It's amazing what a healthy dose of style and personality will do for a game sometimes. That's not to say that Skulls of the Shogun is all style and no substance; it's a wholly fulfilling turn-based strategy game in its own right. But the beautiful visuals, clever dialogue, and unique setting are what really help it shine brighter than its peers.
Cost: $7.00 (limited time launch price of $5.00)
Platform: Windows Phone 7 & 8, Xbox 360, Windows 8, Windows RT
The premise of each level or multiplayer match in Skulls of the Shogun is simple and almost always the same: defeat the enemy's general. Players take turns moving and issuing commands to a number of different unit types, including their own general, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. Cavalry units, for example, can move further but have weaker defense than infantry units. Fox monks (yes, fox monks, but more on that in a moment), while useful as healers, cannot perform any offensive actions except counterattacks.
The "skulls" twist, however, is that whenever you defeat an enemy unit, it leaves behind a skull that your units can eat to replenish health (or increase their maximum health if they're at full health when they eat the skull). Eat three skulls with a single unit and it transforms into a demon, granting it an extra action each turn.
The game's environments factor heavily into players' strategies as well, since all units can "haunt" different aspects of the map for different benefits. The in-game currency is rice -- okay, so maybe it's a touch racist -- and in order to acquire it, players must use their units to haunt rice paddies, which uses up the unit's action for the turn. With the rice, players can summon additional units in the midst of a battle (but naturally, they must first haunt a summoning shrine).
In addition to the summoning shrines and rice paddies that litter the maps, there is a litany of other shrine types available for your haunting pleasure, some of which provide bonuses like damaging any enemy units within a certain radius, while others allow you to summon different types of monks, including foxes (healers), salamanders (offensive spellcaster), and crows (steals rice).
With so many different factors and strategies coming into play, it may seem like Skulls of the Shogun is a tad overwhelming. In reality, however, it doesn't have a particularly steep learning curve, and it's undoubtedly more accessible than most turn-based strategy games.
Movement, for one, is an absolute dream. Rather than adopting a rigid grid system (think Civilization, X-COM, etc.) in which units can only move once and across a designated number of squares, Skulls of the Shogun offers much more flexibility. Though players can only issue commands to a limited number of units per turn, each of those units are free to roam wherever they please within a certain radius.
But the key is that you never have to commit to a move within your turn. Nothing is locked in until you end your turn. I, for one, found this to be a huge break after playing hours of XCOM, in which telling a unit to move somewhere is very much a permanent decision.
And there are other design choices meant to make it easier for players to ease their way into the game, like reminders via in-game dialogue about certain strategies, and even an info toggle that displays important information about units like health, attack, defense, etc. But most importantly, the game is accessible because it has a simple, easy-to-understand setup and UI. There are clearly labeled buttons for different actions, and controls are basic with no complicated gestures. Basically, it's just dragging to move your units and tapping on buttons to perform different actions once a unit is within range of an interactive object or enemy. The only issue is that there are occasional crowding issues on screens as small as a smartphone's; sometimes it can be difficult to select the right unit or to see how much health it has remaining without using the info tab.
Yes, there are plenty of other factors that add to the depth of the game, like knockback from attacks (which in turn can be prevented by keeping your units close together to form "spirit walls"), the ability to take cover in bamboo, or allowing your general to meditate (to gain a higher max health) before using him for the first time in the match, among other things. But in all, most players will find that it all catches on pretty easily and they won't have to think twice about any of it after just a couple of matches.
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