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Wot I Think: Skulls Of The Shogun

Pocket XCOM

Undead ancient Japanese warrior-themed. indie strategy game Skulls of the Shogun has been in development for four million years, and was finally released yesterday for PC, Xbox and Windows tellingbone. Well, only for Windows 8 PCs. Yeah, controversy/insanity. But what about the turn-based strategy at the heart of it? I've only gone and played it so I can tell you.

This is all I'm going to say about this:

Skulls of the Shogun's PC version is only available for Windows 8. Windows 8 is a confused and cynical mess (and anyone who claims otherwise is more than likely predisposed to do so) that PC gamers appear to be rightfully avoiding. It can be made rather less of a mess by installing a third party Start menu replacement for its unwisely smartphone-aping Metro interface and the highly irritating 'Charms' system, but of course this negates the major reason to upgrade to it from Windows 7 (there is a minor speed boost too, though I have not found it makes a meaningful difference). So, it does seem likely that Skulls of the Shogun PC may struggle unless it eventually embraces earlier Windowses too. Whether whatever deal the developers may or may not have struck with Microsoft for the Xbox version and attendant promotion makes the PC version's possible fate worthwhile is not a question I can answer.

OK! That's my colours flown. From hereon in I'll talk only of the game.

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Skulls of the Shogun is an excellent turn-based strategy game. It is: playful, smart, tactical, funny and brutal. It may be slightly too small, but I'll get to that later. While it has nothing at all to do with XCOM: Enemy Unknown, it's difficult to not slot them both into the same 'hey, turn-based strategy is cool now!' category.

Turn-based strategy is cool now. And I don't just mean it's fad of the moment - I mean that what has, sometimes fairly and more often unfairly, for long years been deemed one of gaming's plainest dishes now seems to sprinkled with all kinds of spices. If XCOM was TBS as action movie, Skulls is TBS as offbeat, cult animation. The concept is a power struggle in the ancient Japanese afterlife, as skeletal samurai battle rival factions and chow down on the skulls of their defeated foes in order to gain health and, if enough craniums are noshed, acquire new powers. In practice, this means a heavily stylised and charming-without-being-trite depiction of Japanese iconography with a distinctly Western flavour and attitude.

Each 'army' tends to start off with about five units, and you'll be lucky if that's doubled by the end of a level or match. There are very few different types of units: horsemen, swordsmen, archers, a general and then three different flavours of magic-casting priest. I could do with precisely two more, if I'm honest, but I really can't argue with the range of tactical permutations Skulls manages to weave from the basic materials of ranged attack, tank, scout and wizard.

Again like XCOM, a successful round in Skulls tends to be more about where you leave your units at the end of it than what they do during it. A unit left standing on their own is easy prey to being knocked off a cliff or into thorns, but have another chap or two stood touching him and they form an immovable 'spirit wall'. (Though the smartest players will ensure no units wind up anywhere near a drop or spikes anyway). This same concept can keep archers safe from return fire if they're targeting the enemy's bowmen, or simply to prevent a gaggle of foes from closing in on your most vulnerable or precious unit.

I often felt near-physical pain because I couldn't move a guy from a spot that almost certainly meant his doom, but the spirit wall concept meant maybe, just maybe, I could move another guy over there to either bail him out or simply act as a meatshield. The wobbling cartoon characters and lack of anything even faintly resembling a hex or square might conceal it (the only thing close to that is a large circle denoting movement range when you have a unit selected), but there's a strong chess undercurrent to Skulls: subtle differences in unit abilities, and quietly complex counter and blocking tactics at play.

Whatever the size of your army, you're only allowed to 'use' five units per turn, which opens up any number of dilemmas - primarily because often enough that use won't involve smacking another skeleton with a blade or arrow. Who's left alone and unprotected because they don't get a move? Do you spend two actions on having two of your lads take down one enemy? Do you try and make a beeline for the capture points, which generate the 'rice' necessary for buying new units or can summon a priest? Do you just try and get your General somewhere safe, as if he dies it's game over? Do you spend four moves forming a spirit wall around the one unit that's capturing a crucial point? Or do you chomp on any nearby enemy skulls in order to up your guys' hit points?

There's torment in every decision, because the enemy can always see exactly what you're doing - and with it, what you're almost certainly trying to achieve in the longer-term. There's no fog of war or hidden movement here: everything is in plain sight.

