Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Review: Skulls Of The Shogun

There isn't a whole lot in the turn based strategy genre in this generation... on consoles, at least. Sure, Vandal Hearts: Flames Of Judgment existed and turned out to be a good game, and XCOM: Enemy Unknown was a good game too, but... I think that's about it, and no, I don't count Disgaea 3 and 4 because quite frankly, 1 is the better game in terms of story and characters. So when Skulls Of The Shoguns unleashed itself to the unwashed masses in the form of a trailer back in 2010, it got reactions and some people were psyched. But then it got delayed until January of 2013. At least it got the Deus Ex: Human Revolution treatment of teasing us for a few years before release and not the Final Fantasy Versus XIII/Duke Nukem Forever treatment of seemingly never getting fucking finished. It's not quite as good as Deus Ex: Human Revolution (and before anybody uses the apples vs oranges argument... well, maybe I prefer a bit of that juicy, succulent apple over eating that average looking orange) and in terms of overall quality, there's no real hook to it other than good game mechanics that don't falter it, but at the end of the day, it's fairly good.

You begin the game as a recently slain Fuedal Japanese army general, raising an army of the dead to wage war against the guy who killed you. Okay, so there's not a whole lot to the concept, coming across as bare boned as a Final Fantasy game, but the effort was clearly put into the dialogue. No, not thought provoking dialogue and not emotional dialogue that'll make get you into the characters, only for them to die partway through and make you cry like a little bitch; I'm talking about pop culture references. Yeah, shit that'll be dated within the next year, if it isn't already. Now, there are some legitimate jokes in there, but it's mainly of the loud, crude, insane, “I really want to be Ren And Stimpy or Rocko's Modern Life” variety that can elicit some chuckles, but never really goes above that level. Maybe I've become so jaded at this point that I need to snort unicorn ashes to get so much as a buzz, but as far out as it attempts to be with its humor, it winds up being restrained to try and be more like a sitcom you see on TV; not going balls out to make you laugh your head off. It's not bad and as I said, it does make you laugh a bit every now and again, but it basically reeks of lazy writing with more pop culture references and internet memes that won't be funny ever again (if at all) than there are actual jokes.

The idea of the game is to move your units from one point of a map to the other, killing enemies along the way to the end goal point. Instead of moving along a grid, you instead move around within a circular area, not unlike Valkyria Chronicles. But where it works in that series, it doesn't quite in this game. Well, it does when you use archers (one of three primary classes you can use at the beginning of each level) and the monks you can acquire when you conquer shrines as they use long ranged attacks, but when you use infantry and cavalry units, it's not quite as easy to line up their physical attacks at it would seem because you often have to be at the right place to do so. But given the more fluid gridless movement system, it's a bitch when it turns out you're like a millimeter away from your desired target. Grids are a tried and true system because it helps you line up each units' attacks with precision, which is absolutely necessary in a turn based strategy game. Moving within a circular area only really works if everybody uses long ranged weapons like arrows and guns. Oh, and memo to future game designers – if you're going to include a mechanic where having two units next to each other reduces the damage they receive and doesn't knock them back when they're hit, make sure that not only do individual units do not require you to be meticulous with the cursor to select them, but that they also look different enough to distinguish without the need for a fucking magnifying glass. Thanks, it'll make selecting the right unit in a tactics game a lot easier.

That's about the extent of the game, but there are some other mechanics to play with along the way. Like I said, you can conquer shrines in order to acquire some spellcasters like a healer, a fire mage and a wind mage, but you can also conquer rice paddies, which are used to pay for new archer, infantry and cavalry units. There are also skulls that units can eat. These skulls are the remains of enemies that have been killed and although eating one takes up an action – of which you get five per turn – it can also heal the unit that eats it. If a unit eats three, then they will essentially level up, allowing them to hit harder. These mechanics insert some technicality into an otherwise simplistic system as there is a fair bit to think about. I mean, a lot of what this game revolves around is moving towards the enemy and then hitting them until they die unless you can push them off of a cliff (there's knockback included in each hit). Resource management allows you to call in for reinforcements and acquire some supersoldiers to protect your general because, powerful as he is, if he dies in battle, you lose automatically.

The mechanics do work out finely for the most part as you can move your soldiers about and execute commands with little to no problems, and the whole multi unit wall mechanic is an interesting one that I've found myself using quite a lot to make things a bit easier on myself when fighting a barrage of enemies. On the whole, fights do feel balanced as they rely more on brains than on powergrinding. Nothing complicated as a lot of this is baseline shit, but what's there works well in that pick up and play kind of way. That's what this game's true aim is – being able to pick up and play it. This is perfectly exemplified in the multiplayer mode, where you can face up to three other players either locally or online to see who's the better tactician, and who can make the best of their five actions per turn with what options you're all given. Things can get especially chaotic with multiple people playing. Nothing beats a good old fasioned alliance with another player, only to backstab him to gain an advantage in the long run.

It's actually funny the more I think about the single player campaign – this game feels like it could've worked better as an RTS than a turn based strategy game. From the gridless movement, to the wall system, to resource management, not to mention the fact that it seems to move at a snail's pace at the worst of times, it's begging to be in real time. A lot of the time, the game will trick you into thinking you've won the battle, only to send in some reinforcements. This was cute the first couple of times, but after a while, it really feels like these battles drag on. With baseline mechanics, you have to make up more inventive reasons to drag on battles than “oh there are hidden reinforcements for the fifth time oh golly”. So cool, we get to fight the same enemies we've already fought like five seconds ago. When is this mission over? Oh, and you want to know the funniest part? This game is about five hours long. No, I'm not kidding, just five hours. When five hours feels too long, you should probably head back to the planning stage. But then I think back to the multiplayer mode and think about how well the system works there, which lead me to the conclusion that there was, indeed, no creativity put into the battle scenarios – just the fucking dialogue. Barely.

I've already made a remark about the fact that a lot of your units look similar to one another with subtle differences, which clashes with the wall mechanic, so unfortunately, we've hit a bit of a snag in the graphical department in terms of a lack of creativity in individual unit type design. It's a shame, because it is a good looking game. Sure, it looks like a Flash cartoon where they bob about like bobble heads at times, but the crisp, colorful models are very well animated and the locations look beautiful. They all look like they're inspired by feudal Japanese art with all the cherry blossom leaves and shit. Considering the subject matter, it's also very fitting. Also consider the soundtrack. While there's some electronic beats in there, you'll also hear some traditional Japanese folk melodies in there. It's mainly put in for ambiance during the battles, but it still sounds good all the same.

Skulls Of The Shogun is the kind of game that likes to believe it's a fun loving game with its colorful visuals and wacky dialogue, but while the visuals nail it, the dialogue alternates between chuckleworthy and unfunny, given that it'd rather make references than tell actual jokes. The gameplay itself simplifies the turn based strategy formula mainly for ease of congestion, but while it works either in heated matches against your mates or for a little while in the single player campaign, it works against itself as each level drags on longer than it has any right to due to a lack of creativity put into each of the battles beyond “oh here are some units go kill them now”. Given that enemies are generally balanced and each of the missions do get incrementally harder, it really is just a lack of variety in the missions and units that drag this game down. Boredom does eventually settle in and all of the charming visuals and dialogue in the world can't save you from it. Consider this a tepid recommendation as the mechanics themselves are finely tuned and the multiplayer mode is fantastically done... just wish the campaign was more tightly paced.

6.5/10 (Above Average)

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