Skulls of the Shogun: Bon-A-Fide Edition - It Doesn't Get Much Better...
Platform: PC (Steam)
Genre: Turn Based Strategy
Players: Single Player, 2-4 Multi-player (online, local)
Sometimes a game comes along which just immediately catches your attention. As someone who has an avid interest in feudal Japan, something called Skulls of the Shogun would, obviously, be one of these games.
Originally released on the Xbox 360 and other Microsoft services back in January, Skulls of the Shogun put players in the shoes of the fallen General Akamoto. Betrayed on the day of his greatest battle, the battle which would decide whether or not he would become Shogun, General Akamoto must fight his way through the Land of the Dead to find out who betrayed him and get his revenge!
The Bon-A-Fide Edition, which includes a bunch of new content, has been available via Steam early access for some time now, but starting today you will be able to pick up the final product!
At first glance, the thing which stands out most about Skulls of the Shogun is the utterly fantastic art style. Every single thing in this game, from the trees to the architecture to the soldiers and samurai themselves are beautifully stylized. With this comes an incredible amount of atmosphere. An atmosphere which not only makes one feel that they are charging into battle in some part of Japan (which is fitting considering that the game revolves a samurai warriors afterlife), but with the addition of a thick fog or other weather effects covering most maps there is also a very gloomy feel. Beyond the somewhat depressing feel that the art style can sometimes convey, the game being so wonderfully stylized can make everything seem not only gloomy but also adorable at the same time. The soldiers health is even represented not as a dull looking green bar above their head, but as a sashimono (a banner) latched onto their backs. It's quite a feat when someone can take something like a samurai warrior which, in reality, is meant to inspire fear at the very sight of them and make them utterly adorable looking, yet still stick to that intimidating style. It's worth noting that this stylized look spills over into the main menu and level selection screen as well, though at that point you could easily mistake Skulls for something ripped out of Samurai Jack. You also can't forget that all of this is backed up by a soundtrack which is about as chill and fitting as can be in a game based around Samurai. Frankly, you couldn't really ask for a game which exudes more style, but all of the style in the world wouldn't mean much if the game-play itself isn't up to par.
When it comes to strategy, things usually aren't too complicated unless you are venturing into the realm of empire building with something like Civilization V. With Skulls, you're given a set number and type of troops at the beginning of every round which vary between infantry, cavalry, and archers. As you'd probably expect, since archers take on a very specific role they deal out the most damage but are also the weakest, whereas the infantry and cavalry are a bit more durable but cause less damage. The archers ability to safely attack from afar is balanced out by the melee units ability to cause knock back whenever they strike an enemy. In most games this would achieve little more than giving your troops a bit more breathing room, but throughout the maps in Skulls there are a number of streams and cliff faces which, if used correctly, will result in instant death for any soldier pushed into (or off of) them. It sounds like a pretty cheap tactic, something which would eliminate most strategy from the rest of the combat, but even this feature is counteracted by something, and that something comes in the form of spirit walls.
Whenever two troops are within close proximity to each other, they form a spirit wall which is represented by a glowing aura around each soldiers feet, connecting them. To put it simply, any soldiers which are a part of a spirit wall cannot be knocked back by anything, nor can any enemy troops move through that spirit wall. While inherently a defensive feature, spirit walls also act as a real wall to enemies in the sense that friendly archers can fire over your spirit wall, but enemy archers cannot counter attack by firing back over it. Theoretically speaking, you could just move a wall of melee soldiers through the map to tank all of the damage while your archers (which are arguably the most important unit in the game other than your general) pick off enemies from safely behind the spirit wall. It probably wouldn't work out to well for you, but it's nice having a feature with such versatility.
Looking past the great art and general game-play, the one thing which Skulls of the Shogun does better than most games out there, of any genre, is conveyance. A strategy game needs to let a player know exactly what is going to happen if they attack an enemy, without that a game is left up to chance which does a good job of making it feel significantly less tactical. When you move a soldier within striking distance of an enemy the enemy flashs white, and if they are just barely within range (which comes with a 20% chance that you'll miss) they flash yellow. If an enemy can counter attack then they take up an offensive stance, but if they can't then they simply cower in fear (in a most amusing manner). Once you do finally enter attack mode, the enemies sashimono tells you exactly how much damage you're going to inflict and, if they can counter attack, how much damage they will be dealing to you. When using melee troops, they even tell you what direction they are going to be knocked back so that you can position yourself accordingly. Skulls conveyance goes a bit beyond all that, but the point is that when it comes to combat you know exactly what is going to happen and when a strategy game revolves around combat where you re consistently outnumbered, few things are more important than knowing the exact repercussions of your actions.
