Microsoft Studios

Skulls of the Shogun makes undead turn-based battles convenient, strategic, and fun

Skulls of the Shogun makes undead turn-based battles convenient, strategic, and fun

Skulls of the Shogun

  • 360
  • PC

$14.99 MSRP

Buy Game

The next time you see or hear someone talk about a near-death experience and they start talking about a white light, feel free to call bullshit. You know better. You’ve played Skulls of the Shogun.

The last undead samurai

Skulls feels like something of a mutt; you can feel influences from chess, tabletop war games, as well as other titles like Advance Wars. You control a small horde of undead samurai warriors, each with their own unique strengths and weaknesses, in a fight for supremacy in the afterlife. Your goal is to wipe out the other team entirely, or assassinate their general. This is the reason so many dog lovers love adopting mutts: All the genetic weakness from specialized breeding is gone.

Each round of a match consists of 5 turns, each consisting of of a unit’s movement and, depending on context, any actions they have available to them. When you select a unit, you’ll be shown where they can move. Skulls doesn’t use a classic grid-style layout. Instead, you can move your warriors within a set radius which appears as a blue circle. That area represents your potential movement. Cavalry, for example, can move much farther than infantry.

Should you have any leftover space remaining after an initial move, you can move again. Think of it like a gas tank: you can go a set number of miles total, but you can stop along the way if you choose. So let’s say an enemy falls within my infantry’s blue circle. I can move up to within striking distance, attack, and back out using what’s left of my total movement. It’s a system that takes some getting used to, but it gives the player an added layer of strategy. You’ll often find yourself pushing up against the edge of the circle hoping you’ll have that extra inch you need to attack, or activate the environment.

You’ll come across various shrines, as well as rice paddies. All of these are ripe for haunting. Yes, I said haunted rice paddy.

Haunting each environment counts as an action, but it also gives you certain powers. Shrines act as summoning portals for various units: a standard shrine summons undead minions, which are bought with rice, while others will summon animal monks which can cast spells. The fox can heal, the salamander can spit fire, the crow can summon gusts of wind. Controlling these points without sustaining heavy losses will be important to your victory, though so too will be your army’s cannibalism.

The game is called Skulls of the Shogun for a reason: once you have slain an enemy, you can choose to consume its skull. Skulls are a source of power and nourishment in the game; consume one to heal 3 HP and boost your unit’s overall HP by two. If a single unit can claim three skulls in a single match, it’ll transform into a demon version of itself, granting it an additional action. Chomping down on a skull is an action just like attacking or haunting a shrine or rice paddy though, so there is a tactical cost to gaining that power.

You can get plenty of skulls and still lose, and each unit’s attacks and abilities feel balanced. You can even form a wall by lining warriors up next to each other, which will protect those hiding behind said wall. Skulls of the Shogun only looks like it was made for kids. That cutesy, oversized skull head hides a deep, thoughtful game.

Not sure if I should be laughing

The story of Skulls of the Shogun is held together with only the barest of threads, and that’s fine. It gives you an objective, makes your goals clear, and tries to throw in the occasional twist; you are Lord Akamoto, slain just after your greatest battle. Now that you can’t be shogun in life, you’ll settle for the title Shogun of the Dead.

Mostly though, you’ll keep going through the campaign for the game’s pop culture references and writing, which make up the majority of its humor. “Undead waaaarriors, come out and plaaaaaaay!” an enemy taunts. You get the idea.

The fourth wall is often broken. Skulls of the Shogun teaches mechanics through its dialogue. “What? You used KnockBack to push a unit over the ledge and kill them instantly?” an enemy soldier asks after you shove one of his comrades into the ocean.

“KnockBack? So THAT’S what the white line indicates whenever I attack!” Akamoto responds.

The enemy soldier realizes what he’s done and reprimands himself for helping the player. “Oops… I should probably stop explaining everything out loud.” In the second land, Akamoto shouts back to the enemy and acknowledges his text is in blue. You know, for emphasis.

That said, the game has a strange vibe. These characters may just be cartoons, but they’re getting slaughtered, impaled, and having their skulls eaten with a loud crunchy noise. The humor is largely inoffensive, but Akamoto and his soldiers are absolutely bloodthirsty. The women in the game likewise cater to older audiences, with their busty, cleavage-baring models. It’s not that the game is offensive or crass, but its tone felt just a little too dark for its bright, colorful, often-silly world.

One ronin to rule them all

You’re missing out if you’re playing Skulls for its single-player campaign. The game’s AI can be vicious, but it can’t compare to the maneuvers of a human opponent. Skulls has plenty of options for head-to-head play, although games can be rare on Xbox Live.

First, there’s “Skulls On The Couch,” a local battle of up to four players. You and three friends can each have your own controller assigned to you or take turns passing a single controller. It’s a little detail to include couch competitive play these days, and the ability to use a single controller instead of four is a nice bonus.

Online play over Xbox Live is labeled “Skulls Online,” which includes both ranked and non-ranked matchmaking options, as well as a system link option. There weren’t many games available to join, but those I played were fast, fun, and above all in a title like this, tactical.

Skulls of the Shogun is also available on Windows 8 devices, Surface, and Windows Phone, and the game features cross-platform asynchronous play. It’s a neat idea that you can start a game at home on the TV, or head out with friends for dinner, and occasionally send moves via your phone – you get to have your cake and eat it, too. The only downside is that each version of the game is separate; there is no universal way to buy the game. The Microsoft-exclusive nature of the game will also limit the audience, and we hope iOS and Android versions will be released if / when the exclusivity deal ends.

When it comes to playing human opponents, it’s hard to give any easy-win solutions, but I will say this: don’t be greedy. You might think you can go in, eat that skull, haunt that shrine, and get back out before you die, but you often can’t. Play it safe.

Rise from your grave

There are many ways to play Skulls of the Shogun; all of them challenging, and all of them fun.

This sort of game has enjoyed a resurgence lately. Hero Academy is a brilliant title on iOS devices, and XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a turn-based game with a much larger scale, but Skulls of the Shogun feels unique and separate from other games in the genre. We’ll see you online.