Turn-based strategy is somewhat of a niche genre in gaming. Even its juggernauts, the like of Civilisation V for example, don’t have the wide ranging appeal enjoyed by many other genres, although admittedly its layers go far beyond the likes of Advance Wars or Final Fantasy Tactics. Much of this comes from the complexity of the genre which intimidates many potential players. Skulls of the Shogun doesn’t dilute the strategy. Instead it layers it in a way that it can be as simple or as complex as you want it to be. At its most base, the game is about moving undead samurai warriors around a map and dispatching the opposing team. However, the twist is that unlike other turn based games of its ilk, the aforementioned Advance Wars, Final Fantasy Tactics spring to mind, movement is governed by radius, rather than square numbers. It opens up the map, allowing for more natural environments, but also serves to make the game more approachable. Instead of moving the units like chess pieces, they are controlled directly within a circle of movement. This also plays a role in combat, with archers being most effective when they keep enemies on the outside circle so as to attack without fear of retaliation. Other units must get up close and personal with direct attacks while the monk classes have actions that often have an area of effect.
For those who want to get more out of Skulls of the Shogun, there are systems that allow a deeper level of play. The general is the primary unit and if it is destroyed, it’s game over. However, it is also the strongest unit and can be a great boon on the battlefield. Choosing not to put it in play powers it up each turn but if the other team uses it straight away, there’s a risk you may lose the initiative. Slain enemies drop skulls that can be used to upgrade units, so if you’re on a map with rivers, powering up your archers and using them to hold the line may be the best way to go, though you could also upgrade the soldiers and use them as tanks to block the choke points or surround and protect the general. You may have seven or eight units but are limited to five moves per turn so it’s also vital to prioritise. Resource management also plays a factor and the developer also promised weather effects in certain missions that would affect the gameplay.
It’s worth noting the very, very pretty art style of Skulls of the Shogun. The units are all samurai skeletons yes, but they are incredibly charming. Zeth likened it to Fat Princess in that it’s full of vibrant colours and clean lines, though it also shares the illustrative style of a Behemoth game. It is also full of little touches, such as the life bar displayed as a flag on the back of each unit, though it’s clear there is still work to be done as the attack animations were mostly missing. Not all of the platforms have been confirmed and though it feels like it would be at home on consoles, if i could have my choice, I would love to play this on DS, PSP or iPhone as it would be perfect for the bus or train. Here’s hoping.