It’s rare to see an indie game that takes chances by pushing a genre in a new direction, but Skulls of the Shogun attempts to do just that — and it succeeds in some regards. Skulls of the Shoguns is a turn-based strategy game with fighting game elements and pacing, which gives it a unique blend of brains and combat. Units have different properties, but lack the sometimes overly complicated stats found in other games within the genre. Skulls of the Shogun is incredibly easy to pick up, but suffers from bugs and technical issues which make it a mediocre entry in a revived genre.
Most turn-based strategy games use a grid as a means of movement — you select a unit, and map its path with a number of green squares. It’s a formula that’s worked, but one that’s been driven to the ground. Skulls of the Shogun dismisses that approach in a refreshing manner. Units are given a free range of space to move about that’s designated by a circle around each one. Mobile units like the calvary have larger circles than archers and infantry units. It’s key to use these units to protect your mighty general as his death means defeat.
Yet, it’s not a simple cut and dry affair. Setting up units in a side by side formation form impregnable Spirit Walls. Enemy units can’t move through them, and archers can’t shoot units over them. Thus, moving and choosing your units accordingly becomes crucial to strategy.
Yet, choosing units is where the first glaring issue rears its head, especially if they’re jumbled together in an area. Not to knock the games beautifully hand drawn character sprites and beautiful environments, but when your behind trees or foliage — or too close to other allies — it becomes difficult to select your unit. It’s a recurring issue that leads to aggravation, but doesn’t break the game by any means.
Skulls of the Shogun‘s brisk pace is accessible and delivers a pick-up-and-play feeling that many turn-based strategy titles lack. Each army is only allowed five commands per turn; choosing where to move, who to attack, and whether or not to capture a rice field all count as commands keeping the action moving forward. You won’t have to worry about someone spending 30 minutes amassing the proper formation or thinking of new strategies.
The serious action begins once you start wiping out other enemies or in this case skulls. After eliminating an enemy you are given the opportunity to have a unit eat the skull which increases the units’ abilities. Feed your general three skulls and he turns into a unstoppable force who can quickly change the tide for a losing team or further insure dominance for the winning team. Still, with enough effort you can take out a careless general and seize the game.
Skulls of the Shogun’s balance comes from the individual units with individual purposes, and they all need to be used properly in order to achieve victory. Ranged units like the archer are great for picking off stragglers, but have glass jaws. Infantry units are perfect for creating Spirit Walls and can take a hit.
If this seem daunting, the single-player campaign will assist you in honing your strategic skills. There’s an interesting and entertaining story of betrayal and revenge to enjoy, but sadly many bugs pop up during the games campaign. I can’t confirm if this is the case for the other platforms — Skulls of the Shogun is also on Windows phones, Windows PC, and Windows tablets — but the Xbox Live Arcade version of the game certainly suffers from a few technical issues and bugs. I’ve had multiple instances where I couldn’t control a unit, and only a restart remedied the situation. I also encountered a bug that caused enemies’ health to stay in tact after I scored a hit. It’s unfortunate because when the game does work and you’re doing everything right you feel like a master tactician.
In all, Skulls of the Shogun‘s accessibility, appealing hand drawn visuals, and fast pace make it a game that strategy fans will enjoy this game in its entirety. Hopefully an update will fix some of the bugs. For 1,200 Microsoft Points you can’t go wrong.