroy everything.'

Maybe you have to take into account a new, mysterious unit. Maybe you have to get to a certain part of the map. Perhaps you need to survive an intense ambush. Or, you might race for the pile of skulls in the middle of the map. Depends!

Add the ability to haunt paddies, which give you rice, along with the ability to haunt shrines, which give you units (which sometimes cost rice), and you have a game with a surprising amount of depth.

I like to think of Skulls of the Shogun in the vein of the stealth game Mark of the Ninja—and not just because they have a similar aesthetic. They're both genre games of the "popcorn" variety (think ‘popcorn flick.')

What I mean is: they're both excellent gateway drugs for more ‘hardcore' titles in the genre, but they don't sacrifice the essence of what makes the hardcore games fun. Actually, they might focus on the best aspects of the genre while satisfying both diehards and newbies alike. That type of accessibility is a feat.

You won't find the involving, eats-away-your-entire-night time suck of more ‘serious' strategy games in Skulls of the Shogun. Instead you get quick and sweet romps—most levels took about 15-30 minutes, with more complex levels taking nearly an hour. As someone who is highly sensitive when it comes to games wasting my time, I welcome the pithiness with open arms.

That type of accessibility is a feat.

Unfortunately, some of my time was wasted anyway. Yes, there's the typical ‘restart the battle when things go bad' that is endemic to any game that gives you such an option. But there are also a few technical mishaps. Some levels seem riddled with bugs.

There's one battle that comes to mind thanks to how long I spent trying to beat it—at first due to incompetence, and then, because of strange glitches. Here's how it went down:

Lose, restart. Lose, restart. And then, what's this? Why can't I move these units, what are they stuck on? I'm standing in an open field. They can't move in any direction. Uh? Restart. Okay, they can move now. Oh look, I'm finally doing well! Hell yeah! Aaaaand there's an error and the game forces me to restart. Okay, fresh new game. Again. And then gives me an error. Again!

Skulls of the Shogun: The Kotaku Review [UPDATE]

These things occurred more than once, but not always all in the same battle. I've played 15 hours of Skulls of the Shogun, but I'd reckon that at least 5 of these hours were me restarting either out of incompetence or because the game screwed up somewhere. Thankfully, the battles are all short so this wasn't a deal breaker, but I've cursed more at Skulls of the Shogun than I've wanted to.

At times strategy went out the window if a general was within reach. Suddenly, a difficult map would devolve into an all-out attack against one unit—for if the general falls, you win the match. There were situations where I would barely touch the normal units and would win thanks to this loophole, which would make that win feel hollow.

Skulls of the Shogun: The Kotaku Review [UPDATE]

Still, I enjoyed commanding the thunderous Akamoto, thanks in no small part to the sheer power he held. This was reinforced by details like having his awakening happen with a controller-shaking strike of lightning, or even just his ability to wield two swords (and thus take two turns) from the get go. Normally, a unit has to become a demon to do the same thing.

Perhaps generals are too powerful. There were a couple of instances where all my units were destroyed, save for Akamoto... and I waited to wake him up, and managed to make him into a demon version of himself. Demon Akamoto gets three turns. That's three chances for annihilation.

I could wipe entire maps—entire maps!—with this unit alone. That's insane. It also meant that if I had the misfortune of having an enemy general consume three skulls, there was no feasible way to take him down even if I used all five of my turns to attack him—and even if some of these units were demons themselves.

Thematically this fits; generals are supposed to be the most feared units. But being able to ignore tactics in a strategy game thanks to a single unit isn't so great.

Wrapping this experience up is excellent writing that isn't afraid to poke fun at itself. It reminds me of Paper Mario a little, only more ridiculous: these are generals and esteemed samurai! They speak with the look and gravitas of Kabuki theater! Their chatter sounds intimidating! And yet this is a sampling of what they said:

"I like you! I shall eat your skull last!" - Akamoto, on meeting his enemies for the first time.

"Gyah, how dare you! Do you know who I am?! I'm connected, I know people!" - An enemy general.

"Easy for you to say! You don't have the A.I. in charge of your destiny!" - A monk.

"I got money! I can make it rain rice and potions!" - A general, in an attempt to impress a spring goddess.

"Not very good at pre-battle banter, are you?" - Akamoto to an enemy general.

"I see, do you often have difficulty... *ahem* ... "performing"? - Akamoto to a general extolling the virtues of ‘performance enhancing' potions.

You get the idea. The afterlife is a place for hijinks, populated by devilish creatures. Devilish in the playful sense of the word; these mischievous Yokai would be right at home with calacas. The light-hearted humor provides a good balance for the heavier turn-based strategy play.

So cheer up, Akamoto. You might be dead thanks to a traitorous worm, but you still get to kick ass and have a good time while you're at it. If you don't get hit with a bug, that is.

UPDATE: 17-BIT told us that there is a title update that will address known bugs and issues. We will update this review as soon as we know more.