Another day, another strategy game releases on Switch. With the arrival of the excellent Tiny Metal: Full Metal Rumble and a brand new Fire Emblem game, it seems we’re rather spoilt for choice in a genre that’s already delivered us the likes of Wargroove, Valkyria Chronicles 4 and the sublime Into the Breach, to name just a few in recent times.
Skulls of the Shogun is a little longer in the tooth, having first released way back in January of 2013, and at this point has been ported to just about every conceivable platform. It arrives here on Switch in exactly the same form as you’ll remember it, with this version also including the Bone-A-Fide update which landed just a few months after its initial release – adding four new levels to the already generous campaign mode, a new Tanuki monk unit, multiplayer maps, dev commentary and player progression system.
Players once again assume the role of recently-deceased General Akamoto who absolutely refuses to take his place in the somewhat long queue for the afterlife; instead, he decides to kick off against the armies of the undead rather than stand in line for a few hundred years to find out if he’s to be judged worthy to enter the Four Seasons of the Glorious Afterlife. Skulls’ kooky, eccentric sense of humour and bold art style has won it many fans over the years, and it really doubles down on the laughs from the get-go, with plenty of poopy-pants-level conversations and references to modern pop culture littered throughout the lengthy campaign. It may not be to everyone’s tastes, but if it is your bag you’ll be more than entertained here.
Sense of humour and aesthetics aside, Skulls also creates a unique identity for itself through a number of gameplay tweaks to the usual turn-based strategy systems. The biggest change here is the ability to move your units around freely within a pre-determined circle before launching an attack, rather than having to bump them along on the traditional grid system usually employed in the genre. It’s a change that initially feels liberating, giving the game a slightly more action-oriented feel, almost in the same vein as Valkyria Chronicles.
However, it does bring with it its own share of problems, the main one of which is the fact your tiny troops often obscure each other due to the fact you’ll spend a lot of your time lining them up in very close proximity to one another in order to build a “Spirit Wall” – the game’s other major gameplay addition. Spirit walls provide units with extra defence, blocking enemy attacks and movement and are something you’ll come to rely on greatly, especially later in the game as you turtle your way through levels to protect General Akamoto at all costs (if he dies, it’s game over).
The camera angle doesn’t help in this regard and things can get a little cluttered and confusing, with the general rhythm and flow of the tactical action often being interrupted because you’re not quite sure how best to move your troops around the allowed area; it turns out the good old precise grid system employed by most other games in the genre isn’t popular for no reason. Having said that, the flexibility of movement does allow you to get up to some fun little tricks; our favourite being the ability to kick enemy units off cliffs to their demise, something that really never grows old and fits in perfectly with the irreverent tone of the game.
Besides these little niggles, however, Skulls of the Shogun in solo mode is a slick, fun and surprisingly deep strategy game with a very generous campaign whose laid back, fun story is well-written and acted and will certainly take you some time to chew your way through. It also, more importantly, continues to add layers to its turn-based battling over the course of proceedings with a robust roster of unit types including archers, cavalry, a God for each season and the delightful monk characters – Crow, Salamander and Fox – who act as Wind, Fire and Healers respectively. You’ll also still get to engage in the troubling act of undead cannibalism from whence the game derives its moniker; eating the skulls of your foes ranks up the HP of your units. Grisly, but gripping.
Away from single-player content, the big draw with Skulls of the Shogun has always been its multiplayer modes; indeed, the multiplayer option quite unusually takes pride of place atop the game’s menu and it’s here, unfortunately, that we run into a bit of a major problem with this Switch edition. We’re not sure if it’s down to netcode problems – or the fact that the game has been out on so many other platforms for such a long time that interest in the game has waned – but we could not find a single game to play online. We've even held fire on our review to test online again once the game released and, unfortunately, now just shy of a week later, things haven't changed. Searching for online action either brought us up empty-handed or, more worryingly, crashed us back to the console’s homescreen.
It’s a real shame, because it’s the multiplayer aspect of Skulls that’s really its strongest and, although you can still relax and enjoy up to four-player local multiplayer in this Switch edition, we can’t escape the fact that the absence of proper competitive online multiplayer – as has been our experience with the game – is a major let-down. It's all the more concerning for Skulls because of the wealth of top-drawer strategy titles of this type flooding on to Switch at the moment that have fully functioning (or at least well-populated) online elements.
If you haven’t played Skulls of the Shogun in any form over the past six years, we still can still heartily recommend the single-player campaign as a generous and devilishly fun slice of turn-based strategy action that perfectly suits the Switch, particularly in handheld mode. However, the fact its online multiplayer seems to be a complete bust here certainly knocks a fair amount of the wind out its sails and it's something we've sadly got to penalise the game for. If you’re only in it for the single-player or have a bunch of pals interested in the fantastic local multiplayer action, then this is still a pretty easy recommendation. Anyone else should take note that this particular version arrives on the shores of this afterlife sans a pretty important part of its overall package.