Skulls of the Shogun Hands-On Preview -- Turning the Tables on Turn-Based StrategyBy Alex Rubens - Posted Nov 23, 2011
When I hear “turn-based strategy,” I think of a large grid in which I move my players one at a time, wait for my opponent to do the same, and then move again. While Skulls of the Shogun is a turn-based strategy game, it breaks that mold and comes off feeling like more of an action game at times. Skulls of the Shogun is most easily described as a round-based strategic action game, which may be an entirely made up genre but fits the game so perfectly that I feel no need to change it.
Skulls of the Shogun tells the story of General Akamoto, a Japanese warlord out to exact revenge on the traitor who killed him. He is sent to the afterlife, but upon his arrival, the keepers of the afterlife do not believe that he is who he says he is, and force him to wait in an eternal line to enter the paradise that he had earned throughout his life. He sees this as a grave offense and rounds up former soldiers nearby to battle his way there.
Instead of dealing with a traditional grid or hex based movement pattern, Skulls of the Shogun allows the player to move freely about the map. This slight, but drastic, change brings with it a whole new style of play that divorces it from the style so prevalent in turn-based strategy games like Advance Wars. Skulls of the Shogun utilizes a movement radius that shows the player where the selected character is able to move before their turn is ended, but also allows them to move freely within the circle should they move to attack then decide against it.
There are three basic units besides the General, and each has their own specific set of strengths and weaknesses. The basic infantry is great for close quarters combat but has to be very close to the enemy to attack. The archer is the opposite, dealing damage from afar but significantly less damage is done. The horseman is a mix of the two with a powerful attack, but he can also attack from a distance.
Attack points and hit points that vary between units can be increased by eating the skulls of fallen enemies. These skulls are edible as soon as an enemy is killed. Eat enough skulls and the character will increase in level, offering increased abilities such as being able to perform two attacks per order.
The player is limited to five “orders” (actions) per turn, but being able to move five players, rather than one, per turn helps immensely. During each order, the player has several options: move, hold position, end turn, attack (if the player is in range of an enemy), and eat skull (if they are within range of a skull). If your General is in danger of being killed, characters can be put into a formation around the general to form a Spirit Wall. Enemies cannot break through the Spirit Wall as all character’s HP is raised temporarily as a defensive bonus.
Multiplayer is perhaps the most intriguing part of Skulls of the Shogun, as it pits up to four players against each other while never clearly defining who is against who. There are different maps depending on the amount of players active, but each one feels uniquely crafted and balanced for the appropriate number of players. Shrines and rice paddies populate the field, waiting to be haunted by the player. Once haunted, shires give the player an additional special unit that has a unique ability.
In the round I played, my opponent took control of the crow unit, which allowed him to move around the map and use Gust to blow my units off the edge of the map. Players can form alliances during multiplayer matches, enabling shared resources between the two. This could be used as both an incredibly strategic move or as a great way to grief people. Skulls of the Shogun can be played competitively both online or locally, even going as far as to offer Skulls on the Couch, a pass-the-controller mode.
Skulls of the Shogun isn’t your average turn-based strategy game, but that may just be what makes it so great. The humorous dialogue and charming presentation make for some genuinely funny moments that are enjoyable when experienced solo or with friends. Skulls of the Shogun brings much needed innovation to a stale genre that has done very little to break away from a familiar format. We can’t wait to see more of the game as its yet-unknown release approaches.