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Skulls of the Shogun: Bone-A-Fide Edition

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By Mokman23-08-2013
BloodyFanGirl (editor)
StuntmanLT (editor)
Skulls of the Shogun: Bone-A-Fide Edition

The Defence

Developer:
17-BIT Studios
Publisher:
17-BIT Studios
Genre:
Indie, Strategy
Release Date:
29-07-2013

The Prosecution

CPU:
Intel Celeron 440 2.0 GHz
AMD Athlon 64 3300+
VGA:
Nvidia GeForce 8600
AMD Radeon HD 4650
RAM:
1 GB
HDD:
600 MB
DirectX:
9.0c

The Case

There has been a resurrection of the isometric turn-based tactical genre in recent times, with old friends such as Jagged Alliance and XCOM climbing out of their graves. In addition to these returning gems there are new stars joining the ranks - and this is for good reason. Turn-based tactical games have always tickled a certain portion of the gamers' mind; the one that is able to appreciate chess and subtlety, the puzzle-solver's part, while still delivering on juicy, delicious action. Adding this to the ever-present craze with Japanese culture worldwide, Skulls of the Shogun, a game where you command dead samurai spirit skeletons in battles against one another, seems to be a sure-fire addition to the Hall of Indie Game Fame. Does it then live up to these expectations? Well, read on and find out.

The Trial

The setting and the world that Skulls of the Shogun is based in is an interesting one. Set within a mystical Japanese afterlife it details the actions of these departed spirit warriors, in the forms of various bony skeletons, and how the central character, the ex-Shogun, attempts to regain his position and enact vengeance on the one who murdered him. Surprisingly, it is a setting which fits the game really well, with just the right level of zaniness mixed in, all of which is packaged in with a healthy dose of Japanese mythology. The story is not too shabby either, with twists that, while not anything amazing, are able to grip the player and keep them occupied until the end of the journey.

Rain? Check. Undead Samurai? Check. This game is Edgy and Japanese all right.

Rain? Check. Undead Samurai? Check. This game is Edgy and Japanese all right.

The art style is beautiful, but conventionally so; it’s slightly too cartoony and in certain cases seemingly akin to a flash web-game. For something with such interesting themes, the art style could have reflected this more, but instead you are faced with somewhat disappointing character designs, with nothing particularly exceptional. All in all, the game may have benefitted from being a bit more...indie with its presentation, rather than the in-your-face style that it currently showcases. Despite the humorous tone permeating the entire story, there is a distinct feeling that an opportunity for deeper exploration of its themes and atmospheric immersion was missed.

Where this game does hit the target spot-on though, is the gameplay; it’s fun and possessing a surprising amount of depth, featuring the normal isometric turn-based tactical fare with a few twists of its own. For example, eating the skulls of fallen foes not only heals your own troops, but eat three of them and it transforms your skeleton warrior into a demon, capable of taking two actions per turn instead of one. This then creates interesting strategic choices, planning out your actions and making the trade-off between the safety of more health all-round or greater offensive power with a few demons on your side. Furthermore, you can gather resources and summon even more troops in your fight. The idea of risk features strongly within the gameplay, as with most turn-based tactical games, and often a single wrong move in positioning is enough to spell doom for some of your warriors.

Those fox monks heal by... giving hearts to the skeletons? Best not ask.

Those fox monks heal by... giving hearts to the skeletons? Best not ask.

And this is one of the stumbling blocks of the game. For a system so reliant on positioning, the mechanics behind it are arcane and confusing, imprecise at best. The UI doesn't help much, hindering with various distracting icons and generally lacking the minimalist charm of most indie games. Selecting troops is a cumbersome affair, with you having to select it and then activate it even after selecting it for no apparent reason, while the movement system is clearly a result of style over substance and it doesn’t exactly deliver on either.

What then is apparent is that Skulls of the Shogun was clearly built to work equally well on smartphones and touch-screen devices as it does on the PC, and thus the UI for the PC suffers as a result. The controls are floaty and imprecise and it is incredibly difficult to judge how far exactly your foe is able to move, what exactly is the range of your own attacks and so on. The skill level required to play seems to be less so than the ability to think tactically and plan for the positioning of the troops under your command, and even more so the ability to throw your troops forward while not making obvious gaps in the line.

This will not end peacefully.

This will not end peacefully.