This means smiles when you see the enemy doing exactly what you wanted him to do, and outright terror when you realise he can see just as well you can that you've left an irreplaceable unit in a deeply silly position. If you're an idiot, not only do you get punished for it but everyone absolutely knows it.

For all this talk of idiots and punishment though, Skulls is never less than cheerful. Its toony, distinctive presentation and the quickly-learned lesson than every unit is absolutely disposable and very probably will die means you'll go into most matches prepared for regular casualties and knowing that, hey, it's all just a bit of a giggle really. So any XCOM comparisons stop here, as the only pain when losing a guy is simply about what holes it creates in your current battleplan, rather than any long-term handicap. Reinforcements can and will be summoned often, and they'll probably get stabbed or knocked off a cliff too. So it goes.

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It's when the skulls of the fallen get eaten by an enemy that the blood-red mist might fall over your vision. Not only does it feel vaguely insulting (concepts of samurai honor aren't heavily investigated here, put it that way), a sort of Shogunate teabagging, and not only are you one unit down, but it also gives them a health boost. Indignity heaped upon indignity!

Also, anyone whose head has been eaten can no longer be resurrected by a Fox priest (if you have one, if they've eaten three skulls themselves and if you have enough Rice to afford it), so bah, basically. Any unit who manages to devour three skulls gets upgraded to a Demon, which means they can take two actions per turn - or three for Generals. These immediately become the most frightening things on the battlefield, their two (or three) attacks potentially able to kill off one enemy within a turn all by themselves, rather than having to spend a precious move on getting another unit to help out.

The choice of whether to have a wounded unit chow down on skull for an instant HP fix or to try and save that skull for someone else's who's already on the road to Demonhood can be a crucial one - especially as, although no unit can eat a skull from one of their own (former) allies, there are certain ways to take them out of play, so you don't want to leave your enemy's heads lying around for too long.

A critical thing to know about combat is that in most cases anyone you attack gets an immediate, but lower damage, revenge attack back. So picking fights unwisely could wind up in the death of your guys rather than the enemy's, or conversely you can trick an opponent into a fight they can't win. Identifying targets that won't bite back - there are various causes of this - is often critical to ensuring you're not fielding a force made up solely of the walking wounded.

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I don't mean to simply list various strategies here - my point is that playing Skulls is almost never a case of 'just go hit the nearest guy' or even 'just go hit the weakest guy.' You have to factor in what damage they'll do back, and then what situation your now-wounded unit is left in after the fight. Great, you've managed to kill one foe, but your chap now has half his health missing and there are three enemy archers standing right behind that bush. Nice one, genius.

It all looks so little and cheery and simple, but every decision, every cute little helmeted skeleton you wobble across the battlefield and every direction you do that in, matters. Only for a brief, shining, horrible moment before you're embroiled in the next pleasantly stressful micro-choice, but it matters. So does every decision the enemy makes, because you can see him doing it and you've already started thinking about how it might play out and what you're going to do about it. And whether there'll be any tasty, tasty skulls to crunch in the aftermath.

It's funny too - a snappy, silly singleplayer campaign that doesn't outstay its eightish-hour welcome, never takes itself seriously, has a heart of semi-darkness without actually being unpleasant about it and even manages to throw in a couple of decent (but appropriately silly) plot twists en route. There isn't so much of that in multiplayer, but there's a lot to be said for a) facing equal opponents rather than scripted situations and b) an almost Team Fortress-like use of distinctive character model shapes/silhouettes, so you're always absolutely clear about what it is you're facing.

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As I said earlier, I reckon just two additional unit types would really flesh the game out, as I'm a little worried I might exhaust it quicker than I'd like, but at the same time the general minimalism, instancy and speed really works for it. It's near-perfect as a lunchtime grudge match game, so balanced, so slick, so quick. What a shame that none of the other PC gamers I know in real-life has Windows 8 (and very sensibly so, on their part), so I guess I'll never get to do that, unless I kidnap them, drag them to my house and make them play it in hotseat mode.

Oh sorry, I wasn't going to mention that again, was I?

OK: Skulls of the Shogun is great. It's a great turn-based strategy game, it's a great indie game, it's a great game. Definitely, definitely, definitely get it if you have Windows 8. If you don't... Hmm.

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