Poor Windows Phone. The third-place smartphone platform has a small enough library of exclusive games. Of the few worthy exclusives the platform has left, another one has jumped ship and is headed to Apple's much larger iOS market. Last month, Chickens Can’t Fly landed on iOS. This month it’s Skulls of the Shogun from Seattle-based developer 17-BIT.
Skulls of the Shogun is a two-dimensional turn-based strategy game. You’ve probably seen plenty of mobile strategy games, but few strategy titles can compare to this one. Beautiful art, a catchy soundtrack, a witty story, and excellent multiplayer features make 17-BIT’s first iOS game a must-buy.
Skulls of the Shogun’s campaign mode features a deep and amusing story. It begins with the assassination of General Akamoto, a man on his way to becoming Shogun (military ruler of Japan). After being stabbed in the back by a trusted associate Caesar-style, Akamoto wakes up as a skeleton in the afterlife. The underworld’s powers that be quickly discover that our general takes kindly to neither betrayal nor authority other than his own.
In most strategy games, the dialog would be deadly serious. Skulls, on the other hand manages to keep things lighthearted thanks to consistently clever dialog. Whether Akamoto is flirting with the Spring Goddess Sakura or trading barbs with the mysterious villain and his associates, this tale never ceases to amuse during the primary 20-mission campaign.
Skulls of the Shogun is a turn-based strategy game. Each side gets five moves per turn, regardless of how many units it possesses. Normal units only get one action per turn though. These consist of medieval Japan-themed warriors like Cavalry, Archers, and magic-wielding monks. All have their own attack and defense ratings and ranges of movement.
To pick a unit, tap it or use the Next Unit button to toggle between the warriors on your side. Once selected, you can move the fighter anywhere within his circular movement radius. If an enemy is within range, tap it to attack or toggle between targets with the Next Target button. The Next Target button can be necessary because on smaller devices it’s too easy to accidentally target something when you just want to move a unit from point A to B. Playing on an iPad, that’s not an issue.
Targets at the edge of a character’s attack radius have a chance of dodging, as do those hiding within patches of bamboo. Enemies can often counterattack (indicated by their pose during targeting), making it important to choose your targets carefully.
Each side’s general (including Akamoto in Campaign mode) is its single most important unit. Generals can take and deliver copious damage, and they even start with two attacks per turn. But if a general falls, his side automatically loses, so protecting the leader plays a significant role as well.
To power up your general further, have him chow down on the skulls of fallen foes. Every skull eaten bestows three extra units of health. More importantly, the general or normal unit who eats three skulls becomes a demon for the duration of the battle. This grants the eater an extra action or attack per turn, making him extremely useful combatant.
There’s more to winning these battles than just trading blows with opponents. For example, melee units can knock back opponents into thorns for extra damage and even off of cliffs for instant kills. To protect your team from knock backs, position them close enough together to make them glow red. This forms a spirit wall, locking those units in place. Spirit walls also prevent enemies from attacking anyone behind the wall’s front line. Placing archers behind a line of melee units will protect them from their enemies’ counterattacks.
Skulls also features mild resource management in the form of rice paddies. Standing on a patch of rice and choosing to haunt it will cause your team to gain rice for each subsequent turn until the rice runs out or the paddy gets captured by an enemy. Luckily a unit doesn’t have to remain standing on a paddy or shrine during subsequent turns in order to retain ownership of it.
Rice can be spent to summon new units from captured Shrines or to fuel monks’ advanced magic spells. To get a monk on your side, capture its spirit shrine. Early in the campaign you’ll gain access to the healing focused Fox Monk, but eventually you’ll encounter monks who can cast attack spells too. The more skulls a monk eats, the more spells he gains.
When 17-BIT ported Skulls of the Shogun from Microsoft platforms to Steam earlier this year, they added lots of new content and branded it the Bone-a-fied Edition. The new content includes an additional four-chapter campaign episode, the trickster Tanuki Monk unit, a special volcano map in which players get persistent units, and new multiplayer maps.
The iOS version includes all of the Bone-a-fied Edition extras automatically, making it feature equivalent to the Steam version and much superior to the original Windows versions. On top of all the lengthy single-player content, iOS gamers get a whopping total of 36 multiplayer maps to do battle in.
The iOS versions of Skulls offer two types of multiplayer: local and asynchronous online multiplayer. Both support up to four players. Since the game was designed to be played speedily and players don’t generally have much more than five units to move, turns don’t last too terribly long. Passing an iPad around for hot heat multiplayer can be a lot of fun.
The asynchronous online multiplayer mode is called Skulls Anywhere mode. Being a deep and fast-paced strategy game, Skulls of the Shogun really shines when played online against others. And finding opponents shouldn’t be too much of a problem thanks to cross-platform multiplayer features. The iOS and Steam versions can battle against each other online, which is a huge feather in this version’s cap since the Steam game has easily the most popular version up until now.
As if cross-platform multiplayer wasn’t enough, the Steam and iOS versions of Skulls share campaign save data via the cloud as well. PC players can hop onto the iPhone or iPad game when they’re on the go and resume right where they left off when back at the computer. The only way things could be better is if Skulls of the Shogun came to Mac too. We do hear that continued sales of the Steam version could lead to Mac and Linux ports…
Did I mention that Skulls of the Shogun looks as good as it plays? The art features some excellent vector-based character designs and great use of colors. It really captures the mystique of Japanese legends while simultaneously feeling sleek and modern. The same goes for the super catchy soundtrack.
Even if it didn’t have the great art design, Skulls is a massive and finely tuned strategy game. With so many single-player missions and copious multiplayer maps, strategy fans will easily get their money’s worth from this one.