Huge AAA budget-busters were out in force at PAX East this year, but so were small indie games destined for downloadable releases. Skulls of the Shogun's tiny booth at PAX East was consistently packed with enthusiastic onlookers. The first release from Haunted Temple Studios, a young start-up from a group of designers whose collective credits include Boom Blox, Rez, and Space Channel 5, is a turn-based strategy game with a cartoonish aesthetic that combines Japanese feudalism with the supernatural. It should be out on Xbox Live Arcade and PC later this year, with eventual plans for PlayStation Network and iOS devices.
Skulls of the Shogun is a more accessible spin on classic strategy games like Final Fantasy Tactics and Advance Wars. You take charge of a small squad of samurai skeletons from beyond the family grave and clash with rival ghost armies. PAX East sessions were limited to one-on-one local battles and the time limit per round was set to 45 seconds, offering just enough time to get a quick feel for the game without digging too deeply. The final product will support local and online battles with up to four players.
Four distinct units comprise each army, including a powerful General who can move twice per round and whose death spells immediate defeat. The cavalry is the most well-rounded of the standard units, with the greatest range of motion, the most powerful attack, and adequate defense. The sword-toting infantrymen are primarily defensive units that work best as cannon fodder or as a protective barrier around weaker or more important units. Archers inflict great damage from a distance but are easy pickings when attacked directly.
The field isn't broken up into a strict grid. When you highlight a unit a circle appears, representing their range of motion. Units can move anywhere within that circle and can perform one action per turn before or after moving. You're limited to only five moves per round, so it's vital to make each action count.
Littered throughout the field of combat are a handful of resource squares, including rice paddies, shrines, and Fox Shrines. Rice paddies produce a small amount of rice every turn. Rice can be used to buy new units at shrines, which are basically just factories. The Fox Shrines add a fox spirit unit that specializes in defense and can heal your soldiers. You have to claim these resources by moving a unit onto them and selecting the "haunt" option. When a unit is haunting it can't defend itself, though, and the rush to acquire resources before your opponents without leaving your army exposed comprises a large part of the game's strategy.
Defeated enemies leave their skulls behind, which can be eaten by any unit. Eating skulls (no reference intended to Siltbreeze rockers Eat Skull) provides a health boost, and if a unit eats three skulls, it turns into a powerful demon that can move twice per round.
The strategy underpinning Skulls of the Shogun might be rudimentary, but Haunted Temple promises the game will handle up to four players. That should increase the overall challenge without complicating the accessible controls. Toss in the charming art style and Skulls of the Shogun looks like a strategy game anybody could enjoy.