When your destined greatness is trampled by a backstabbing low-life and you're suddenly knocked to the bottom of the totem pole, all you can do is act out in vicious vengeance, right? No, no, I'm not reciting a scene from Jersey Shore, but yet the plot of what may be one of this year's sleeper hits, Skulls of the Shogun (and yes, we know it's only January). Years in the making for developer 17-Bit, Skulls of the Shogun marks a title whose non-stop action gels fantastically with robust, welcomed strategy mechanics, and a plot that's both feasible and puerile.
As we teased, Skulls of the Shogun opens with an eerie scene, as a dark, shadowy figure assassinates the beloved, to-be shogun, General Akamoto. With little explanation, you're character is sent to the Samurai Afterlife where you're left with few options but to find the menace who caused your demise. By breaking all the Samurai Afterlife's rules, and by assembling a rag-tag team of warriors who vary in specialty, Akamoto's path is established in a 4-8 hour campaign that takes you from the lush swamps to the frozen tundra of the Afterlife.
Despite what you've heard, the story's core conception isn't what sets the tone for Skulls of the Shogun's campaign. Surprisingly, in this case, a strategy game's writing is what headlines its success. Ben Vance's writing is both accessible to everyone, and absolutely hysterical, as you'll come across nearly hundreds of one-liners. Whether it's your warriors giving you a hard time about a magical, good-looking woman, or you harassing another general, there's no shortage of laughs, which is absolutely necessary to carry such a liability that comes with a lengthy campaign. It also doesn't hurt that you'll be staring at gorgeous, arcade-y graphics and mellowing yourself out to a lovely soundtrack as you tear apart enemy units for hours at a time.
Nonetheless, Skulls of the Shogun is still a strategy game above all else, and thankfully it succeeds in every facet of a genre that's usually hit or miss. Whether you're a newcomer to the genre or a longtime connoisseur, Skulls of the Shogun will cater to your abilities. Gameplay is essentially the most hospitable trait, but don't let that fool you; it doesn't squander the term strategy in any sense. As you go along, you're allotted a team of warriors, including your general, which you'll guide to victory over any number of foes. From round one to the last death, you're squad is given five "orders" or actions each round. Movements vary from character to character, as you use your orders and guide characters anywhere within their white circles. For instance, cavalry characters can travel much further than standard infantry unites, so you'll have to be keen on how far you wish to advance each set of troops.
Once in contact with enemy foes, you'll have the ability to take advantage of the game's significant number of attacks. Archers and their bows; Infantry and their deadly swords; there's no shortage of ways to dismember enemies. But you'll have to be careful, as each character has a series of strengths and weaknesses in offense and defense. But do not believe that the action stops there. Oh no – your units will be able to "haunt" rice-paddies (it's a Samurai thing) and gain in-game currency that can be used to generate new units at shrines. In addition, players will often run into shrines that generate monks that can be used to heal teammates, aid in destruction, or even blow adversaries off towering cliffs. Each of these tools will be needed, though, as Skulls of the Shogun's AI is incredibly smart, attacking your weaker units and desired shrine prizes.
As gameplay evolves from standard "alleyway"-like maps to full-blown horizontal and vertical battlefields, you'll discover new ways to tackle foes, including the environment itself. Indeed, many of the battles we entered were overcome by slicing units down waterfalls, into thorn bushes, and even into crocodile-infested waters. And as you do this, you'll learn valuable gameplay techniques to use in future battles, whether that be setting up "spirit walls" near ledges so your counterparts do not get pushed off, or even luring enemies into these traps. It's a scripted experience, with one designed outcome, but the path to success is entirely up to you and how you manage your team – and it works.
The fun only propagates as you jump into multiplayer, however. Skulls of the Shogun packs a handful of entertaining multiplayer modes that intensifies the action from the campaign to an entirely new level. Four-team battles against real-life opponents will have you looking over your unit's shoulders with each move, either agonizing in rage by a move or jumping for joy by setting up a crucial attack. The only downside to these large-scaled battles is that they can take up large amounts of time, and if you're ousted early on, you could be a spectator for quite some time. But what if you could take your battles on the road, or even duke it out against a Skulls opponent playing on Windows 8? Well surprise, Skulls of the Shogun offers cross-platform play with all launch platforms (XBLA, Windows 8, Windows Phone, Surface). Cross-platform play also includes cloud save support, so you can resume battle at any time, depending on your game's settings.
Nowadays on Xbox LIVE Arcade, the question is, "Is it the next Castle Crashers?" The problem here, though, is that Castle Crashers and Skulls of the Shogun are wholly, distinctive experiences. Nevertheless, Skulls of the Shogun is a never-before experience on XBLA as apart of the strategy genre. Sure there's little gripes with your general being able to be pushed off ledges (resulting in an instant kill and restart on a particular level) and other minor hindrances, but in the grand scheme of things, you'll keep coming back for the action, the strategy, and the massive online battles - so much so that these small "interruptions" are nearly unapparent. If you're looking for a title that can offer exceptional gameplay that'll last you hours upon hours (oh, and that's not $60), look no further than to 17-Bit's long-awaited Skulls of the Shogun.