If you’ve ever attended PAX in any of its incarnations, you’ve probably seen Skulls of the Shogun. It’s one of those games that you swear has been finished, but still has yet to come out. This is its third or fourth release date, but this time it actually came out. You can finally get your hands on the finished product, work your way through the campaign and battle it out in multiplayer from wherever you decide to, instead of on a cramped show floor. Sure, 17-BIT had to take some extra time so they could launch simultaneously on Windows 8, tablets and XBLA, but was all that time actually worth it?
Skulls of the Shogun aims to upset the traditional strategy formula. It wants to give you a turn based strategy game that anyone can pick up and play, but is still deep and complex enough to hook the real strategy fans. It’s a lofty goal and as a big strategy fan, the question I found myself asking is: “how does this compare to XCOM?” I’m not saying Skulls of the Shogun has to be XCOM or it’s wasting my time, that’s nonsensical, but we have an excellent, built for console strategy game, so it is an easy comparison.
Unlike XCOM, Skulls of the Shogun is more focused on multiplayer, though it does have a fantastic single player campaign. Both eschew the grid format for free flowing movement and aiming. Skulls of the Shogun puts the focus on single encounters. Your character progression is reset each match and starting units change from map to map. You can harvest rice to spend in shrines to summon more soldiers or to use on special attacks that the monk characters can use. It’s resource management at its simplest and in the restrictive environment of a console it works spectacularly.
The campaign is perfectly paced to introduce you to every mechanic at work in the multiplayer. When you finally hit the final chapter you have every tool at your disposal and it’s a pure skill test. Ten years ago, this campaign would have been a training ground for multiplayer, but it feels like so much more than that. The different scenarios you’re put it and the fantastic writing that goes with them add so much more than a simple tutorial would offer. This is one of the few strategy games with a big multiplayer focus that I would be completely satisfied with the campaign on its own.
Skulls are the real treasure in Skulls of the Shogun. They restore a good chunk of health, increase your health bar and three will put you in demon mode, granting you an extra attack per turn. When you kill an enemy, they drop a skull plus any that they had eaten. You might not be able to eat your own troops’ skulls, but I found that if you do lose a troop, letting an enemy eat that skull then killing them will clear your association with it and you can then consume it to your heart’s content.
There are plenty of strategy games out there, so Skulls of the Shogun needs some hook to help it stand out. It already has the great mechanics, but even with the multiplayer modes, why would you pick it over something like XCOM? Skulls of the Shogun was one of the few games that has actually made me laugh. There’s something about watching these skeletal Japanese warriors substituting curse words as they scream at each other that is funny. The dialog is top notch without being obscene. When matched to the adorable visual style and some of the best sound design I’ve heard you have a clear defining factor. Especially after years of Nintendo games, if you have nonsense dialog playing during text, it had better be good or I will turn off the sound and Skulls of the Shogun sounded fantastic from beginning to end.
There aren’t any games I can think of out right now on XBLA that let you play asynchronous multiplayer. Not only is the multiplayer in Skulls of the Shogun my new, go to multiplayer strategy game, but you can play it turn by turn with anyone. It’s a brilliant move by 17-BIT and I hope it works in their favor and worth the extended wait. I have a pretty hectic life and this is a game that makes sense asynchronously and I hope to start filling with in-progress games.
XCOM was my favorite game of last year, so to get me onto a new strategy game this soon is an impressive feat. Sure, they both may have their fair share of bugs, but now I can add a spectacular multiplayer game into my very limited rotation of games I keep coming back to. Sometimes those years spent waiting for a game are actually worth it. Skulls of the Shogun is a brilliant way for XBLA to kick off 2013.