Something which is also pretty damn important in strategy games are maps which not only offer variety, but allow various avenues of attack. In this area, Skulls of the Shogun once again shines. Every map is unique and not a single one can be described using the word 'barren'. Throughout each map, beyond the beautiful environmental textures and detail, are rice paddies, shrines, and small groupings of bamboo. These small groups of bamboo are used to hide troops, slightly lowering their opacity and giving anyone who tried to attack them a 20% chance that they'll miss. Rice paddies and shrines, on the other hand, make up the two types of resources which you're going to want to get your hands on. While rice paddies (obviously) provide their owner with a set amount of rice every round, shrines take on the role of summoning troops, provided that you have the required rice, or special shrines which summon a special soldier known as a Monk.
Monks come in three varieties, four with the Steam exclusive Bon-A-Fide Edition, and all fill their own unique role...
Fox Monk - This little guy runs around with a bamboo staff which he, unfortunately, can never use for offensive purposes but instead acts as the token healer for the game.
Salamander Monk - Your typical drunken anthropomorphic salamander who, after drinking from his flask, can spit fireballs at enemies, dealing a considerable amount of damage.
Crow Monk - Much like their real world counter parts, the Crow Monk can steal rice from paddies and transfer it into your own coffers. They also have the power of the wind, allowing them to just blow enemy soldiers right off of a cliff or push a friendly troop closer to something.
Tanuki Monk - Tanukis are the trolls of the bunch. They can switch places with any units, they can spawn some ice behind an enemy (which allows you to push them back farther) and they can taunt enemies into attacking them rather than your other troops.
To unlock some of the more potent spells, Monks are going to have to consume skulls, each one giving them a more powerful spell. What exactly are these skulls that I speak of?
Well, every time an enemy, or ally, is killed off, all that remains of them is their skull tucked away inside of their helmet. Devouring a skull results in the one who eats it regaining 3 HP and having their max HP raised by 2. Upon eating their third skull a soldier is enveloped in smoke, a gong is struck, and they emerge looking like a pretty bad ass Demon version of their former selves. Demons, as you'd imagine, are more powerful than their normal counter parts, not only because they are more durable and hit harder but because they can now perform two actions (three if it's your general) per turn, significantly increasing their lethality. As you progress further into the game, enemy Demons become increasingly common and the need to create your own becomes increasingly important. Much like the Monks, and even more so, skulls add a massive layer of depth to the strategic possibilities within Skulls of the Shogun.
Once vengeance has been dealt, the normal game ends and your adventure into The Forgotten Isles begins. The Forgotten Isles, exclusive to the Bon-A-Fide Edition, takes players on an even more difficult journey in the shoes of a mysterious stranger who claims to be a lieutenant of General Akamoto. These four levels are unique in that the results of one battle directly spill right into the next. If all of your troops die in the process of completing the first level, you'll enter the second level without any troops (the same goes for rice). For the first time in Skulls of the Shogun, The Forgotten Isles forces players to come up with a long term strategy to success rather than doing what they can to make it through a certain level.
In addition to the 10-15 hours of single player content, there is a competitive multi-player mode. There isn't very much to say about it considering that it doesn't introduce anything new that wasn't in the single player campaign beyond there being up to four players on one map. If there is one down side in this whole game, it rears its ugly head in the multi-player, coming in the form of the maps. Despite most maps being ripped directly from the single player campaign, when some of them are applied to the multi-player some players are given a clear advantage over others. This isn't an issue in the campaign because you're supposed to be fighting a more powerful enemy, an enemy which is much more numerous than yourself. In multi-player, however, all combatants should be on a level playing field, earning their advantage rather than it being given to them. This can be countered by giving the weakest of the players the advantageous side of the map or by simply not choosing it, but either way it's a bit of an issue.
Skulls of the Shogun is absolutely amazing. When it comes to turn based strategy, you couldn't ask for a more solid title. Everything from the art to the game-play to the way that a Tanuki waves his hands in terror when you're about to attack him is utterly fantastic. The only thing which someone could call 'bad' is the art style and music since those two things are entirely subjective (even though they'd be wrong). When it comes to using the word 'perfect' in video game, doing so is simply folly. There is no such thing as a perfect video game, no matter how much we might enjoy it. That being said, it's safe to say that some games get pretty close to being perfect. Skulls of the Shogun is one of those games and I couldn't possibly recommend it enough.