Author: Rory Young
Editor: Howard Ha
Publish Date: Wednesday, January 30th, 2013
Originally Published on Neoseeker (http://www.neoseeker.com)
Article Link: http://www.neoseeker.com/Articles/Games/Reviews/skulls_of_shogun/
Copyright Neo Era Media, Inc. - please do not redistribute or use for commercial purposes.
It's rather fitting that Skulls of the Shogun left me with a big toothy grin. This hammy turn-based strategy game is yet another perfect example of what Microsoft loves to encourage on the Xbox 360's XBLA platform – not quite casual, not quite hardcore, fun-to-play diamonds in the rough with more personality than they rightly deserve.
While Skulls of the Shogun's biggest selling points may be its goofy, referential humor and gorgeous animation, the intuitive complexities of gameplay are nothing the joke about either. The main campaign can be played without much, if any, frustration, and there lurks a depth and nuance that may only emerge against a human opponent. The campaign itself is more than adequate as a standalone experience, those looking for a challenge will certainly find it therein.
Standing in stark contrast to the XCOM: Enemy Unknown’s and Fire Emblem’s that the turn-based strategy genre is currently glorifying, Skulls of the Shogun is a light-hearted, non-punishing, graciously clever game that anyone can play and enjoy.
Just as General Akamoto finds himself on the verge of becoming the Shogun in real life, he... well, he's stabbed in the back, quite literally. When he awakens, he's on a boat set for the Land of the Dead and the Eternal Reward he has earned. Upon arrival, he finds things aren't as welcoming as he'd expect and so gathers up a rag-tag army of ronin to set things straight. Romance, revenge, betrayal, and an assortment of other dramatic circumstances that Skulls of the Shogun can make fun of are all in there and more. It's a ridiculousness that will keep players wanting more every step of the way.
The real hook is how Skulls of the Shogun figured out a format for storytelling that consistently delivers. The standard for the genre is to put the story in between missions, letting cutscenes fill the gaps. Skulls of the Shogun spreads bits of story and hilarity in every mission, triggered by various in-game events that happen from map to map. Friends and enemies alike have a solid amount of dialogue, constantly adding to the narrative, while also slipping in pun after wonderfully terrible pun. “What do samurai say before they eat a skull? Bone appétit!”
Trust me, there's more where that came from. It's a simple, flowing storyline that easily grabs your attention, all the while slipping in joke after joke to keep the mood cheerful. The writing is clever and silly, and while the overall arch is rather predictable, it's charming enough to be enjoyed multiple times. Not to mention the game is worth revisiting purely for the dozens of references likely missed the first time around.
Considering the abundance of silliness in the game, how well the visual style and animations complement the rest of the experience only speaks to talent of the developers. Touting a cartoony, exaggerated look, it's never a shock to see a skeleton in samurai armor cut down his foe and then devour their skull. Yes, even a terribly morbid situation like that can occur in Skulls of the Shogun and still be hilarious. It's a rather unique style that's noticeably well-crafted but never abrasive. Despite the Japanese culture tropes of samurai, sakura, and sake, 17-BIT managed to create a distinct look that's appropriate for the tone and mood of the game.
Yet while the look of the game is quite fitting, the animation is what truly brings the experience to life. Awkward, ungainly movements for the samurai and petite, quick movements from the goddesses in kimono – it's almost surreal. If I had to make a comparison, I'd say it's similar to Paper Mario in that each character's movements never feel truly 3D so much as a 2D asset bent and stretched beyond its natural capacity. It's more than you'd expect. Basically, what I'm trying to say is that Shogun looks best in movement, with spell effects and talking skeletons, swords swinging and skulls getting chomped; the polish put into the game is clear. The developers could have gotten away with worse, but their efforts are definitely worth noting.
Add in some very high quality sound work, and finding anything negative to point out in Skulls of the Shogun from a non-gameplay perspective becomes near impossible. Audio dialogue is done in an Okami-esque gibberish language full of fragments of various Japanese words, but the voice acting (or digital reworking of said voice acting) still catches the nuance of emotion and humor very well. The soundtrack is also exemplary, but given the sort of game Skulls of the Shogun is, it served as more of an ambient track to the action at hand, rather than an accent or highlight of dramatic or emotional moments.
If turn-based strategy seems like an overly threatening genre, let me be the one to promise that it doesn't get more welcoming than in Skulls of the Shogun. More checkers than chess, playing through any given map felt less about precision and prediction than it did just casual fun. For the most part, every time I played I never planned ahead beyond some basic map goals. The decision to win a match simply felt like the time was right, or a reactionary process to something that had worked out quite well in my favor. Skulls of the Shogun does a great job of making gameplay welcoming and intuitive.
The goal of a typical map is either to defeat the enemy's general, defeat all the enemy soldiers, or simply to get from one end of the map to the other without losing your own general. Working towards that goal involves deciding which soldiers to send into battle at any given moment, which to protect, and later in the game, how to manage resources and recruit units. Still, combat just comes down to a simple rock, scissors, paper sort of gameplay most of the time.
Of course, there's also a depth to Skulls of the Shogun that will only likely be discovered upon full release, with the multiplayer ladders in full swing. Once the basics of mounted soldiers, archers, infantry, and monks are set in your mind the game becomes a test of timed aggression. Should I send out my soldiers? Should I send out my general? Who should I let eat these enemy skulls (a sort of feature that's like checkers' “king me”, doubling a units attacks)? Positioning plays an important role as well, as does a dozen other mechanics, but all I really want to make clear is that there's plenty to consider if considering is your interest. Just because 17-BIT made an accessible turn-based strategy doesn't mean it's not still a turn-based strategy game.
Don't think that the game is perfect by any means though. The gathering of resources to purchase more units sometimes feels unnecessary and burdensome, more of a safety feature in case you lose some units unexpectedly than a prominent part of gameplay. Judging movement distances or how much damage an opponent will do can also be difficult with no noticeable grid. Then, of course, there are the random chances where you can miss an attack on occasion, which also feels unnecessary. Sure, it adds some excitement to the game, but I think this is more counter-intuitive to the greater experiences. I'm just splitting hairs, however. A vast majority of the combat feels clean and well-designed, not to mention all-around fun.
While I won't go as far as saying that I'm driven to play more of Skulls of the Shogun purely for the sake of the gameplay, what 17-BIT has created is no small achievement. Playing through the campaign is certainly manageable even by novices, and the learning curve is well-tapered. When you win, it's easy to tell why. Combat is rewarding, and almost never will Skulls of the Shogun make you regret trying something new.
Skulls of the Shogun's greatest strength is how well every aspect works together. The experience as a whole is extremely cohesive, each portion accenting the others, ensuring that the atmosphere never gets too serious. It's clear that Shogun was designed to be a welcoming experience, and that design is succinct and quite clearly well-planned and executed. This shows in every moment of the game.
Yet despite that polish, or perhaps due in part to it, my compliments for Skulls of the Shogun have their limit. Simply put, the developers took no greater risk than making an accessible turn-based strategy game. And while that intent is certainly notable, even laudable, it doesn’t offer anything particularly memorable. Perhaps that's unfair, but upon reflection, I'm more than willing to admit how much fun I had with Skulls of the Shogun. I also have to admit that I'm not sure if I want to play any more of it.
Don't let that take away from everything that Skulls of the Shogun and 17-BIT have accomplished. I certainly hope the game is successful and I heartily recommend it to both casual and hardcore gamers alike. It's a solid title with some quality gameplay, more personality than most games could buy with millions of dollars, and the skeleton cast may as well be made entirely of funny bones. Just don't expect it to surprise you.
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