Flourishing and succeeding in glorious battles is what drives any great general, but attaining the title of Shogun and to be the ruler of Japan is a honor beyond measure. As the bodies of his enemies lay dead at his feet, General Akamoto thought that dream would become real. Alas, that was not meant to be because while he marveled at the beautiful carnage of the battlefield, a warm pool of blood trickles through his armor. To his horror, he finds a katana pierced through his back. As he was about to rule Japan, he lost everything. However, death is not the end for the Great General Akamoto. No, for a true warrior, the battle never truly ends. After his premature death, Akamoto finds that the afterlife is rife with peril and long queues as he is mistaken for a common soldier and takes offense at his mistreatment. Since no one recognizes him for the great man he was in life, Akamoto finds that his only recourse is to fight the disrespectful guards of the afterlife. Eventually, he finds out the reason that no one recognizes him is because another dead soldier is impersonating him. Not only is he masquerading as General Akamoto, but he is responsible for Akamoto having to battle through the four seasons of the afterlife. Now in order to reclaim his identity and uncover the truth behind his death, Akamoto has to fight through hordes of the dead to square things with the person responsible.
Skulls of the Shogun is really a low key comedy of errors with samurai, skull eating, ronin spirits and dubious goddesses. What makes the story work is that it never takes itself too seriously at any given time. The tone is extremely light, often silly and prone to dialogue tangents. Like when General Akamoto is tough talking an enemy general or giving orders to his soldiers then diverts into a schoolboy nature talking about a crush on a goddess or denying said crush. The biggest boon to the story mode is that every little beat and plot device serves a gameplay purpose. It is a story intended to introduce foundational and more complex gameplay mechanics while telling a funny little story. For example, as Akamoto moves through the afterlife and encounters rice paddies, the story figures out a way to make that mechanic make sense to the overall plot of Akamoto reclaiming his identity and reaching the final season of the afterlife. Or the monk shrines are tied to various gods and goddesses that have a stake in the events unfolding in the afterlife while also introducing the monks as usable units.
Gameplay in Skulls of the Shogun is fairly simple to understand for the most part. The common goal among most maps or multiplayer matches is to wipe out opposing generals/armies and be the last army standing. Sometimes in the story mode, the maps will have specific goals outside of killing an army/general like reaching a bridge or some other objective, but that is rare. The game is mostly about turn-based strategy deathmatches. In any given map or match, each player/general on the field gets a turn with up to five moves. That means the player can move up to five units per turn (or end the turn early if they choose too, you know, for strategy).
Each unit in the game has its own strengths and weaknesses like the archer can attack long range with a decently strong attack, but cannot counter attack up close and has low defense. So, moving an archer out too far or without a spirit wall (when two or more units are positioned close together they form a barrier that the enemy cannot pass) will leave them wide open to attack and usually death. Every unit is able to move once, each having their own range of movement (so knowing other enemies range of movement is useful for figuring out what the enemy might plan next). Once the unit moves, they can perform one action, be it attacking an enemy within attack range, haunt a shrine/rice paddy or eat skulls of fallen enemies. After all units have moved or performed all usable actions, the enemy’s turn begins. Opposing armies trade turns until one of them has slain the opposing general. In Skulls of the Shogun, it is not always necessary to defeat an entire army, if a general is present then taking them out will result in victory. So, the key is to keep a general well protected.
While the basic gameplay seems fairly straightforward, more complex mechanics are thrown in with the haunting ability, eating skulls, monks and environmental hazards. As stated before, the story serves to introduce more complex mechanics, the game begins simply and ramps up in difficulty as it progresses. Players often have to contend with a risk/reward assessment when deciding to use additional mechanics. Haunting a shrine or rice paddy will net the player rice (used to summon additional units) or a monk (a unit that can perform specific magics), but to haunt that shrine leaves a unit exposed and unable to counter attack. Also, monks can be stolen by haunting the same shrine. Eating skulls will heal and buff up a unit, but that uses up a valuable action, so it is necessary to figure out if that extra health/power is worth the action. Skulls are a benefit though because eating three skulls turns a unit into a demon that can perform two actions per turn (three if a general becomes a demon) and makes them stronger units. There are many more factors to consider in any given match, be it online or offline, but Skulls of the Shogun does a good job at offering smart strategy gameplay.
Skulls of the Shogun has a great 2D visual style that features a heavy stylized component portraying its undead Japanese influences with flair. The art in the game is gorgeous from the units to the environments and maps. There is plenty to admire. Each general has a specific look that tends to reflect their personality. While there is not a huge number of units, each of them has a defined look that carries over well when they transform into demons. The maps are beautiful and seeing the various seasons come to life in the afterlife is a great. There is a good balance of visual aesthetics and smart strategy concerns in the map. Skulls of the Shogun has a delightful soundtrack that conveys the Shogun/Samurai/Japanese aesthetic of the game while being very modern. The mix in a way is reminiscent of what Drinkbox did with Guacamelee’s soundtrack.
Skulls of the Shogun: Bone-A-Fide Edition is a great strategy game that offers a good amount of content for its modest price tag. For fans of the turn-based strategy genre that need a new fix, this game will do it for you. The story mode offers a good amount of variety in missions while delivering a fun story. Its biggest strength is that it gets across gameplay mechanics very organically as players complete missions. For completists, each mission has high specific goals to meet in order to earn golden skulls and offers an additional story segment that ramps up the difficult and situations. Additionally, the multiplayer mode brings the clever mechanics and strategy of the campaign mode to a competitive setting, so players can test their strategy mettle against others. Who is meant to be the true Shogun online? That is difficult to answer, but Skulls of the Shogun gives players an opportunity to try for that fictitious title.