Skulls of the Shogun Hands-On (E3)
Another gem from the IndieCade booth, Skulls of the Shogun was one of the best games on the E3 floor. Described as an action-arcade strategy game that takes only the best parts of Advance Wars and Final Fantasy Tactics and mixes them in an arcade blender, Skulls of the Shogun is a turn-based RTS game. Get all that? There's more. Battling across the seasons with up to four player multiplayer, each player gets one minute to move their army, commanded by a powerful General that acts as both the king and queen piece.
Story goes that a warlord in feudal Japan experiences an abrupt death by backstabbing. Stuck in an interminable line before he can enter Samurai paradise, he rallies some similarly impatient undead veterans to help him attain his lifelong - and now afterlifelong - dream of becoming a Shogun. Commanding the samurai skeletons and attacking rivals is a blast. Under your control is the General that can move twice per round, speedy Cavalry, hard-hitting Infantry and ranged Archers - because why mess with what works. Losing your General is Game Over, and while you can form alliances in multi-player, ultimately only one General can prevail.
Terrain (trees, grass, bamboo) grants hit chance bonuses to units and Infantry, Cavalry and Generals have the potential to deal knockback. Knocking back a unit came as a surprise to me in combat when I watched one of the enemy Generals fight another - and send him straight off the cliff! It's not just cliffs that pose an end game hazard, but water features as well. To counter this, you can keep units grouped together in "spirit walls" (denoted by the colored circles at their feet), thereby making them immune to knockback but limiting your ability to advance.
Of course, even spirit walls can be defeated. As you cross levels distinguished by the advancing seasons, you encounter different animal monks. These animal monks can be used to your advantage, or against you by your enemy. Each monk has its own personality, and while the Fox Monk can heal, the trickster Crow Monk uses wind that can push you closer to your objective or blow your enemies afield, out of formation, or right off of cliffs, making for some tide-turning gameplay.
There is no grid; highlighting a unit shows that unit's range of motion within which a unit can move and perform an action each turn and the hex-less levels make it feel like you're playing with miniatures. With five moves a round and a clock counting down, quick decision-making is mission critical and gives the game a fast-paced back-and-forth feel. On the serious upside, if you move a unit, then reconsider what action to have them perform you can still reposition them within their original range of motion.
Resources on the battlefield include skulls, shrines and rice paddies, and the lattermost yield rice-per-turn which as the in-game currency can be used to purchase new units at shrines. For any of these resources you place a unit on them and opt to "haunt" the area, though while haunting a unit is at the mercy of attackers. The titular skulls are important because having your Infantry, Cavalry, Archers or General ingest them increases their power. After downing three skulls you become a demon and are granted two attacks, a critical strategic advantage. Eating a skull counts as that unit's action for the turn, however, and retrieving them carries risk.
A dash of Japanese feudalism mingles with supernatural, and drawing its inspiration from mid-century Japanese anime and vinyl toys makes for an attractive product. The skeletal Cavalry whinnies and the Samurai General is downright huggable for an undead revenge-seeker. As the hex-less board might indicate, the tactical "math-y" bits of Skulls of the Shogun are translated visually. Keep track of your HP with each unit's flag, and see how much damage will be doled out (and received) before you initiate an attack. Those flags become tattered and battle worn with each successive combat encounter, and replenish when skulls are eaten. Once a unit has made their move and action, they lower their weapon, and if an enemy unit is within range to retaliate they raise theirs.
By the time the hands-on demonstration is done, the line at Skulls of the Shogun is not hard to understand. First release for Haunted Temple Studios, the team of industry veterans is delivering a colorful, creative and very fun strategy game that entirely avoids being stale. The combat is balanced, the aesthetic alluring, and they're not content to stop there. With a twenty-map single player campaign and five multiplayer maps (at least) planned, Skulls of the Shogun supports local and online battling of up to four players as well as AI skirmishing. Still, they ruminate on the possibility of co-op, future DLC, and their notions of cross-genre titles. I wouldn't get in their way, they don't seem the sort to let that line into developer paradise stop them.
There are plans for skull ingestion on XBLA and PC, and even the possibility of PSN and iOS, but nothing is finalized.
Skulls, Shogun, and accolades
You can find more screens and vids at http://skullsoftheshogun.com/