This then leads to the ultimate problem I have with Skulls of the Shogun - I have next to no emotional attachment to the troops I send forth into battle. They do not stay in-between missions and have no distinctive features that demarcate them from the enemy, nor are any of the characters particularly enduring, even the titular Shogun. Each mission feels disconnected from the previous one and leads to me eventually feeling like I'm playing a linear puzzle game, being led from one puzzle to the next. While this is a design choice up to the developers, it is quite a loss in that it may have been a much better game with the addition of the nail-biting risk of permadeath hanging over characters and troops you actually cared about. Instead, now losing a troop is a simple, shrug-inducing event.

The Verdict

Ultimately, this game is decent, which is the problem. It's by no means a bad game, neither is it particularly boring, but it definitely isn't a game I would even remember playing six months down the road. The bastardization of certain areas in order to accommodate touch-screen play is a particularly annoying phenomenon but it's not something that is impossible to live with. If you enjoy the theme or you're a hardcore tactical turn-based fan then - yes, you should get it. Otherwise, purchase Skulls of the Shogun only if your wallet can afford for some decent, but not incredible games.

Case Review

  • Smooth: It definitely plays without a hitch and is simple and easy to get into.
  • Interesting Setting: We do see many Japanese settings but rarely do we have ones set exclusively in the mythical Japanese afterlife.
  • Classic: At its heart the mechanics are very much the classic turn-based tactical fare, which may or may not be pleasing for players.
  • Cartoony: The art direction and style may appeal to some, though others may be turned off by how cartoony it is.
  • Horrible UI: Especially sinful for a game such as this, since the presence of a good UI is so damn important.
  • Decently Dull: It is nothing special, sadly, and is an entertaining romp for a short while but does hold neither the attention nor the heartstrings.
3.5
Score: 3.5/5
Ultimately, this game is just decent, which is the problem.

Appeal

Skulls of the Shogun is a very interesting and fun little game that has an interesting twist on turn based mechanics. It revolves around a fallen shogun leading himself and other loyal minions against guardians of the gate to the so called afterlife. Over the course of the story you’re introduced to new mechanics and new units and tactics that can be used to defeat the enemies that confront you on the battlefield. Along with this, the dialogue between everyone is rather amusing at times with tongue-in-cheek humour.

The nature of the turn based gameplay plays out like this: you and your enemy take it in turns to move your units and you have 5 scrolls in a round that you can use. These 5 scrolls are used when you select to control a unit, and you can use the unit to attack enemies, as long as they’re in the radius that you’re allowed to move in. Not only can you attack, but you can eat skulls to gain health and possibly upgrade your units to demon form which grants an extra turn. You’ll also be able to gather resources later in the form of rice and use it to summon more allies and magical abilities to revive fallen ones (if their skull isn’t eaten).

Definitely recommended if you are a fan of the turn based genre, although it certainly isn’t anything like the old classical turn based style of gameplay; think of it as more refined or changed up a little to be half-turn based with a few extra twists thrown in. Certainly not a bad thing but it is meant for some casual fun and laughter, and there is multiplayer too to battle it out with friends to show them who the true shogun warrior is in a turn based duel of honour!

3.5
Score: 3.5/5

Appeal

I will eat your skull. It is full of calcium and good for me. It sustains me as I battle my way to my eternal reward. I will not wait in line for I am no mere peon! You will afford me the respect I am due!

Sounds mental doesn't it? Well that's just a taster of the batshit insane humour Skulls of the Shogun has to offer. Hell, the trailer has a deformed, computer animated Shogun general murdering a bunch of kids so they can be his zombie minions. So, yeah, it's kinda' crazy. The good kind of crazy though. With a silly, caricature art style and its tongue planted firmly in cheek right from the outset. It's a lot of fun and thoroughly entertaining.

If I was to have any real gripe it would be the control scheme. Though the game is effectively an RTS, the way you give orders is a little odd; click on your chosen unit, decide where you want to move (by more clicking or the WASD keys), click again for any action you want to make, such as attacking...then click the unit again to deselect it so you can choose the next. It took a little getting used to at first, though it works well. It's just...odd. The one, minor, flaw in an otherwise superb game.

4.5
Score: 4.5/5
Comments (2)
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Posts: 1513

We can only dream how good it would of turned out if not for the need for touchscreen support...

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Posts: 2856

That is a kickass 'stache