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It sucks when your character dies in a videogame, but it sucks even more when it happens during the opening cinematic. Mustachioed General Akamoto, a warlord in feudal Japan, barely has time to celebrate his latest bloody victory before he finds a sword through his chest. Not letting a silly little thing like death stop his glorious endeavor, Akamoto sets his undead sights on conquering the entirety of the Japanese afterlife with a horde of zombie soldiers at his back. So begins Skulls of the Shogun, a turn-based strategy title for Xbox 360 and other Microsoft platforms. If you share General Akamoto’s desire to test your tactical knowledge in a tongue-in-cheek Japanese spirit world, Skulls of the Shogun delivers solid strategic gameplay with a few laughs for good measure.

Skulls is all about style. A bright, cartoony aesthetic helps to underscore a charming script with a good sense of humor. Akamoto’s ghoulish, skull-faced troops elicit more laughs than scares, as they march their way through the verdant mountains and sparkling pagodas of the afterlife. Grinning skeletal horses, vulpine monks, and preposterously bosomed women inhabit Akamoto’s quirky little world, all decked out in cheerful, rich colors. A jazzy soundtrack overlaid with Japanese strings and flutes also fits the game’s tone far better than military marches or period music.

Of course, a general can’t get ahead on good looks and pretty music alone. When it comes time to put enemy spirits to the sword, Akamoto has quite a few options. Each mission begins with a small cadre of units under your control, which usually includes the good general himself as well as defensive infantry, quick cavalry, and far-reaching archers. The victory conditions vary for each scenario, but there’s nothing too outrageous: Defeat all enemies, take down a rival general, or fight your way to a certain point on the map. You can claim rice paddies to harvest resources and haunt various shrines to produce new units. The unit types, mission objectives, and resource management are bog-standard for the turn-based strategy genre, although they all fit together well enough.

Once combat gets underway, Skulls becomes considerably more interesting. While there are only three basic units – infantry, cavalry, and archers – this helps keep battles focused on tactics rather than army composition. Each turn, you’ll issue six orders to your units, who can move anywhere within a certain range, but attack only once (with the exception of Akamoto himself, whose extra sword confers one more attack). Infantry can form strong defensive lines, cavalry excel at hit-and-run attacks, and archers can wreak havoc on melee units without provoking a counterattack. A selection of monks, whose talents range from healing units to raining lightning on foes, round out Akamoto’s forces, although their availability varies from stage to stage.

Since each unit’s role in battle is well-defined and immutable, the strategy for each mission is more about making use of terrain and landmarks than building up your army. At any given time, there’s a lot going on: Units can “haunt” rice paddies for resources, occupy shrines to recruit monks, eat fallen enemies’ skulls to become more powerful, position themselves in bamboo for concealment, and set up defensive lines to reduce damage taken. Add to this the unit of Akamoto himself, who hangs back and meditates, slowly increasing his maximum health until you awaken him to join the fray, and there might just be too much going on. With only six actions per turn, the decision between attacking, strengthening, or summoning is often harrowing. Sometimes, this makes battles tense and rewarding, but it just as often makes them frustrating. It’s not uncommon to squander your turn slowly empowering a unit who gets blitzed by arrows one turn later.

To exacerbate matters, the deck is often stacked against you in ridiculous ways (“Let’s level the playing field by making it completely unfair!” exclaims an enemy general in one particularly grievous level). Not only does the enemy AI possess more units in every mission, but it often has access to the choicest shrines and resources. Whether you waste units in an attempt to capture enemy spawn points or expend your army in a headfirst assault, you’ll win or lose many missions by the skin of your teeth. Because the enemy has more warriors, better resources, and occasional free reinforcements, playing defensively is seldom an option.

That said, the difficulty curve is hardly unreasonable. Missions get tough fast, but you’ll know all the necessary mechanics to beat them thanks to the game’s gradual introduction and helpful explanations for new units and tactical options. Missions also seldom take more than 15 minutes or so, making the occasional retry pretty palatable.

Skulls deserves some recognition for its story and writing as well. The script is disarmingly irreverent and anachronistic, with characters breaking the fourth wall constantly. An enemy general inquires whether a buxom goddess got his texts, while a newly recruited monk laments his fate as an AI-controlled character. The script overreaches very often, trying to squeeze a chuckle or two into almost every sentence. While many of the jokes fall flat, an occasionally humorous script with heart and effort behind it makes Skulls an easy game to like, even when missions become monotonous or difficult.

Skulls of the Shogun is an enjoyable game with style to spare. The sharp difficulty curve and reliance on aggressive tactics bring it down somewhat, but only because it’s easy to see how a few small differences in design could have earned the game a place in eternity, rather than a pleasant distraction on the long road to get there.

Bottom Line: Skulls of the Shogun isn’t quite as deep or charming as it sets out to be, but its solid mechanics and offbeat sensibilities indicate that the developers had as much fun making this game as they want you to have playing it.

Recommendation: If you want a traditional, polished turn-based strategy game with a unique setting, Skulls of the Shogun is a good investment.

[rating=4]

Game: Skulls of the Shogun
Genre: Turn-Based Strategy
Developer: 17-BIT
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
Platform(s): PC, Xbox 360

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