Dead and not really loving it
Skulls of the Shogun emblematically represents the divergence between the expectations for indie games and the reality of indie games. Every high-profile title is swept up in the overarching zeitgeist: that indie developers will save us all, because indie games are the Great Gaming Renaissance that will remedy the increasingly homogeneous state of mainstream titles from mainstream developers.
Unfortunately, these grandiose expectations serve only to warp our perceptions of games, and the jump from mythology to reality is almost always schizoid in nature.
For consumers, this manifests either as dashed hopes—to varying degrees of severity—or sycophantic praise. For a reviewer, it means near-paralyzing uncertainty.
As with many high-profile indie games, people have been waiting for Skulls of the Shogun for years. First looks began appearing in 2010. Previews in 2011. Fans expected to get their hands on it 2012. Instead, they got more previews. And throughout all this, Skulls grew more and more entangled in the indie-game mythos.
Until I got assigned the review, I’ll admit I hadn’t even heard of Skulls. Yet I still feel burdened by what the game represents conceptually—the Great Gaming Renaissance. Because of this, I want very much to praise Skulls of the Shogun. And I do believe that it is worthy of praise. But then I remember that third mission.
I got stuck on the third mission in Skulls of the Shogun. It took me three attempts to get past this mission—three attempts over the course of three days. This is not a testament to how challenging Skulls is—though it certainly does offer a challenge. Nor is this indicative of some great flaw Skulls possesses. I simply wasn’t that into Skulls. I realize that now, in retrospect. But while playing it, I really, really wanted to be into it. I’m not sharing this anecdote with you to deter you from playing Skulls of the Shogun. I’m telling this to you for the sake of honesty, because the truth is, had it not been my job to play Skulls of the Shogun, I don’t think I ever would have pushed past that hurdle.
In truth, it wasn’t just the third mission. It was just that by the third mission, I already felt the tedium of this game’s battles setting in. Some part of my subconscious understood what this was, which is why I resisted playing until I absolutely had to. This, ultimately, is why I just wasn’t into Skulls. Ten or 15 minutes in every battle starts becoming a chore. They drag on. So, in retrospect, what tripped me up about the third mission wasn’t its difficulty; it was the promise made by the first two missions, a promise delivered on over and over again, mission after mission after mission: I would start out interested, eager for a challenge, hell-bent on keeping my troops alive, but by the end, I wouldn’t care one bit who lived and who died—I just wanted to be done.
I’m glad I was tasked to review Skulls of the Shogun. It forced me to get through that tiresome third mission, and subsequent tiresome missions. But needing to be forced to finish a game raises flags. There were moments in Skulls when I felt fun was delivered in spades. But there were just as many moments that tested the limits of my patience. The good outweighs the bad. Mostly. But the bad is persistent and cannot be ignored. Unfortunately, the bad in Skulls is boredom. But perhaps that can be avoided. Perhaps, I think, Skulls is best played in small doses—a mission a day. Something savored, not something consumed ravenously.
Comparisons between Skulls of the Shogun and chess are appropriate. There’s elegance to its simplicity, charm to its design, and depth belied by that simplicity and charm. The pieces at play in Skulls are the three primary unit types—infantry, archers, and cavalry—complemented by the general, Akamoto. And magically powered monks. Skulls doesn’t offer much in the way of variety, but by keeping things simple, every engagement in Skulls revolves purely around placement and the effective execution of strategy, never brute force—though gobbling the skulls of defeated enemies does bolster a unit’s stats, in essence leveling them up.
So, Skulls is like chess (with infinite-percent more skull consumption). But Skulls is also like an RTS—say, StarCraft. It ditches grid-restricted movement in favor of a movement radius. Resource management comes by way of rice harvesting and haunting shrines to summon new units. But unlike a full-blooded RTS, there’s no frantic rush driving resource management. Skulls remains turn-based. There are five orders to each turn, and those orders can be spent haunting rice paddies, haunting shrines, attacking, or eating skulls. Take your time and consider your choices. Think ahead.
OK, so really, Skulls is a light vinaigrette, a mixture with hints of both chess and real-time strategy.
What makes Skulls of the Shogun charming is its unique art style and the writing. Almost all the nuances of gameplay are represented in the game visually. Hit points, attack, and defense are represented on troop flags. Animation reveals whether or not you’ll suffer a counterattack. The movement radius changes color depending on whether an attack is a sure bet or might miss. Between the visual combat cues and the crisp, cartoony aesthetic, it’s very hard to look at Skulls and not want to love it. The writing is humorous, often quirky. Skulls of the Shogun celebrates silliness. It breaks the fourth wall and makes you smirk.
Anyone with more patience for strategy games will no doubt disagree with me. And that’s OK—Skulls of the Shogun was made for you. But it tries to be accessible, and long, off-putting battles are not accessible. And if the casual fans looking to purchase Skulls are anything like me, they’ll feel bad about that—almost exclusively because of what Skulls represents. They’ll experience the same paralyzing uncertainty that plagued me for days.
Reviewing Skulls of the Shogun feels like I’m also reviewing the Great Gaming Renaissance. That’s where the uncertainty comes from. Objectivity is an illusion. Perceptions and subjectivity prevail, powerfully influenced by expectations both personal and cultural. Culturally, we want the Great Gaming Renaissance, and we look to indie games to bring it to us. I want to love Skulls of the Shogun for all that I see it can be, but I have to like Skulls for all that it is. Part of that includes being boring.
Otherwise, you risk being bored, and boredom is not what anyone waited four years for.
SUMMARY: Skulls of the Shogun is a pretty strategy game that’s pretty fun most of the time, but the long battles can get pretty boring pretty fast.
- THE GOOD: The game’s timeless, cartoony art style and how it incorporates a lot of game mechanics into its visuals—very clever stuff. And like chess, a lot of depth can come out of just a few pieces.
- THE BAD: With so many missions, the lack of variety stops feeling fresh early into the single-player campaign. It lends itself better to multiplayer matches.
- THE UGLY: Battles drag on big-time, often with multiple parts to them. Nothing cuts down fun quite like taking down enemy troops, only to find more awaiting you the next screen over.
Skulls of the Shogun is available on Xbox 360 (XBLA), Windows 8, Windows Phone, and Microsoft Surface. Primary version reviewed was for Xbox 360.