BADGP Reviews: Skulls of the Shogun

A Conversational Review of Skulls of the Shogun (XBLA)

Can strategy games bloom, even on the consoles? – Written by Alex Linna and Brock Morgan

Brock: Man, I hate strategy games…

Alex: I’m almost through the second area. It’s getting better and deeper, but man… one wrong move and game over. Good thing the levels are so short.

Brock: Yeah, that’s really what’s saving it for me at this point. There’s so much charm and personality, but it’s so unforgiving! Just so you know, on that last level in the second area, your general can get knocked off an edge in one hit, so wake him up before he can get hit once. I lost fifteen minutes because of that.

Alex: I accidentally lost him on one of the first missions, but it is a brutal balance between offense and defense/recovery with skull consumption.

Brock: Yeah, the game strikes a balance. Also, I don’t know if you agree, but in my mind, it’s archers or nothing when it comes to buying troops.

Alex: Sometimes I just need troops and the infantry is the way to go. Fast and easy. Not having that counter attack with the archers is killer, but well balanced.

Brock: It is quite well balanced in most respects, though I feel it’s possible to abuse the archers if you try (like I did!). In the last level in the second major section, I ended up winning (after six+ tries) only because I spawned five archers and hit the general with all five the next turn. I’m glad that worked out in my favor, but perhaps it’s a bit overpowered.

Alex: The hardest level for me was probably 4-1, the first mission where they introduce the Crow Monks. It took me a while to discover their true strengths and weaknesses. I was impressed with the overall diversity of the missions. As I have been simultaneously playing StarCraft II in preparation for SCII:HotS, both games do an excellent job of using the same fairly simple parts over and over again in new and interesting ways.

Brock: I see what you mean! The level design was particularly great, often subtly layering in each new mechanic level after level, whether it be different shrines, different terrain elements, or different environmental factors.

Alex: Along with great diversity, the games presentation and User Interface was perhaps the best in a console strategy game. The best might be Halo Wars? Of course, Skulls of the Shogun might have had a smaller budget.

Brock: Yeah, the game really does stick to its presentation style very well. The art makes really great use of that Japanese style, and the music dances between a distinct oriental flair during missions and classic SNES-era stuff outside of the levels themselves. Skulls of the Shogun does make the most out of being on a console by being spectacularly easy to control and putting all the information you need on banners on the sides of the screen. My only issue with that, however, is that targeting units can be difficult, as you need to find that one specific pixel on the side of your movement circle that will let you hit another unit, and that the text on the information banners was quite hard to read on my non-HDTV.

Alex: Sometimes it is difficult to target something specific when there is a pile of skulls on a shrine and enemies near. I did end up really enjoying my time with the game, the charm and excellent writing carried it at the beginning until I started to sink my teeth into the combat. The conversation between the doors “Right Brother” and “Left Brother” was incredible. My favorite quote came from a random soldier talking about Raiden, “He’s crazier than my ex and she’s the reason I’m here you know!” [in the afterlife].

Brock: The writing does do a fantastic job of drawing the player into the game. When I was presented with an Anchorman reference roughly five to ten minutes into the game, I knew I was going to love the game’s sense of humor. I often enjoyed the banter between General Akamoto [the player character] and various opposing generals; specifically the discussion of what would be done with a particular enemy skull after that enemy would be defeated.

Alex: I have been thinking why the game was so endearing to me. I believe it was the ability of the game to make me feel incredibly helpless and then succeeding despite the odds. There were numerous times where I wanted to restart a level, but said, “No!” in order to overcome the perceived enormous adversity. That was a great feeling.

Brock: Agreed! There were a few levels in particular that really made me feel great for beating them. One such level featured the opposing general saying something that I feel the game put into practice quite a lot, “Let me even the playing field by making it completely unfair for you.” Also, I don’t think this could be considered a spoiler, but the last level really makes you feel great for beating it, as it’s completely insane at the start.

So we’ve talked a lot about how awesome this game is. And it is awesome! But, before we move on to assigning a score, are there any negative aspects we haven’t touched on yet? For example, I know some people reported some technical issues with the game. While I had no such issues, did you have the same luck I did?

Alex: Yeah, I also did not experience any technical issues in the slightest. I guess if I had to criticize the game it would be for being “too” simple, but that is also a part of its charm; so it is hardly a criticism. I could say that it starts too slow, but the pacing is actually great! It slows the player into the few mechanics the game has. Maybe there not being much to criticize is a problem, there is not much to the game. How about you?

Brock: In response to that, I really think that the game’s simplicity is really what makes it a success. The game doesn’t stumble under its own weight by adding too many mechanics , and what is there is balanced really well and offers a nice amount of challenge, so no, I don’t really feel it’s much of a problem, as long as the player doesn’t go in to playing the game with a really hardcore set of expectations.

On the negative side, I feel that selecting units can be a pain at times, and selecting enemy units even more so. That’s about it, really. I’d love to see another game by the developers, 17-bit, where they maybe ratchet it up a notch and see where their experience with Skulls of the Shogun can take them, especially if they improve the AI a bit.

Alex: I would be interested to see what they do next. Do you think they would do a sequel to “Skulls?”

Brock: I don’t know, really. They spent several years making this game, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see them move on to something else, but I would be in no way opposed to seeing Skulls of the Shogun 2 after what they accomplished here.

Alex: As for a score, I’ve been thinking of giving it an 8.4. Though I have almost no problem with the game and thoroughly enjoyed I suppose I would have liked a little more depth. What’s there is fantastic though.

Brock: I, personally, would have shot for an 8.5. I think you’re largely right about the depth issue in that it could have used a bit more, but the package that’s there is really great. Any chance you’re willing to add that 0.1?

Alex: Yeah, that’s fine.

Brock: Well there we have it! Skulls of the Shogun for XBox Live Arcade receives an 8.5 from Alex Linna and Brock Morgan of BADGamingPodcast! Any closing remarks, Alex?

Alex: I really like Skulls of the Shogun. General Akamoto was an interesting and funny character surrounded by ridiculousness. The gameplay was fun, challenging, and intuitive for console use. My favorite part of the game was probably the oft hilarious writing, but the core gameplay was rewarding. I heard the game described as “The Castle Crashers for XBLA strategy games!” I do not think I would go that far, but the game delivers an excellent streamlined strategy experience.

Brock: Very well said! Thanks for this fun review experience, and, to all checking out this review, thanks for reading!

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