Skulls of the Shogun Review
A welcome change of pace from usual strategy genre entries
The Ghast Samurai
Had I not known that I was dead already,
I would have mourned the loss of my life.
Ōta Dōkan, a famous samurai-monk, composed that poem right after he was sentenced to death in 1486. In Japan’s feudal era, it was common for learned samurai to compose such jisei, or death poetry, when they felt their end’s approach. But if the afterlife is anything like its portrayal in Skulls of the Shogun then they might not have been in such a hurry to put pen to paper. In 17-BIT’s inaugural strategy game, death means taking up one's spot at the end of the line into the afterlife proper. The current wait time? Just a few thousand years or so.
That’s the situation that bloodthirsty General Akamoto finds himself in when he’s backstabbed by his second-in-command mere seconds after his greatest victory. But in life, so it goes in death, and Akamoto isn’t the type to wait patiently for his turn. So when he learns that his betrayer has died, stolen his identity, and risen to the rank of non-corporeal generalissimo, it’s time to recruit some hirelings and stage a little rebellion.
Said rebellion plays out across a netherworld of floating islands (think: Toejam and Earl) that represent the changing seasons. It's a distinctly poetic metaphor for this march through the afterlife, and it lends itself to a gaming convention that'll instantly be familiar to most players: the "water stage", "ice stage", et al. Cultural features intertwine adroitly with themes of ghostliness to embellish the core strategy mechanics in Skulls of the Shogun. Rice paddies and temples can be “haunted” to procure resources and units respectively. A cast of colorful samurai, a few mischievous gods, and a creepy, voluptuous muse all await along the path towards sweet, sweet revenge.
War, betrayal, death, and eternity...it would all be a bit heavy, were it not for Skulls of the Shogun’s playful humor and cartoon-goth art style. Between the two, they put a comedic spin on what are traditionally considered to be a pretty dour setting and subject matter. A lot of humor is mined from gaming tropes and samurai lifestyle; a personal favorite is a late-game battalion that speaks entirely in incomprehensible haiku. Unsurprisingly, the fourth wall remains standing about as long it takes to start the first level and meet your troops. Each battle, Akamoto and his opponent-du-jour field a varied host of skeleton infantry, cavalry, archers, and monks, all rendered with oversized heads and stubby little feet. When struck by an attack they emit high-pitched squeals of surprise as their bodies explode, leaving feckless (but still rather talkative!) skulls.
Skulls do more than simply lend gravitas to the game’s title. An enemy’s can actually be consumed by slightly more lively warriors for a quick boost of health and some new abilities. Monks that feast on their foes' remains are granted new spells, and all units, upon consumption of their third skull, become demons that can act twice per round. It's a mechanic that's of deep consequence to the strategic underpinnings of Skulls of the Shogun - losing units empowers the enemy, compounding the damage inflicted when a soldier is felled. This, and a number of other simple, but beneficial design decisions help Skulls of the Shogun stand out from the crowd, while still maintaining the depth and balance that are genre pillars. Capable tacticians will find a bevy of tools that must be juggled and fought over to achieve victory.