If you like Advance Wars...
I grew up playing video games with my younger brother. We'd sit around a wood-encased TV for countless hours playing cooperatively, competitively, or just swapping the controller back and forth while the other watched and provided advice. Over the years, thanks to the popularity of online gaming, those magical moments have grown fewer and far between, filling me with the fear that I'd never have those memorable experiences again.
Then I got my hands on this quirky turn-based strategy game called Skulls of the Shogun, and my hope was restored. Those who know me well enough might find this a bit puzzling, as I'm hardly a fan of games in this genre. Couple that with the fact that titles of this ilk aren't particularly suited for consoles, let alone the Xbox 360, and you've got a real head-scratcher of a situation. But the game's elegant simplicity and surprising depth, as well as its ability to recapture that joy I had playing games as a kid with my brother, makes this XBLA strategy game my favorite title of 2013 thus far.
17-BIT, the studio behind Skulls of the Shogun, takes inspiration from Nintendo's classic strategy series Advance Wars, and it is blatantly obvious in a good way. Knowing this, I decided this would be a great game to play with my brother, as he spent an insane amount of time playing the aforementioned title on the GBA. Skulls of the Shogun is incredibly accessible, thanks to a super-intuitive interface, a brief yet informative tutorial, and a learning curve that is so gradual. I never felt overwhelmed.
It has a grid-less system, where you move each character freely wherever you see fit on the battlefield, within their allotted movement range of course. In this way it is a bit different from Advance Wars, but as far as progression and pacing, it is strikingly similar. It works on a turn-based system, with a certain number of moves allowed each turn. Each of your troops—be it infantry, cavalry, archer, etc.—has a specific set of stats as well as movement and attack range. You can boost their stats by consuming the skulls of defeated foes, which adds a very interesting wrinkle to the experience. On the surface, it is deceptively simple, luring less skilled gamers like myself in, while at the same time constantly engaging more experienced players like my brother with so much hidden depth.
There are square patches around the map which players can mine for rice. These resources can then be used to purchase new troops. As you progress throughout the game, different types of classes can be purchased with rice, each with their own unique sets of abilities. Longer battles will allow players to consume more skulls and build up their forces and enhance some of their troops with attack and health bonuses and even additional abilities. Believe me, there's a lot of depth here for the players who want it.
The first thing you will probably notice about Skulls of the Shogun is its stunning two-dimensional hand-drawn art and samurai flair. As you progress through the game's single-player, you'll see that it only gets more and more beautiful as the color palette changes along with the setting. It fits this style of game shockingly well and truly pops on a nice high-definition display. The soundtrack, clearly influenced by classic samurai movies, fits nicely, and all of the sound effects, from the crunching of skulls to the swinging of swords, are super-satisfying and really enhance the experience.
As one might expect from a game in this genre, the story isn't a major focal point. However, what is there is entertaining and unobtrusive, serving as a nice glue that holds all of the missions together. It has a clever and often dry sense of humor that had me chuckling to myself early on. Unfortunately, the jokes do get old and some of them aren't as humorous as others. Regardless, it serves more as seasoning to what is a game built around fantastic and super addicting gameplay.
The single-player portion is laid out across a Super Mario World-like map, with each new stage representing a different mission. Depending on your skill level, the time required to complete the campaign will differ considerably. Those looking for an extra challege can go back to each of the stages and try to earn all of the "Gold Skulls" which are awarded for beating the level under a certain set of circumstances (within a particular time frame, losing only a few troops, etc).
And if that wasn't enough, Skulls of the Shogun also has both online and offline modes. You can play cooperatively or competitvely with up to three other players on an insane amount of different stages. These moments with my brother really reminded me of years past. Working together to take out two AI-controlled enemy teams before turning on each other was boatloads of fun, and we oftentimes found ourselves shouting in excitement when landing a heavy blow or crying in horror when one of our arrows missed. Even playing through solo and bouncing strategies off of each other while taking turns with the controller was a complete blast.
If you're a fan of strategy games and have an Xbox 360, you simply have to play this game. Even if you don't typically like games in this genre (like myself), I implore you to give it a chance because it's so much fun. Plus, those of you with a Windows 8 PC or a Windows Phone can transfer your game to whichever device you happen to find yourself on, which is extremely convenient. Nifty perks aside, Skulls of the Shogun is one of the best strategy games I have ever played thanks to its elegant accessibility and addicting depth, and you'd be foolish to pass it by.