Sometimes it's really nice when game surprises me. And I was quite surprised by Skulls of the Shogun by 17-BIT. Not only did I find Skulls to be a well put together and accessible strategy game, but also found that I really enjoyed the art and sense of humor of this silly samurai strategy.
17-BIT's motto is "Remember video games? We do" and according to their website their mission is to revitalize classic games with a next-gen twist. While playing Skulls there wasn't much that tickled my nostalgia bone but the quick matches did invoke memories of a simpler time before marathon games of Civilization. Now, I'm no stranger to turn-based strategy games but even I was surprised how quickly I became a dead samurai master. Skulls has an incredibly shallow learning curve. I'd say that almost anyone can play a match or two and understand how this game works and I love that about it. In order to remain accessible there isn't a daunting amount of units to learn about. There are three main units: infantry, mounted, and archers. Those three are consistent for every match but what changes throughout the game are the monk units. Over the course of the single player campaign you'll be introduced to the three different monk units. The first is the Fox monk who acts like a healer. The second is the Salamander monk who is more like a sorcerer using fireballs and spells to damage enemies. Finally, my favorite, the Crow monk who is the trickster and can blow enemies right off the map with a gust of wind or steal resources from enemy rice pads. Towards the end of the game you actually get to start choosing which monk units your team will use which really allows you to tailor your team to your play style. If you're aggressive you'll want Fox monks for healing or if you're the slow and methodical type you may be better off using the Crow monk to pick off your enemies.
Once you learn the basic mechanics of the game, the depth becomes way more apparent. One of the keys to success is to watch your troop positioning. Unlike most strategy games, the units don't function within a rock paper scissor type of circle where each unit counters another. In Skulls almost every unit can hold its own if you're smart about things. As long as you are really paying attention and don't place your units where they can be pushed off a cliff or take care to place units in spirit walls you'll be able to hold your own in any match. So while Skulls isn't as deep as something like Civilization it does have enough substance to keep you playing, and once you're finished with the campaign you can take your undead army online with matches of up to four players.
Aside from the mechanics I also enjoyed the art, sound, and writing found in Skulls. None of the dialogue may be spoken but that doesn't keep the game from being funny. The art is enjoyable as well, a mix of simple 2D characters with some absolutely gorgeous hand painted environments. So far everything about Skulls of the Shogun seems pretty solid but unfortunately the game does have its flaws. For starters the game could be a lot more stable. I actually had Skulls crash to the Xbox Dashboard a few times which caused me to lose all my progress and restart that match. There were also a few times where I encountered an odd glitch that prevented me from moving my units. I could attack, take other actions, but was unable to move my unit despite having movement available. Fortunately to solve that glitch I just had to reload my last checkpoint which wasn't too bad. Those are the major flaws but I would have also liked to have a few more units at my disposal, the ones in the game are fine but once you've finished the campaign there's not much else to learn.
All said and done I think this is a pretty impressive title from an untested developer. While the game's flaws may have been of a technical nature they didn't really hinder my enjoyment. Sure, having to restart a match or two is frustrating, and the main character sounded strangely like Jabba the Hutt, but I do feel that Skulls of the Shogun is worth the asking price of 1200 MS points. It's fun, creative, accessible and contains enough depth that even hardcore strategy players may find it enjoyable.