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Skulls of the Shogun Review

Posted by Matthew Hewson On Tuesday 5 February 2013Comments Off

Available on XBLA and Windows 8 l Published by Microsoft l Developed by 17-BIT l Classified PG l Supports 1-4 players

REVIEW IN BRIEF > Don’t let the cartoony exterior fool you, Skulls of the Shogun offers some tight strategic gameplay and if you’re a fan of turn based combat, you shouldn’t pass it up. Shogun features charm, humour and wit, along with a decent single player campaign and some quality multiplayer offerings. The game is let down a little by difficulty spikes and fiddly controls, but for the cost of entry, Skulls of the Shogun more than satisfies.

REVIEW IN FULL > When I first heard the name Skulls of the Shogun, it conjured images in my head of a dark action RPG with an eastern based mythology, something along the lines of Jade Empire. I pictured ancient samurai plaguing the land and one lone hero on a quest to stop them. Well I got that game, except for the dark part, and the RPG part, and the lone hero part. In fact, come to think of it, Skulls of the Shogun was nothing like I expected, but you know what? I had a pretty good time despite all that.

I found early on that upgrading my units could mean the difference between a sweet skeletal victory and, well, losing the ‘un’ from ‘undead’.

Skulls of the Shogun turned out to be a turn based strategy game with more in common with Heroes of Might and Magic than any BioWare product. I filled the role of a mighty but tragic warrior. Just as I achieved the title of Shogun, I was stabbed and died a painful death. From there I was whisked to the underworld where I had to fight for my right to rule and discover the identity of the person who killed me. While this all sounds dark and dreary, I can assure you it felt anything but. The hand drawn cartoony style of the game was a pleasure to behold and it evoked an almost Nickelodeon feeling that wouldn’t look out of place among the usual Saturday morning fair my kids indulge in.

My quest to regain my honour involved using various unit types in what was an almost typical turn based affair. I say ‘almost’ because there were some slight changes. Instead of the usual hex or square grid, I could shift my units to anywhere within their movement range. This meant that I could position troops exactly where I wanted them, but it also lead to one of the game’s biggest problems. Without a grid to work with, it was very easy to put a trooper in the wrong position, which often led to its instant death. For broad movement the system worked perfectly, but for fine adjustment it became all too fiddly.

Each area I entered had a range of goals, from simply destroying all the opposing troops to making to an exit unscathed. Some levels even had me protecting points around the battleground. These nodes allowed me to summon more troops or special priest units that could heal, protect and even revive other units if they had been upgraded enough. Speaking of upgrading, this was achieved by eating the skulls of vanquished foes. Each skull a unit ate upgraded its health and at the third skull, turned it into a demon with double hit and move points. I found early on that upgrading my units could mean the difference between a sweet skeletal victory and, well, losing the ‘un’ from ‘undead’.

I did have a few issues with how the campaign progressed. There were dramatic difficulty spikes in the game. Some levels I would cruise through, while the next would crush me repeatedly, only to be followed by another simple level. This inconsistency became frustrating as there was no difficulty curve as such. Another problem I had (albeit a small one) was the dialogue. When I say dialogue, I mean speech bubbles that popped up at random times from the mouths of the troops. While some of what they had to say was funny, a lot of the time it just felt like it broke the flow of the game too much. The campaign also felt just a touch on the short side, coming in at about six hours for a play through. I felt it could have used an extra hour or so just to make it feel a little more complete.

The campaign felt just a touch on the short side, coming in at about six hours for a play through.

I’m happy to report that these problems were non-existent in the multiplayer component of the game. I had the opportunity to compete against people online or in the same room. I could even take a turn and send it to a friend before awaiting their counter move (think of the way Words With Friends and Frozen Synapse work). This was particularly impressive because I could play against people using their Xboxes, Windows 8 PCs or even their mobile phones and tablets. This is something I would love to see more of, especially in the smaller indie games that are supported on multiple gaming platforms.

Skulls of the Shogun does a lot right, The multiplayer is a cut above most indie games, there is a lot of variety in the single player and the whole aesthetic of the game is certainly easy on the eyes.  While there are some annoyances with the control scheme, AI difficulty and hit and miss humour, there is certainly enough here to keep most turn based fans happy. Of course if you are put off by skeleton on skeleton cannibalism, then this isn’t the game for you.

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