Skulls of the Shogun review
Imagine being Jake Kazdal. You're an industry veteran, and after stints with Sega in Japan and EA in Los Angeles you set up your own studio, 17-Bit. You begin work on your first project as an indie - a quirky turnbased tactics game with a supernatural samurai theme - and Microsoft loves it. They want an exclusive. And then you find out that the PC version of Skulls Of The Shogun is going to be exclusive to Windows 8 at launch.
It's an odd sight, this very PC-ey indie strategy game, sat on the Windows Store with the pricey ports of mobile games Microsoft thinks you might like to play on a 40" monitor with a mouse, but Skulls Of The Shogun’s benefit is asynchronous multiplayer across all Windows 8 devices.
You're General Akomoto, a mighty Shogun warrior stabbed and killed in battle by your trusted lieutenant Kurokawa. He's soon dead too, as it goes, so off you set through a surprisingly verdant afterlife in search of revenge and the acclaim that's rightfully yours. Each battle ends when either Akomoto or the enemy team's general is defeated, and it's the novel ways Skulls Of The Shogun helps you stave off that threat that makes it more than a cheerily nostalgic turn-based strategy game.
Akomoto heads into battle with an assorted band of fellow fallen samurai, and while your starting crew changes every level you can expect to set out with an assortment of infantry, cavalry and archers. You can spawn more units, by first ‘haunting’ - the ghost version of ‘capturing’ - paddy fields to produce rice then offering it up as sacrifice to the gods in exchange for an extra pair of hands. You can only give five orders per turn, though, so don’t expect to overwhelm the enemy through pure weight of numbers. Select a unit and a white circle denotes how far it can move in a single turn; it can move freely within that dotted line, meaning you can attack enemies from any angle. That’s no gimmick: position yourself correctly and you can knock foes off ledges and into rivers to their instant doom. Where possible, though, you want to keep them on terra firma - because when an enemy is dispatched, it leaves its skull behind.
Eating one such skull restores a unit's health and raises its maximum HP. Feed three to the same unit and it gains an extra action (here called 'orders') each turn; handy enough for the standard infantry, cavalry and archers at your disposal, but essential for Akomoto, who thanks to his twin blades can already attack twice. But eating a skull uses an order, and powering up your general is a delicate balance of risk and reward, and certainly something you don't want to do too soon - at the start of the battle Akomoto and his opposite number stand immobile, meditating, their maximum HP increasing every turn until they're called into action.
It's clever stuff, and things improve further when magic-wielding monks arrive, with munched skulls unlocking more powerful spells. It's wittily told, too, with the warring generals' sassy exchanges recalling Double Fine's brighter moments. It's not without its faults - busy environments and bulky unit designs mean the battlefield gets a little cluttered at times, while a fixed limit of five orders per turn feels stingy when you've got enough units to turn a battle in your favour - but these are minor complaints. Skulls Of The Shogun's biggest problem is that, for its first few months at least, it's only going to reach a fraction of the PC audience it deserves.
Expect to pay: $15 / £9.50 ($10 / £6.50 at launch)
Release: Out Now
A witty spin on turn-based strategy with some novel mechanics that briefly makes Windows 8 gaming slightly less depressing.