I didn’t know too much about Skulls of the Shogun before today but within the first five minutes it’s clear that this XBLA game is brim full of subtle humour and beautifully drawn characters and environments. On a quest for revenge this real-time strategy game has lots in common with Advance Wars on the DS, fans of this game should snap up Skulls without any hesitation.
Stripping away the shackles and complications of many modern-day RTS games, Skulls’ action is all on-screen right at your fingertips, no menus and or menus within menus. Unlike many RTS games on console the controls are, in the main, simple and fluid, although they can be a bit fiddly when trying to select an individual unit.
Levels are split into rounds with each faction taking a turn that comprises of up to five orders. An order is used when a unit is moved and/or completes an action, once a unit has performed an action their skull will darken and they holster their sword. What’s great about Skulls, which differs from other RTS games, is that you can move a unit before and after an attack as long as you have some remaining movement left in your turn. Movement is shown by white circles, a large circle marks out the maximum distance a unit can move and a smaller circle around the individual unit decreases around the unit as they move and complete actions. Once the smaller circle has depleted the unit may not follow-up an attack with an additional move.
Circles are also used in attacking. If an enemy lies within your red attack circle you will inflict damage to their health but if they reside in the orange circle then there is a chance they will evade your attack. Enemies will also show you whether they will counter attack you, a wincing enemy means they won’t counter attack when hit, whereas an enemy with a raised weapon will strike you back. Each attack choice shows how many pips of health you will lose from a counter attack and how many pips of damage you will do to an enemy’s health, this is shown by a sashimono (battle flag), which is divided into small pips, different actions in the game will show you how your health will be affected before you commit to them.
Defeated enemies drop skulls, eating them regains health and can give a boost to the maximum health of a unit. It’s always a good idea to get troops with three or less health to eat skulls first, at three or less health their attacks are severely weakened. If a single unit eats three skulls they turn into a demon, which gives you an extra action ability for that unit. Skulls add a great tactical edge to the gameplay; do you consume skulls as you go along? Save them for weakened troops? Or do you let your Monk consume them to level up their spells?
As well as juggling options for what to do with enemy skulls there are also several other tactics to think about when playing. Knockback is the resulting effect of a melee or spell attack, a line shows you the direction an enemy will be knocked back to and you can use this to your advantage and knock enemies off cliffs, push them into an obstacle that can damage their heath or push them out of cover that is providing added protection.
To counter knockback units can form a spirit wall. This is a barrier that can be formed by two or more units and once a spirit wall is formed enemies will be unable to get past them and will have their attacks blocked. Archers can be placed behind a spirit wall and fire safely without the risk of a counter attack. While the spirit wall is a great tactic to employ, it doesn’t mean its members are invincible; they take damage just the same as any other unit so it’s wise to look after them and ensure they are among the first units to consume any enemy skulls, healing potions or magic.
Just like any good strategy game you can navigate about the battlefield and zoom the camera in and out. You can also check out an enemy’s range by placing the cursor over them. It can get a bit frustrating at times when there are multiple enemy units swamping your two units, making it hard to select them.
What RTS would be complete without resource management! Skulls of the Shogun has a simplified version of what you may be accustomed to. By moving a unit onto a paddy field you earn rice that can be exchanged at Soldier shrines for additional troops. To begin the ‘harvest’ a unit must first haunt a paddy field, while doing so they are vulnerable and won’t be able to counter attack but they do receive lost HP at the start of each round and once successfully haunted, are able to leave the field and still gain rice so there are double benefits to harvesting that precious rice.
As well as Soldier shrines, there are also Monk shrines to control throughout the levels, haunting one will awaken its Monk. There are three Monks to find and use – the Fox Monk being the most useful with its healing magic, but don’t overlook the Salamander whose fire magic reduces enemies to ashes and the last Monk, the Crow, Blows enemies about the map. You can also get Monks to eat skulls, which unlocks up to three additional spells.
You can return to any previous level by navigating your General through the map hub world. The only advantage being to better your previous score and improve your leaderboard position. You can also go after each level’s golden skull objective, which ranges from completing it with no casualties, accumulating a certain amount of rice or ranking up troops to a demon.
There may sound a lot to a game that is meant to be a simple take on the RTS formula but Skulls breaks you in gently enough that it’s never too much to take in. The only thing that did drive me a bit insane was selecting my troops, often the cursor would cycle through all my troops bar the one I actually wanted. I’ve no idea as to its logic but rather than cycle through each one in order it goes where you roughly direct the left stick. At times it’s hard to pick out your troops from the brightly coloured landscape or when they are mingled among enemy troops. The final issue I had with Skulls, although one which proved helpful, is that at times the enemy AI is far more concerned with going after skulls to buff their health rather than intercept an attacker who is making a beeline for their General – the General is your King, without him it’s game over!
It’s all very rock, paper, scissors and what Skulls brings in simplistic moves and limited troop classes it makes up for in the variety of tactical options – do I retreat? Take cover? Form a wall? Eat that skull? Grab an enemy shrine? Or harvest rice? There’s a lot to think about and one wrong decision really can put you on the back foot – a bit like a game of chess! It’s all too easy to go charging in, like Advance Wars, although it’s wrapped up in cute graphics, underneath it there is a devious relentless AI and Skulls is no different. At times it’s challenging because the AI is pretty darn sneaky, while other times it’s only made more difficult by your own stupidity.
Skulls of the Shogun is made up from all the best parts of strategy games from over the years but omits any complicated resource juggling or over complex strategy formations. It’s simple, fun, but also challenging. It’s definitely not a hardcore RTS game but a welcome light-hearted take on a genre often too busy with out-foxing itself.