After a first glance at 17-BIT's Skulls of the Shogun, with it's bright, cartoon graphics; boldly outlined, impressively detailed characters and comically subtitled dialogue, we can't wait to try it out. Starting on the shores of an unknown land, after being seemingly betrayed (and killed) whilst revelling in an epic battle just won, you wonder where on earth you are now. A snappy and interactive scene unfolds, quickly explaining that you have arrived at some kind of limbo underworld, which you must wait in to reach the true afterlife. This scene also acts as a starting tutorial, helping you understand the turn-based fighting mechanics.
After your super-entitled Shogun, General Akamoto, refuses to conform and queue up for the afterlife like everyone else, (he is the famous General Akamoto after all) it becomes obvious that you are going to have to fight your way through the four seasons of the underworld to reach your goal. The guards are of course pretty unhappy about this, and we are thrown straight into battle, gaining some supporters, and loyal fighters, from the jaded people filing their way slowly through the underworld. It is here that we learn that each unit has a limited movement radius per turn, and you have five moves per turn, so you have to choose who you move, and how you act very carefully.
The fighters that you acquire come in different formats, each with their own pros and cons. Archers are strong attackers but poor defenders, cavalry are great for moving around but vulnerable to the ranged attacks of the archers, infantry are fantastic defenders but have limited movement and monks, which you discover further in the game, are spellcasters. The monks are a little more complex and come in three different flavours, the Fox, Salamander and Crow and each have a different range of tricks can can be accessed by eating the skulls of your defeated enemies.
Speaking of eating skulls, this neat little game mechanic is a rather fun way of turning the game in your favour. Every time you or an enemy is slain, the skull of the fallen remains on the floor and units of either team may eat the skulls of the opposition. Eating one heals you and also boosts your maximum health points. Cool right? That's not all. When a single unit has eaten three skulls they transform into a super duper, awesome demon unit. Demon soldiers gain a bonus to their attack, as well as the ridiculously helpful feature of an extra move in their turn. On top of that, as your General already has two moves available, if you turn him into a demon he has three moves per turn. This can really change the game around because attacking an enemy is all very well and good, but if you don't kill it in your turn, the chances are the AI will have it fully healed by your next. So having three potential attacks means that most adversaries are killable straight off, meaning you don't have to worry if you don't have another soldier within range.
Another feature of the game is the rice paddies, which you haunt with one of your combatants. Doing so will consequently produce twenty-five rice per turn, allowing you to purchase extra infantry, archers or cavalry, providing you have also haunted the shrine at which they spawn.
We also quickly learned to be wary of cliff edges and thorny bushes as being knocked off them, or into them respectively was painful and/or lethal.
The only game mechanic that we had a slight issue with is the 'spirit wall'. Placing your warriors close to each other forms a defensive spirit wall that glows red, preventing the people creating it from being knocked back (handy when near those aforementioned cliff edges), and protecting units stood behind it (the more vulnerable archers maybe) from suffering a ranged attack. Whilst this sounds like a great idea, which in essence it is, the units can somewhat overlap and distinguishing between them can prove difficult to say the least, due to a lack of a standard real time strategy grid system. We wouldn't change it though, because the freedom that comes with no grid is a pleasantly refreshing variation from the standard in this time-honoured genre.
The levels themselves are a challenge, and we found ourselves dying on several occasions, but this never became a tribulation, it just meant that we tried a different tactic on the next time around. Also each level keeps a record of the time it was completed in, meaning you can go back and try to beat your score. It also shows the times your friends have completed them in too, which is a nice motivation to get to the top of the scoreboard. Both these things really boost the replay value and add nearly endless hours of gaming.
The multiplayer function is a lot of fun; the Skulls on the Couch mode allowing up to four players to play against each other on the same Xbox, and it reminded me a bit of Worms as we had a go and each tried to battle our way to last man standing. The Skulls Anywhere multiplayer function is particularly interesting as you can play against people on different platforms, like a windows phone for example. This is pretty fresh stuff, and will no doubt keep the online multiplayer alive for longer.
What really makes the game for me though is the impeccable sense of humour. I don't think I have ever played a game which has actually made me laugh out loud before, but this did on a number of occasions. The discourse throughout the game is just incredibly well written and takes the game to a whole new level of enjoyment, especially if you are a moustache fan (and lets face it, who isn't?).
The hypnotic little soundtrack really makes you feel like you're playing in an arcade, and was stuck in our heads for hours after the Xbox power light faded, much like the game itself, as we found ourselves thinking up tactics for the level we were trying to beat even when not playing. Whilst it's not a flashy, edge of your seat play, it is a lot of fun, very well made, and one of those games you can keep coming back to. Nice work 17-BIT.
- Hilarious scripting
- Hours of fun alone or with others
- Challenging without being frustrating
- Speedy combat
- Difficult to pick up multiplayer if not played campaign.
- Units can get clumped together