Prior to his death, General Akamoto, the lone survivor on a battlefield, was on his way to becoming a Shogun, but as fate would have it, he was stabbed in the back and soon found himself at the end of a queue to enter the world of the afterlife. It’s here where – through some enjoyable turn-based tactics – you must lead Akamoto and his undead army against an impostor and queue jump his way into the world of the afterlife.
If there’s one thing to take away from the exceptionally fun (but hard as nails) Skulls of the Shogun: Bone-A-Fide Edition, it’s that once samurai die and enter the eternally long queue to enter the realm of the afterlife, they immediately turn into samurai frat boys. And that’s ok. See, one of the great joys of playing Skulls of the Shogun is the great dialogue. At first I was taken aback by the somewhat sexually charged dialogue, but once you’ve gotten into the groove of hearing skeletal undead samurai warriors yelling at each other that they’re going to ‘skull chuck you once this fight is over’, well, it’s hard not to embrace the frat boy nature of these cartoon warriors.
In the realm of turn-based strategy games, I’d consider myself quite a novice. I’ve always enjoyed them, but I’ve often found myself failing dismally at setting up a smart enough strategy to tackle the enemy at hand. Skulls of the Shogun doesn’t help with my supreme ineptitude at all, but fortunately it doesn’t make its experience overly frustrating for those who are new to this genre.
So how do you tactically strategize your way to success and eventual safe haven in the afterlife? Firstly, let’s run through the different classes of warriors that make up your legion. As both sides can be made up of the same warriors, you are equally matched at all times, it’s how you use the warriors that matters.
At the core is General Akamoto (or whatever General you are opposing at that battle); he is a behemoth of a warrior – as you may expect of a General – who is your fallback. If he dies, then it’s round over, start again. At the start of most rounds, the General will start by meditating. Whilst meditating he can gain health, making him more powerful until you’re ready to call on him to lay down the pain on the field. When a warrior is attacked, most times they will retaliate with a counter attack; when a General is meditating, he is unable to counter attack any hits. This is why it’s important to set up a suitable defense with the three other main warriors available.
The other samurai that make up your army include an archer, infantry, and cavalry. The archer is weak on defense, but strong on attack and has a smaller field of movement than the soldier and tank. The infantry has a higher attack than defense, whilst the cavalry has a higher defense than attack. One of the great things about these different classes is the fact that all the units feel equal to each other. They all have their appropriate flaws and are exceptionally balanced, making your army nice and varied, rather than being top heavy with an insta-win class.
Where other tactics games may use a hexagonal layout to set out the map, the map here is wide open, and each character has a circle around them to define their field of play. This allows for a certain level of freedom for planning where to place characters to attack enemies. Do you move your archer closer to get a much needed shot at the enemy’s General, knowing that moving him there may open him up to attack from the enemy, or do you build a spirit wall to help build defenses?
A spirit wall is created when two or more warriors are in close proximity to each other. This is a magical wall that helps build minor defenses – even though enemies can still cause damage – and also helps to prevent warriors from staggering. This is where an enemy can hit a player, causing them to stagger back into thorns, which effects minor damage – or on some maps, off a cliff or into water, causing instant death. This environmental damage is great, as it helps change up the maps and keeps play fresh throughout the campaign, adding another element to play with when building your strategy. Often I would lure the enemies close just so I could knock them off a cliff for an easy victory.
Additional to your base warriors are monks that can be summoned at shrines in some levels. These are summoned by placing a warrior at a shrine to “haunt” it, costing them their turn and leaving them open for attack from enemies. Once that round is over and the monk is summoned, that warrior is back in play once again. Some of the monks available include a healing monk and a salamander monk, who can use magic against enemies. So, in brief, it’s your basic enemy variety given an undead samurai spin. There are a few other exciting shrines that appear later in the game that help keep play fresh and exciting.
Another variety of shrine allows you to summon more warriors to fight by your side. This occurs by haunting the shrine for one turn and making the shrine your own little factory or warriors. Well, almost. To spawn more warriors, you also need to haunt rice fields and gather rice to use at the shrine to summon the warriors. The catch is that there’s a finite amount of rice on the field, so you can’t just spawn an endless army of warriors and win the game.
On top of all this, enemies can haunt shrines as well, and can also haunt shrines that you’ve previously haunted. This makes for some tense battles where you feel you’re winning only to find that your healing monk’s shrine was captured by an opposing warrior, making him disappear from your side.
Each side has only five plays a round with each attack, heal, or haunt using up one of those turns. It goes without saying, but this makes each turn important and just furthers the enjoyable strategy on offer here.
When an enemy is killed in battle, their skull remains on the field sitting in wait for one of your team members to come along and eat it. See, in this world of the undead, eating an enemy’s skull replenishes health and provides that warrior with a much needed boost. Eat three skulls, and the warrior evolves into a grand demon version of themselves, sporting a wonderfully designed mask. Evolving into this demon version allows for that warrior to gain one extra move, or in the case of the monks, opens up a set of different attacks, such as the healing monk’s ability to remove your own fallen warrior’s skulls from the play field.
See, in the spirit of equality, Skulls of the Shogun also allows your enemies to eat your fallen warrior’s skulls. Some of the best battles had my evolved demon General in a one-on-one battle against the enemy demon General in a thrilling fight to the death.
If there’s one minor quibble, it would be that evolved warriors don’t carry across to the next level. It does make sense that your army of undead demon samurai warriors wouldn’t be able to tromp through the afterlife easily, but it is sad to see the warriors that you’d spent effort building up be reverted back to their base form.
As someone who is a supreme novice with turn-based strategy games, I found myself overwhelmed at first, and subsequently knocked the difficulty from normal down to novice. Even on novice, it’s still a great challenge and in fact makes me really want to go back and play through the game on a higher difficulty.
Skulls of the Shogun is a great fun game, which delivers smart strategic play with some great character designs and animation.