While the Lord High Prawn doesn’t exactly enjoy strategy, and turn-based strategy even less (his preferred method of doing things is to get in there, kill, and dance over his enemies’ corpses), I do enjoy these types of game, however. So today we’re reviewing an Xbox 360 strategy game called Skulls of the Shogun by developer 17-BIT. I head for the strategic battlefields to dance over the corpses of my own enemies. And also to eat their skulls. Intrigued?

Skulls of the Shogun tells the tale of General Akamoto, killed on the battlefield just as he’d triumphed over his final enemy and had started his own dance on their corpses. Starting a game off as dead has never stopped anyone before, so General Akamoto decides to start an insurrection, fully intent on taking over the Samurai Afterlife and becoming Shogun of the Dead.

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Skulls of the Shogun is a humorous, turn-based strategy game that has a good number of roots in chess. For example, if the General dies, it’s game over, despite him being a fairly powerful piece. On the game screen, you can move any of your units around within the movement zone, and perform a number of actions depending on where you are. If you’re near an enemy unit, you can attack them, and if you’re near a defeated enemy unit, you can eat their skulls for bonus HP (With a unit having eaten three skulls turning into a powerful demon). If you’re near a rice paddy, you can haunt it for rice, and if you’re near a shrine, you can haunt THAT for more units in exchange for rice. If it sounds complicated, it’s only because I’ve piled about 2 hours’ worth of gameplay into a single paragraph—and the game has around 8 to 10 hours of game in the campaign alone. What I liked is that you’re never overwhelmed with concepts and instructions, and you’re introduced at a reasonable pace to the game’s various mechanics.

The game’s graphics are brilliantly charming, much in the vein of Castle Crashers style. It has a cartoony veneer without looking too childish. In some of the busier battlefields, you can visually lose sight of some units as the fray becomes thicker, and this can sometimes become a problem if you’re not keeping track of how many units you have left still alive. Err…dead. This is the problem with games set in the underworld! We have no terminology in English for these things. Where was I? Oh yes, keeping track of units. Let me give you an example: in one battle I went into, I had my troops scattered around and causing the usual amount of mayhem. I lost a fair number of units the previous turn, and after using what I thought was all I had left of my rag-tag army, the enemy promptly turns around and slays a unit I hadn’t seen in their ranks. I could have used him to win! I’d have found it vastly useful, for example, to have a list of your units instead of just selecting the blighters via the left stick alone.

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One of the best aspects of Skulls of the Shogun has got to be the multiplayer. And simply because there are just so many ways to play the game. It’s not just on the Xbox 360, but also on Windows 8 phones, Windows 8 computers, and Microsoft Surface tablets, and you can play against anyone playing on any of these devices. In fact, game play doesn’t even have to be at the same time. Or even with one opponent alone. You can play asynchronously with someone or several someones, and you’re notified whenever your opponent has bothered to make a move, whether it be minutes later or days later. If you happen to own the game across multiple platforms, your game can be stored in the cloud, allowing you to play and finish the game on multiple devices. Pretty neat trick, 17-BIT!

Strategy-wise, the game’s AI makes a fair match, teaching you the game without become overwhelming, and making it look as if any losses you suffered were the fault of your own lousy tactics. It’s a brilliant way of making you feel more in control of the game. It’s worth paying close attention to which units you use against which, because this sort of decision can determine an entire battle. You’ll still have more fun playing against a human opponent, than the AI, though. Beating a computer doesn’t allow you the satisfaction of The Taunting of your fallen foes and The Dancing over their Defeated Corpses. That being said, you do not want to head straight into the multiplayer without playing the first couple of campaign missions to learn how the game works, or at the very least reading the website to get the basics down; the multiplayer games offer no tutorials. Chances are, otherwise, someone’s going to be dancing over your corpse first.

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For strategy fans, there’s a lot to recommend to Skulls of the Shogun. The game can be pretty much as fast or as slow as you like, depending on how you play. The strategy elements are deep enough that veterans of games such as Final Fantasy Tactics, XCOM, or Advance Wars will be comfortable here, yet still accessible enough for new players to get into with relative ease. If, like the Lord High Prawn himself you’re unswayed by strategy games, at least give the demo a try. If the strategy doesn’t grab you, perhaps the humour, art, and music will. Either way, it’s a brilliant game. And there’s nothing quite the feeling of dancing over the corpse of someone you had an alliance with, who then backstabbed you. Yes. It’s THAT sort of game.

Final Score: 9 Samurai Prawns out of 10

Detailed Information:
Developer: 17-BIT
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
Distributor: Microsoft South Africa
Platforms: Xbox 360 (reviewed), Windows 8, Windows 8 phone, Microsoft Surface
RRP: 1200 MS Points
Age Rating: 13+
Website: http://skullsoftheshogun.com