Skulls Of The Shogun has something that no fine upstanding samurai should be without, and that’s strength of character. That said, it’s probably not a character of which a fine upstanding samurai would approve. Wickedly irreverent and cartoonishly outrageous, 17-Bit’s debut isn’t just a first game, it’s a declaration of ambition: this is a team out to remix existing genres and imprint on them a distinctive retro-pastiche style.
Sometimes, that style can be a bit too much. Skulls Of The Shogun commits the cardinal sin of a strategy game: being so enamoured of its looks that the player can lose track of what’s going on. Shogun’s thick inky lines and cherry blossom effects make for eye-catching scenes, though – especially when the weather effects kick in – and its Japanese afterlife manages to look convincingly eastern even as its art style avoids overt manga and anime inspirations.
The problem arises, however, when its adorable little undead soldiers start grouping together. Shogun eschews the typical strategy game grid system (more on this later), which means a clash between two skeletal armies can look unfortunately like an ungainly bolus of skulls and armour plating. This isn’t helped by a similarity of style between core units that can make it tricky to tell archers and infantry apart at a glance.
A lack of visual clarity in a strategy game really should be unforgivable, but somehow Skulls Of The Shogun charms its way back into your affections. The story begins with the death of gruff, arrogant samurai general Akamoto, who washes up on the shores of The Land Of Dead and proceeds to wreak angry, indignant revenge upon anyone in his way. Some might find the script overly self-conscious at times, with its jokey references to game mechanics and coloured tutorial texts, but that doesn’t stop Skulls Of The Shogun from being genuinely witty. It also, a touch surprisingly, features some of the most creative foul language since Bulletstorm, in the form of an enemy general who speaks in soundalike euphemisms (“conk-stuffers”) that – just as in People Can Fly’s game – become immaturely, irresistibly silly through sheer critical mass.
Equally endearing are the hints of other games that turn up in Skulls Of The Shogun’s world – including one supporting character who appears to have been lifted straight out of Okami, and others who wouldn’t look out of place in The Legend Of Zelda: The Wind Waker. But while other games might not get away with such brazen homages, there’s a glint in Skulls Of The Shogun’s empty eye socket that helps 17-Bit pull them off.
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