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Skulls of the Shogun was finally released on MS platforms of all varieties including on XBLA for the 360, Windows phone, Windows 8 PC’s, and the Surface. The release was long anticipated and oft delayed, at least in part, for the development of the multi-platform play. The result? A game originally slated for Xbox Live Arcade has found an even better home in the Cloud.

For the uninitiated, Skulls of the Shogun is a turn-based strategy game. Advance Wars has been a noted inspiration for its gameplay, but beyond just a unique style, Skulls offers a combination of more and less strategy to the Advance Wars formula leading to pleasant results.

Most notably, the RPS mechanic found in AW, Pokemon, Field Commander and the like, has been eliminated. There are relatively a few number of units (infantry, cavalry, and archers primarily) and as opposed to class distinctions, there are general attack and defense numbers. Like XCOM, grid-based movement has been simplified by removing the on-screen limits, replacing “spaces” with sited perimeter boundaries.

Gameplay tweaks to the AW formula include on-field upgrades (eating skulls of vanquished foes increases a unit’s HP), movement after actions (retreating after an attack, e.g.), and the importance of the general. The last of these elements creates a bit of a chess feeling than previous titles wherein victory can be achieved through defeat of the general (as opposed to total elimination of all units). While similar to the king’s importance in chess, the general in Skulls possesses characteristics of the queen in the fact that it has a clear advantage as the strongest and most dangerous weapon when manipulated to full advantage.

I have completed the campaign and played a number of multiplayer games, mostly against randoms, with varying degrees of success (and failure). The campaign is nicely paced, introducing elements slowly. Gameplay appears nuanced yet not so complicated as to overwhelm. The game presents a wealth of data informing gameplay should you choose to use it, data including the amount of damage delivered and received as countered. I don’t want to say the tactics are dumbed down necessarily, but certainly the game’s strategy appears to leave less to chance and more to sound decision making.  Maybe something to appreciate the nth time you miss a “90%-hit” in XCOM but at the same time, I never felt like the game beat me or beat me down.

I ran through the campaign with relatively few challenges, an occasional do-over, but never anything insurmountable.  In fact, even facing tremendous odds against my favor, I was able to defeat the final boss on my first attempt.  I have not attempted to earn all gold skulls yet, and I can see the challenges that await there though I expect that appeals more to the completionist than the casual gamer.

No, in fact, I believe the draw of the game is not the single player campaign but rather the ability to play multiplayer.  And even more than the multiplayer draw, what I love most about the game and would heartily recommend should you be capable, is to take full advantage of its portability as a multiplayer game.  I suspect Skulls draws an even greater contrast in that respect to Advance Wars where completion goals can be huge time sinks.

There are reasons why AW and Pokemon favor the obsessive-compulsive more than say a COD or Halo. The sheer fact of portability gives the gamer the chance to play when and where he can. Minutes or hours, on the bus and in bed, waiting wherever but grinding away. While I do like the controls on the Xbox, I feel the game is more at home on my phone. After playing a live multiplayer game lasting over an hour, Skulls takes advantage of asynchronous play.  To be fair,  map size does play a big role determining the epic nature of the battle to be fought.

If you’re looking for some sort of strategic game, and especially if you have the capability on playing on multiple devices, Skulls of the Shogun is highly recommended.