Advance Wars started my love for turn-based strategy games almost 12 years ago and since then many others have filled the void while looking for something comparable to the sheer enjoyment and challenge presented in that little cartoony strategy game. I was ecstatic to hear that 17-bit’s game Skulls of the Shogun (SOTS) feels like a game cut from the same stone as Advance Wars from the depth of the strategy to the essence of the graphics. With those comparisons there come a lot of expectations, but can it really stand out in a market that seems to be popping out strategy games left and right?
Players are thrown head first into the driving plot of the game as they assume the role of a recently deceased General Akamoto who was on the verge of conquering feudal Japan and now must wait in line to pass through the gates of the afterlife. The ridiculously long wait time of over 200 years seems to push Akamoto to his breaking point as he decides to take matters into his own hands and become the Shogun of the Dead. After the intro you’re introduced to the basics of combat and character movement. While the streamlined controls are simple to grasp at first you’ll find that there is a steep learning curve that requires you to pay close attention to the new units introduced and special sites on the map as you make your way across 20 different levels.
The straightforward map designs and seemingly uncomplicated combat system don’t seem like they add any strategic depth to SOTS, but when you figure out the way units move and work together the art of war takes over. You’ll start out controlling the basic infantry and cavalry units in the beginning, but as you travel through the various levels you’ll unlock archers who can attack from a distance, but have no counter attack for close quarters combat and monks who have the power to cast spells used to heal and destroy. Akamoto also gets involved in the fray, but if your general doesn’t survive the battle then its game over and you’ll have to restart the level all over. The only ways to increase your health is to drink potions that magically appear on the map or eat the skulls of your defeated foes. If you eat at least 3 skulls you’ll transform into a demon and gain the power to attack twice in one round.
It’s only naturally that your forces will be depleted during any heated or drawn out battle, but if use one of your team members to haunt a shrine you’ll be able to summon more soldiers. Each of the 3 different classes you can choose from require a certain amount of rice to bring them forth and the only way to get that is by haunting rice paddies. There are other tactics you can use during battle to turn the tables in your favor such as hiding in bamboo to increase your chances of dodging an attack or using the terrain to stay just out of reach. The most useful and damaging maneuver is the knockback attack that will send enemies over the edge to an instant death. However, if you stand in a group of 2 or more you’ll form a spirit wall that stops you from being knocked back. Learning the ins and outs of each soldier class, advance tactics, and map layout provides an innate amount of time to master.
From the start you’ll notice the stylized graphics are similar to games like Alien Hominid and Castle Crashers with bright and vibrant characters that contrast against the terrain. Along with the feel good visuals, the humor threaded throughout the main campaign’s storyline will keep you chuckling at every word bubble. The light mood the game depicts carries over into the enchanting music that makes you feel as if you’re in a classic kung-fu movie with wind and string instruments flowing along with an up
tempo beat. While the voice acting is just a bunch of garbled words, the sound effects do a wonderful job portraying the combat and exaggerated deaths of enemies.
Skulls of the Shogun offers a traditional campaign that will take an average player around 4 hours to complete barring no setbacks. At times the battles do seem to drag on and become monotonous, but it always has an entertainment value attached to it. Players can also play locally against bots or human players as well as over Xbox LIVE. A nice feature with SOTS is that you can play cross platform against anyone who has a Microsoft device, whether it is Surface or a cell phone. Honestly after the drawn out single player the versus multiplayer was a breath of fresh air since human risk and reward overtake the computer genius of the AI.
SOTS is a game that doesn’t take itself too seriously on any one aspect other than delivering a multi-layered turn- based strategy game that will keep you coming back for more. Hardcore strategists will love the depth of combat and the rookies will learn to adapt while being reeled into playing just one more round. The outstanding visuals and classy soundtrack combine with all the other elements of gameplay to provide great value.
Score 8/10 – Reviewed by Jake Lyons