Platform: Xbox 360, PC (Windows 8)
Reviewer: Bracken Lee-Rudolph
Released on Xbox Live for Xbox 360, Windows 8 for PC, Microsoft Surface and Windows Phone 7 and 8, Skulls of the Shogun offers the first asynchronous multiplayer mode across the four platforms. The turn-based strategy title with its feet firmly planted in the indie scene is 17-BIT’s debut title, and one that can hopefully make a wave on the Xbox Live Marketplace. So is Skulls of the Shogun a cut above the opposition? Or does it fall disappointingly to the attacks of its enemies? Let’s find out!
The title’s narrative follows the quest of Japanese Samurai, General Akamoto, as he tracks down his killer, who stabs him in the back as he is on the verge of defeating his final enemies and becoming the Shogun of Japan. As he travels from the Shores of the Dead, laying waste to his enemies as he plunders through the four seasons of the Afterlife, General Akamoto encounters former allies, constant rivals and the Gods and Monks of the Afterlife. The title’s storyline doesn’t lack in interesting characters and humorous situations, and the narrative is sufficient to retain the interest, while failing to stand out. Little bits of humour are commonplace and this keeps the title’s atmosphere light, which only contributes to an overall narrative success.
The title plays incredibly smoothly; players are given control of General Akamoto at first, after which they gain control of the 3 basic units of Infantry, Cavalry and Archers. Players can issue up to 5 orders per turn, in which they can move units (within their movement range before and after actions), haunt rice paddies, soldier shrines and monk shrines, and attack enemies. Attacking is divided between short-range melee (Infantry and Cavalry) and long-range projectile attacking (Archers), which can be countered for less damage by a unit that attacks in the same manner. Haunting rice paddies and shrines take up the action slot for a turn, but give huge bonuses, such as spawning special “Monk” characters, allowing players to spawn extra soldiers and generating currency which allows extra units to be spawned and high level Monk abilities to be used.
The Monks offer an extra facet to the gameplay, as they offer different attacks or buffs to your team as they level up and become stronger, including healing and defence upgrades. Levelling up involves eating the skulls of fallen enemies, which increases a soldier’s hit points and adds an extra spell to a Monk’s arsenal. Eating 3 skulls will turn a character into a Demon, which allows them to use 2 actions in one round, such as attacking an enemy and then haunting a shrine. These levelling upgrades also apply to your general, who can attack twice per round by default and gains the ability to attack three times per turn.
The title manages to keep the gameplay challenging, so that it tests the player’s skills and tactics, but still manages to keep it entertaining. This creates a fantastic, addictive experience and makes the player think about how they will approach a level, in addition to giving them the tools to approach it in several ways.
Graphically, the title has a very whimsical animated art direction, similar to that of Castle Crashers and Fat Princess, although it is notably less bloody than the latter. However, the character models and environments are quite detailed and all the visuals are stable. While the visuals are not glitchy, I did get the impression that a couple of the animations were a bit under-detailed, which looked a little messy amongst the otherwise very clean visuals. However, other than those slight visual problems, the title’s graphical performance is quite a complete one and reinforce the mood and theme of the title perfectly.
The title sounds great. The soundtrack is upbeat yet unobtrusive, providing the perfect background to the numerous levels throughout the title. The voice acting is not Japanese, but the gibberish sounds convincing and fits the title well enough to only add to the fantastic atmosphere created by the soundtrack. Finally, the sound effects were great and captured the fun and entertaining nature of the title, while maintaining the idea of being in a battle with the sounds of weapons clanking and clinging as the undead battle.
Onto Skulls of the Shogun’s marquee feature: The multiplayer. Needless to say, Skulls of the Shogun works fantastically well. There are 3 modes to choose from, namely Skulls on the Couch, Skulls Online and Skulls Anywhere. Skulls on the Couch and Skulls online allow you to wage war with up to 4 friends or random online players, who each take control of their own set of warriors. This works very well, and the way you can see an enemy’s gameplan unfolding is quite a striking sight, but what takes the cake is the asynchronous multiplayer, or “Skulls Anywhere”.
This mode allows you to play with another player over an unlimited time period, taking turns when you open the title on any Windows device, whether it be an Xbox 360, a Windows 8 PC, a Windows Phone 7/8 or a Microsoft Surface tablet. This works incredibly well for a strategy title, as it allows players to still maintain the heat of competition, but when they have time, as many people’s schedules do not allow them to play simultaneously. I felt this was a fantastic feature, truly with the gamer at heart, and I hope to see it implemented again in the near future.
The title has fantastic lasting ability, as it has a lengthy, challenging and compelling single-player campaign with some truly fantastic writing, the aforementioned online and local multiplayer modes and the fantastic “Skulls Anywhere” mode. All-in-all, Skulls of the Shogun is a really easy title to pick up, and an equally as easy title to get fully immersed and lost in. The only thing that could possibly hold it back is a lack of unit classes, as these seem fairly limited with only Infanty, Cavalry and Archers.
Skulls of the Shogun is a great downloadable title. It has an intense, if not frenetic, gameplay style, a fantastic narrative experience and an engrossing setting, yet still manages to keep the theme and overall mood very bright and energetic. This contrast was enhanced by some deep, tactical gameplay, which is only held back by the confines of the unit classes on offer. Graphically, the title performs fantastically, and were it not for a couple of animations with a lack of sufficient detail, the title would have warranted a perfect score.
Sound-wise the title performs fantastically, and the incoherent imitations of Japanese performed as voice acting do not damage the title in the least, but rather enhance the experience, as most dialogue takes place in speech bubbles with the gibberish serving as a background sound. The title shines in multiplayer and deserves a lot of praise for the way that the asynchronous, multi-platform multiplayer has been executed, as it is a system with great potential. Finally, Skulls of the Shogun show its class in various game modes, and although the character classes are fairly limited, the title uses them to their full potential, giving it a great lasting appeal and ensuring that many gamers will be playing this truly first-class, easily accessible, turn-based strategy title for a long time to come.
Lasting Appeal: 8.5/10
Reviewed on Xbox 360