One of the most original strategy games of the last gen comes to Switch and it still feels as fresh and innovative as ever.
For those of you that are sick of us going on about Advance Wars lately, we apologise in advance (no pun intended) for this review. We had thought that we’d got the franchise out of our system with the release of Tiny Metal: Full Metal Rumble, but then someone pointed out that Skulls Of The Shogun had just been released on Switch and we just had to review it.
American developer 17-BIT has never made any secret of the fact that Nintendo’s classic turn-based strategy game was their primary influence, although this is by no means a clone – especially not compared to something like Tiny Metal.
Skulls Of The Shogun was first released as far back as 2013 and while this Bone-A-Fide Edition contains all manner of DLC and extra levels it’s still essentially the same game as always. Strategy games always tend to weather the passage of time better than other genres and that’s certainly true here, especially given many of its best ideas remain as unique today as they were when it first came out.
Skulls Of The Shogun stars almost-shogun Akamoto who, moments before conquering all of Japan, is very literally stabbed in the back. On arriving in the afterlife he doesn’t take things lying down and quickly starts to organise a rebellion by recruiting dead souls to his army.
As you can probably tell from the visuals this is not a game that takes itself seriously, but its script isn’t the usual collection of witless pop culture references. It’s genuinely funny and illustrates a deep love of video games and their often absurd traditions.
But as enamoured as 17-BIT obviously are with retro gaming they clearly don’t feel bound by it, and Skulls Of The Shogun features several interesting innovations. The most important is that although this is a turn-based tactics game it doesn’t use a grid or hex-based map. Each character can move anywhere they like within a circular radius and you only need get as close as their weapons demand before you can attack the enemy.
This makes the game immediately more accessible to people who are worried that strategy may not be their thing, and also encourages concepts such as punting enemies off cliff edges or pushing them into or out of range of different weapons. There’s also the concept of creating a ‘spirit wall’ by placing different units next to each so that they form an impenetrable barrier.
The basic units are much as you might imagine with infantry, cavalry, and archers amongst the less specialised units. Akamoto, or whichever general you happen to be using, is an active player on the battlefield and while he’s extremely powerful his death means that the match ends instantly.
A considerable number of complications are added over the course of the game, with later maps including resource mines (paddy fields), spawn points, and shrines to capture. The shrines in turn give you access to various types of monk, including a fox-headed healer, a flame-throwing salamander, and a wind-controlling crow.
There’s also the business of eating the defeated skulls of your enemies, with one or two healing you and increasing your maximum health, and a third one upgrading your unit into a super soldier.
There’s plenty of depth and variety within Skulls Of The Shogun and your computer opponents are skilled and unpredictable in all the right ways. They are perhaps better at realising when to use a knockback attack than most human opponents, but that’s what building spirits walls is for.
In terms of multiplayer you’ve got a huge variety of four-player options, including local multiplayer and online, which is perfect for the Switch and its Joy-Cons. There’s a good range of different play modes too, with some placing you all so close that the match is purposefully over in minutes and others occupying more sprawling levels that also include computer-controlled enemies.
Despite all its good work though Skulls Of The Shogun does have one fairly sizeable flaw: the lack of a grid may help to make it seem all very modern and accessible but it also makes it a lot harder to tell what’s going on. Strategy games don’t use grids because they want to look old-fashioned and boring but because they’re a necessity for understanding exactly what’s going on.
In Skulls Of The Shogun units are often so closely packed it’s often very hard to work out who’s who. This is exacerbated both by the need to construct spirit walls and the fact that the undead samurai motif means that most of the units look very similar to each other. The art style may be all very pretty but it makes the game harder to play, and, again, that’s why most strategy games tend to look so basic.
Our only other complaint is that some of the battles can go on for a bit too long, with a constant flow of reinforcements often creating one too many false endings. None of this ruins the experience (although it can easily lead to an unexpected defeat) but it’s always been a frustrating flaw in a game that is otherwise impressively fast-paced and original.
We would’ve hoped for a sequel at some point in the last six years, to address these points, but none ever seems to have been hinted at. But if that’s what this new Switch version is meant to be a prelude to then we’re even more happy to see it get another release.
Skulls Of The Shogun: Bone-A-Fide Edition
In Short: Its attempted revolution of turn-based tactics isn’t quite as practical as it first seems but this is still an impressively fun, and funny, strategy game.
Pros: Accessible but deep gameplay, with an extremely smooth difficultly curve and fast-paced gameplay. Lots of different multiplayer options, plus great dialogue and graphics.
Cons: The lack of a grid, the too-similar unit designs, and the encouragement to place units close to each other can make the layout very confusing at times. Some battles drag on too long.
Formats: Nintendo Switch (reviewed), PlayStation 4, and PC
Publisher: Golem Entertainment
Release Date: 11th July 2019
Age Rating: 12
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