Skulls of the Shogun

Skulls of the Shogun Hands-On Preview - Slicing and Dicing

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Jake Kazdal has been in the industry for 16 years. Starting out as a game counselor for Nintendo during the NES era, he went on to become a game artist and animator on such titles as Space Channel 5, Rez and Command and Conquer 4. He even had a hand in the ill-fated Steven Spielberg video game project, LMNO.

Yet despite working on stone cold classics with some of the biggest publishers in the business, Skulls of the Shogun is the game Kazdal always wanted to make. So he set up an independent studio with fellow industry vets Borut Pfeifer and Ben Vance with the intention of doing just that.

Make no mistake, 17-Bit isn’t an indie dev struggling to deliver an arty-fartsy experimental experience. Nor is it rallying against the wrongs of the industry. It’s not that kind of indie. Instead, it’s just three seasoned pros trying to bring a new twist to an old genre in the most entertaining way possible. Based on what they’ve shown so far, 17-Bit are on exactly the right track.

Skulls of the Shogun is a turn-based, asynchronous strategy title that throws out tiles and most of the numbers and antiquated guff that puts people off the genre. Instead, the game favours immediacy, intuitiveness and accessibility. This isn’t stuffy and stat-based, it’s a breath of fresh air.

Playable across Xbox Live, Windows Phone and Windows 8 thanks to a nifty use of cloud saves, Skulls of the Shogun is also the flag-bearer for Microsoft’s cross-platform push. The first ever game to offer such functionality, you can expect a lot more titles to follow a similar pattern in the years to come. This is the future, folks. Oh, and 17-Bit has no intention to go the microtransaction route either. That’s reason to celebrate alone.

Skulls of the Shogun begins with betrayal. On the eve of his greatest victory a pompous Japanese warlord is stabbed in the back. Whisked off to the afterlife where he soon realises he’s the victim of celestial identity theft, he must rally an army of undead troops and set things right, largely by slicing everyone to bloody little pieces.

Instead of the grid-like movement favoured by turn-based strategy games, the game allows you to position your units anywhere within a given range indicated by a ring. When you move you are shown another ring revealing how much energy you have left to retreat after attacking an enemy. Trust me, I’ve managed to make that sound far more complicated than it is.

The beauty of the ring system is that it’s immediately obvious what you can do and where you can do it, in a way that feels organic. Add the fact that you move around freely within those rings - as opposed to the awkward point click and trot system often utilised elsewhere - and that your enemy’s health is displayed on their banners, and what you get is an a truly intuitive approach.

The units you control are similarly immediate. Infantry units deliver high melee damage, Cavalry units are highly mobile and Archers are capable of ranged attacks. From this simple set-up, the tactical options available to you soar.

Layered on top of the basics are a number of gameplay elements that vastly increase your tactical options. In attack, environmental hit chance bonuses are offered from certain areas like grass, bamboo or trees. Plus, knock an opponent back with a powerful melee attack and if there’s an environmental hazard behind them, they’ll instantly die.

Kill an enemy and it will leave a skull on the ground. Get a unit to consume a skull and it will bolster your hit points permanently (kind of like levelling up), while eating three skulls turns the unit into a badass "demon" capable of attacking two times.

Defence offers a range of options too. Move two or more units next to each other and they form a "spirit wall." Once set, no enemies can move or attack through the wall. In this way it’s possible to shape the battlefield, protect your weaker units and funnel the enemy where you want them to go.

What’s remarkable about all this - and I’m assured that’s just the tip of the katana when it comes to depth - is how you never feel baffled or out of control. Certainly not in the sections I’ve played anyway. Based on early evidence, Shadows of the Samurai looks set to achieve that most holy of game design goals by combining immediacy and sophistication.

I should probably mention that it’s gorgeous too. There’s a crisp, colourful and distinctive hand-drawn art style to the game spread across some utterly beautiful environments, including rice paddies, windswept cherry blossom locales and mountain tops. You’d be hard pressed to find a more attractive game. Nor a funnier one for that matter. The irreverent place-holder text 17-Bit put in the game proved so popular, that its kooky charm was kept in. It had me chuckling all the way through the demo.

All of which is a lot of praise for a game I spent only about an hour in the company of, yet such is the quality of the game’s first impression. It’s a hugely exciting prospect. Indeed, my only reservation is how well the asynchronous multiplayer aspect of the game will translate to Xbox. On mobile devices playing a few rounds then getting on with your life is the norm. Console gamers demand longer play sessions, something they’ll get with Skulls of the Shogun's campaign. But with the multiplayer? It’ll be interesting to see how it pans out.

Jake Kazdal, Borut Pfeifer and Ben Vance chucked it all in to make games on their own terms. They made the right choice.

Skulls of the Shogun is due out around October 26th.


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Game Info


US January 30, 2013

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