Review: Skulls of the Shogun

Skulls of the ShogunAs the last of his enemies lay dying at his feet, General Akamoto stands triumphant on the battlefield. Set to be proclaimed Shogun of all feudal Japan, Akamoto’s celebration is cut short as a mysterious figure stabs him in the back, sending him on his way to the Shores of the Dead. But even here, he finds nothing but treachery, as another warrior is impersonating him and attempting to keep him at bay. Betrayed and robbed of his destiny, the general and his band of ragtag warriors set out to carve bloody vengeance in the afterlife, and restore the great general to his rightful position.

It is here, on the Shores of the Dead, where Skulls of the Shogun begins. Vengeance is carried out in the form of a turn based strategy title. During each round of battle, Akamoto may activate and order up to five of the units under his command to move and attack the enemy forces. They come in three flavours: Infantry units are your bread and butter front line troops. They have above average defence which allows them to absorb more damage. Your Cavalry forces have the widest range of movement, and thus are able to cover more ground, whilst only having average attack and defence points. Finally, your Archers can hold back and kill enemy troops from afar, boasting the strongest attacking skills of your entire army. This is offset by their abysmal defensive rating; these guys cannot attack when things get up close and personal, and will not withstand many blows. As general, Akamoto can get involved as well, and boasts the ability to make two actions versus the standard unit’s one. However, if he should fall in battle, the army is defeated.

“Well balanced”Whilst the core of the game is kept intentionally streamlined, Skulls of the Shogun does well to consistently introduce new elements as progression is made. As each enemy is defeated, your troops can devour their fallen skulls. Each one consumed increases the toughness of your unit, and eating three causes your unit to transform into their demon form, a super powered version of the original, gaining an extra attack each activation. Rice paddies and shrines are also strewn throughout the battlefield, which can be captured by “haunting” them successfully for one complete turn. The former give you access to rice, which acts as the games currency and allow you to summon new common units to the battlefield. Capturing a shrine, however, lets you command one of three monks; Fox Monk acts as your army’s healer, Salamander Monk spews fire and lightning from a distance, whereas Crow Monk is the trickiest of the three, using magic to steal rice and move enemies around the terrain with his “Gust” ability.

Skulls of the ShogunAll of the above combine to make up an extremely well balanced and surprisingly deep, strategic affair. Don’t let the game’s heavily stylised graphics fool you; beneath the colourful exterior beats an extremely tactical heart. Mistakes are severely punished, and each encounter requires a delicate balancing act. Knowing when to push on and attack a particularly troublesome unit, and when to hold back and use a turn to capture a shrine or paddy, or to eat that one remaining skull, are the keys to success. Given that only five troops can be activated and act each turn, prioritising threats and evaluating where resources are required is vital. The positioning of the individual units is also of the utmost importance. Any that dare to traverse too close to a cliff or river make for easy prey, as they can be knocked off for a simple kill. Aligned units benefit from a greater resilience to knockbacks, so synchronising their movements across any narrow ravines or bridges is crucial to avoid the big drop.

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