According to Video games (and we lay the blame partially on Total war for this perception) Japan conducted wars between prefectures quite honourably: you arrange your infantry, mobilise your cavalry and order your archers to fire a volley at any enemy within range while the opposing general and his army patient wait their turn. Then, when you’ve regrouped your front line and taken your time to ensure your general isn’t exposed, signal that you’ve completed your turn then brace yourself for the enemy round.
So there you go: Skulls Of The Shogun – it’s a realistic samurai war simulator, then, except for the undead and underworld theme. You take command of a dead general trying to fight his way into the underworld alongside a handful of undead minions who have been inspired to take up arms and join your cause. Your units move fluidly across the battlefield rather than in incremental steps, taking an action and then using up any movement to retreat to relative safety: you move, strike and return. A nice and simple formula, the way turn-based strategy should be.
We vaguely recall something from that haze of D-grade GSCE history that Samurai used to eat the skulls of their fallen enemies to gain power, and such is the case here. Kill a bad guy and much on his fallen cranium for that unit to receive a heal and a boost to his maximum hit points. Eat three skulls of the fallen and not only will that unit be significantly more robust than its original form, that unit will turn demon, giving it two actions or attacks per round.
Ideally, what we like to see in a well-wrought turn-based strategy game is for the game to rely on developing basic strategy and situation to provide the variation necessary to keep a player occupied for a 15-hour single-player stretch. Skulls does tend to rely quite a lot on gimmicks, potions dropped on the battlefield, a spell-casting fox monk unit summoned by sending a unit to ‘haunt’ a shrine and, to a lesser extent, paddy fields that generate rice as a currency that can be spent on buying more troops, troop buffs and more.
As turn-based hardcore gamers we’d have liked to have seen the game focus on careful soldier deployment and protection of the general who is your most powerful unit, but whose demise results in an instant victory for the enemy. But we can’t fault Skulls Of The Shogun for being a thoroughly compelling strategy game. Quirky too, playing to the video game retro-chic and tongue-in-cheek humour that’s popular especially among XBLA and digital games today. Despite the slightly overblown frills, there’s plenty of depth to Skulls Of The Shogun that will instantly engage any type of strategy gamer.