One fateful day, the great General Akamoto was slain on the field of battle, and whisked away to the shores of the afterlife. Upon arrival, he found he was expected to wait on line for one thousand years before he would see admission. So began the newly deceased General, and his undead troops’, indignant march to the gates of the afterlife, destroying any who would dare stand in their way. Such is the plot of Skulls of the Shogun, a new strategy game from developer 17-BIT. Though, it’s not as serious as it sounds. SotS applies a great sense of humour and an interesting twist to the classic strategy genre gameplay to create an entertaining and—almost always—fun game.
SotS plays very much like a classic strategy game, sans the grid-based movement. Moving units is more freeform than something in the vein of Final Fantasy Tactics or its ilk. Actions are still turn-based, but vaguely so. There’s no strict rule set applied to how you’ll be able to play; you can freely choose among your units, move them wherever you want (within the parameters of the level), and give them whatever orders you like. The only real limitation you’ll have to deal with is that you can only order five units per turn, and some of those units may have multiple actions that don’t decrease from your overall order count.
The unique gameplay hooks in SotS, and what makes it interesting, are aspects like ordering your undead units to “haunt” rice paddies or shrines to earn currency and use it to purchase new soldiers. Units can also eat the skulls of slain foes to become stronger, and once they’ve eaten three they’ll transform into a powerful demon. Demon units (including General Akamoto) gain an additional free action each turn, so there’s a real benefit to these quirky gameplay elements.
All of these interesting quirks are vital to progressing through each level. This game is difficult, almost unfairly so at times. The opposing units in each stage will press you constantly and relentlessly, forcing you to alter your strategy on a whim. The unbalanced difficulty usually emerges in the final level of an area. Each stage leading up to it are often hard but fair, whereas the finale can and will crush you without remorse. It’s a terribly inelegant difficulty ramp, and can be incredibly frustrating.
This occasionally, drastically unbalanced difficulty in SotS would have been enough for me to stop playing, if it weren’t for its great sense of humour and entertaining story and characters. General Akamoto, his men, and his rivals have great dialogue and banter. It can be cheesy, but rarely unappealing. For example, a spectating unit might shout “Sign my chest!” upon witnessing your success. In addition to its great humour, both the music and art in SotS are fantastic, and exemplify the feel of the Shogun era on display.
Skulls of the Shogun is worth playing, despite its missteps. The unfair difficulty spikes are a lone disappointment in an otherwise entertaining and enjoyable strategy game.