Monday, 24 August 2015

Skulls of the Shogun - Review

Platform: PC, Mac, Linux, PS4 (version played), PS3, Ouya, iOS, 360
Developer: 17-Bit Studios
Publisher: Microsoft/17-Bit Studios

For me, the best strategy games are those that build up their elements slowly. It’s all well and good having complex strategy and tactics, but if all of that goes over new players’ heads then you’re likely to lose half your audience out of frustration.

Skulls of the Shogun understands that. I might be somewhat late to the party (the game came out over two years ago), but this is easily one of the most fun, accessible strategy games to come out that also plays well on console.

The premise is simple: kill your opponent’s shogun. Skulls of the Shogun is cartoony chess played over a backdrop of quirky undead soldiers and haunted rice paddies. Troops come in three different flavours: standard infantry, cavalry and archers and each works in a rock-paper-scissors fashion where players are encouraged to react in some way to what their opponent is fielding.

For example, infantry are tough, with a high armour value, meaning they can soak up damage, but they’re slow as molasses. Archers meanwhile, can hit like a ton of bricks but have terrible defence and can’t counter-attack melee units. Cavalry are the most finesse of the games core units, capable of moving great distances across the board but otherwise being generally mediocre.

This core gameplay is then rounded out with the addition of several magic-wielding classes. Shrines can be haunted by your soldiers, effectively capturing that location and providing you with a unique unit. Mages come in different forms, be it healing fox monks or flame-spitting lizard wizards. It’s a solid addition to the gameplay that builds upon the foundation that the main units set up.

Rice paddies and soldier shrines can also be haunted by your units and play a pivotal role in battle. Rice paddies provide you with rice (unsurprisingly), the resource used to buy new troops from any soldier shrines you currently have under your control.

All this makes for a game that rewards aggressors. Rarely will a match reward a player for tanking, holding back and playing the long game. Most of the time the game will be fought over the maps meagre resources, with the bolder player trying to snowball an early lead into an overwhelming victory. 

That being said developers 17-Bit wisely avoid having each match descend into a mindless zerg-rush. Each unit that dies drops a skull that can be consumed by an enemy unit, healing them, or increasing their maximum health. Should a unit consume three skulls they’ll transform into a demon, granting them two actions a turn. To continue with the chess comparison it’s like getting a pawn across the board and getting back your queen.

This mechanic keeps the otherwise aggressive-oriented gameplay in check. Skulls of the Shogun might not have time for turtles but neither does have time for the foolish. Give up too many early game units to easy deaths and you risk giving your opponent the advantage going into the mid to late game.

All of this is handled well in a surprisingly funny single player campaign that slowly adds in each a new element stage by stage. The A.I. does a fairly decent job of holding its own, and the robust strategy that underlies the game makes up for any questionable moments that the computer has.

One minor niggle is that many of the game’s single player levels end up being resolved in the same way. With the computer no doubt outnumbering you, your strategy will almost always be to whittle away at them before they can become a threat. It means some of the later levels devolve into a repetitive standstill, with you waiting to grind your opponent out in a war of attrition before closing in to kill their shogun.

It’s frustrating because it goes against what makes the core game, and the multiplayer, so damn fun, and it’s a shame that the single player campaign ends up being relegated to a workmanlike tutorial.

The movement system also can feel a little vague when starting out. Skulls of the Shogun avoids the grid system used by similar turn-based games and instead opts for a “bubble” of movement that each unit can move around here. It’s not a bad system, but it does lead to some frustrating moments when you’re still learning the ropes. Sometimes enemies can attack further than you think, and just because you’ve set up a defensive “spirit wall” by placing units together doesn’t always mean that your opponent can’t find a way around it.

Bone-A-Fide Edition

Given that I was playing the PS4 version it also came packaged with some additional content, namely an extra campaign. Overall, it’s not up to much. The main campaign was fun but this felt more like a chore. Unlike the core game’s campaign, the new levels have you carry over your units and resources over from the previous level, forcing you to be even more careful about how you utilize your force.

The problem is, the game places you at such overwhelming odds, you have to resort back to the ol’ attrition plan in order to win, and it doesn’t make for all that much of an exciting time. Still, it does add in a new magic-wielding unit for the multiplayer, along with some new maps, so it’s not a total lost cause.

Skulls of the Shogun nails that sweet spot between satisfying depth and casual appeal. It doesn’t bog itself down with too many confusing elements to keep track of, and offers enough smarts that the multiplayer remains engaging long after you’ve finished the main campaign. 


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