Turn-based strategy games can be somewhat imposing. Filled with menus, stat tables, and skill trees that spread for miles (I just taught one of my warlocks "Golemy" in Tactics Ogre), there are a few barriers to entry that unfortunately keep some players out of the genre. However, Skulls of the Shogun rejects all that, instead bringing a quick, arcade-like sensibility to a genre that has seen very few changes over the years. I was fortunate enough to get to play a round against the game’s director, Jake Kazdal, recently. My objective? To eliminate his Shogun before he eliminated mine.
Heavily inspired by Sega’s Valkyria Chronicles series, Skulls of the Shogun places action at the forefront. Instead of limiting character movement to a grid, selecting one of your troops creates a ring around the character within which it can move freely. As your skeletal troops move across the map, certain context-sensitive actions will pop up on the overlay of the 360’s buttons. If you pass over a rice field, you can have your samurai haunt it, and the haunted field will produce 25 rice each turn. Possess a summoning shrine, and you can use that rice to summon more units onto the field. Finally, haunting a temple will allow a player to summon an animal monk.
These monks are special units that have access to powerful magic. The Fox can heal your units, the Salamander has some heavily damaging flame spells, and the Crow is more tactical, able to blow units around with wind magic and harvest rice more quickly than any other unit.
My first turn was spent getting my soldiers into position and haunting some rice fields and a temple (as I’d seen my opponent do), but on the second turn my troops were close enough to attack my foes. I hid my freshly-summoned Salamander monk in some nearby bamboo (netting a 20% bonus to my evasion, which was handily shown right onscreen), found a potion in there that increased his attack power, and prepared to shoot a fireball at one of the opposing samurai (using the aforementioned onscreen overlay to choose my attack). As I readied the spell, I was informed that each character’s health was displayed on his flag, and noticed that the predicted damage output was indicated by blacked-out marks on the flag.
Since the samurai had his blade sheathed, there was no danger of a counterattack (as Mr. Kazdal pointed out), so I could safely dish out some fiery pain. The attack took full advantage of the game’s physics engine, knocking the samurai further away from my monk. Having only travelled half the distance of my movement circle, I was given the option to use the remainder of the circle for movement after my attack, but I chose to stay in the safety of the bamboo.
I followed my initial attack by having one of my archers fire at the already weakened samurai. As I pressed the button to attack, my archer was surrounded by two circles, the internal one representing the nearly confirmed attack, and the external one represented riskier shots. My target sat within my external circle, but my shot flew true and killed the samurai, leaving only a skull in his place.
Skulls serve a purpose, even after the body it was formerly attached to is destroyed. Skulls are edible, and an eaten skull provides a character with more health, and, if said character is a monk, an additional spell. For instance, the Crow monk’s main ability is to blow units around, but when he has eaten a skull, he’s given the ability to harvest 75 units of rice in a single turn. Consumed skulls will circle the soldier that’s eaten them, and when a unit is circled by three, they become a powerful demon. Naturally, I sent one of my soldiers to eat the skull of his fallen enemy, and he took on three more HP, which added a second flag to his flagpole.
In Skulls of the Shogun, units can bump other characters out of the way, enemy or friend, as they move across the map. This feature was implemented in response to Jake’s frustration with "traffic jams" in strategy games like Advance Wars, or to be more precise, when a number of units stuck together in a small area prevent unit movement. However, because that mechanic allowed easy access to a defended shogun, he came up with the ability for units to lock together (represented by a glowing circle beneath the conjoined units), making it impossible to pass between them or knock them as far away with standard attacks. This allows the players to create airtight defenses with chains of soldiers. Assuming, of course, the links of that chain aren’t killed.
With this in mind, I tried to create a wall to protect my Salamander, but my chain was incomplete, and allowed enemies to walk around the side. Jake quickly moved in to attack my Salamander, and sent his own monk, a Crow, to blow my archer off of the bridge he was standing on and into the water below, instantly killing him.
This was the beginning of the end for me.
I thought I’d been doing pretty well at first, but after a few mistakes, the tide had turned (this is why you don’t get cocky while playing the game’s director). One by one, my soldiers were eliminated, leaving me with only my Salamander, a standard soldier, and my still sleeping Shogun. In desperation, I had my Salamander eat a skull and use his second spell to summon an Oni onto the field, who would randomly attack anything it was close enough to hit, generally with enough power to kill it. However, this did little to deter Jake, as after losing a single soldier, he killed my Salamander, walked by the Oni, and approached my unconscious Shogun.
Although I mentioned earlier that the goal of each match is to eliminate the opponent’s Shogun, I didn’t talk about the unit’s special properties. At the beginning of the match, the shogun sleeps, gaining additional HP each turn. Awakened, he’s a powerhouse, able to attack enemies twice per turn.
I woke my Shogun, and sent him straight towards the nearest soldier, attacking him twice, but not quite doing enough damage to destroy him. Thinking that I was safe in my corner, I hardly moved my Shogun at all after his initial assault. Big mistake.
I’d inadvertently placed my Shogun dangerously close to a cliff face. All it took was a single attack from the soldier I had laid into beforehand, and the physics engine carried him off the cliff and to his doom. I was defeated, but the surprise of my Shogun’s death brought a smile to my face.
Skulls of the Shogun will be released for Xbox Live Arcade this year.