I went diving through the XBox Live Arcade’s new releases the other day. And you all know what that means! Yes, I’ve played Skulls of the Shogun, a new release by new developer 17-BIT (their only release to date, as far as I’ve determined), and available for 1200 Microsoft Points which (I think) is something like $15. The game draws inspiration from the classic GBA title “Advance Wars” in its game play, while its visual style reminds me of the classic XBox Live Arcade release “Castle Crashers”.
In its single player mode, the game follows the story of the tactically brilliant General Akamoto… after his death. He arrives in the afterlife prepared to claim all of the glory that his countless victories in life earned him, and is instead consigned to a bleak shore outside of the afterlife proper with only a few skeletons to keep him company. Obviously unsatisfied, Akamoto (you, the player!) begins gathering undead soldiers for an assault on the gates of the afterlife, to claim what is rightfully his. You soon learn the truth; Akamoto was stabbed in the back in life by his right hand man, Kurokawa, a noted coward. Immediately after stabbing you, Kurokawa fell on a spear, and was able to arrive in the afterlife first. There, he assumed your identity (and one of your daisho swords) and generally left everyone pretty torqued off in his wake.
Each mission (or multiplayer level) begins with each side commanding units drawn from a small pool. At first, you have access to only the slow-moving but defensively powerful Infantry and the faster but more vulnerable Cavalry. Soon after, you gain access to Archers, who are vulnerable in close combat, but very powerful at range. Archers are lethal to Infantry, whom they can outrun, but are outpaced by Cavalry and can’t fire when the enemy has closed in, while Cavalry can’t win a stand-up fight with Infantry, you see? Of course, your units can power-up in battle by consuming the skulls of the fallen. Each skull increases the maximum hitpoints of the unit, heals it somewhat, and if you eat three skulls you enter a Demon form, which gains a second action on each of your turns. The game also adds another twist in the form of Monks, spellcasting allies that you gain through capturing their shrines on the battlefield. Monks gain new spells from eating skulls, and can turn the course of a battle.
Your other main unit of concern is the General, a powerful unit (with an Infantry’s defense, the highest attack of all, and reasonable speed), however, the loss of the General means the loss of the mission. For this reason, it’s often wise to simply let the General hang around (in fact, each turn you go without ‘activating’ your General to give him orders, he heals a hitpoint and gains a maximum hitpoint, this is called ‘Meditating’, and is unique to the General) behind his men and direct the battle. Your units can also group together in tight formation to prevent the enemy from speeding past – an invaluable tactic that can help to protect your Archers, Monks, and General.
Although the unit list is limited and the game’s rules are not difficult to learn, there’s definitely some strategic depth to the game. In addition, the dialogue of the game is tight and fairly humourous, and the game itself is fun to play. You can’t ask for much more than that.