“Skulls of the Shogun” (XBOX Live Arcade)

I haven’t talked about games in a long time, so I thought I’d sneak a quick game review in before crashing. I was looking forward to this title, but find it somewhat disappointing. It’s got some interesting mechanics, and makes the old tactical RPG formula feel like it could almost be compelling again. But it’s lacking in one major area: progression.

There is no leveling up to speak of, at least not in the five or six levels I’ve played so far (and I can’t imagine they’d wait that long to implement it in-game). This means that, while you get some new unit types, you have to play each battle with what you’re given. You can at various points produce new units of the existing unit types, but you can’t power up your existing troops at all, so there’s no way to come into a battle with an advantage. I suppose if you’re a tactical genius, you may appreciate the challenge, but I like the RPG elements that used to be a hallmark of the great turn-based games–most notably the brilliant Final Fantasy Tactics (especially the fantastic PSP port).

As always, there are good things. Skulls has a fun cartoon aesthetic and faux-Japanese voices (I think so, anyway–they’re garbled and sound kind of like the demon-god Dormin from Shadow of the Colossus). I also like the circular range of movement for each unit, as opposed to the tiles that are familiar from older games in the genre. And I love the conceit of playing as a dead Japanese warlord fighting to escape (or possibly conquer) the afterlife.

Unfortunately there’s just not enough substance–and exactly enough frustration, as the difficulty jumps pretty quickly–to keep me from really liking this one. 78/100.

8 thoughts on ““Skulls of the Shogun” (XBOX Live Arcade)

  1. Phantom Brave had a circular movement field. The remake for the Wii refined a lot of the game mechanics, fixed the menu system, made the game a lot more playable. While the art style of all those games (Disgaea(s), La Pucelle, Phantom Brave, Makai Kingdom, Soul Eater) looks a lot alike, the games all have different twists on the core system. Phantom Brave is the most abstract/meta/bizarre of all the games, but it’s tough to explain without screenshots – maybe I’ll put a post together on it. On the other hand, if I ever manage to get a PS3, I’ll have Disgaea 3 & 4 waiting for me.

  2. I liked Disgaea, but I found it too–I don’t even know. Too–grindy? And for me to say that is unusual, because I dig grinding. But going inside of the weapons to fight the monsters there… guh. They lost me.

  3. The core game isn’t grindy at all – you only *have* to go into the item world once. It’s more “puzzle fighty” than anything else – building up geo chains, using what you’ve got to move forward [shrug]. You can beat the 14 chapters of the main story without grinding, leveling up items, mastering the job system, or leveraging the Dark Assembly – it’s the 6 bonus chapters (and really only maybe the last 3) where you have to start getting meta.

    The second game is actually a lot better mechanically (better weapon differentiation esp. guns/bows, increase in depth to the item world (random events, towns, new guys living in there), tower attacks, tweaks to the geo chain system, tuning to elemental boosts/resistances, “Dark” versions, Guilt/Repentence mechanics…a whole bunch of small things that just make the system pop a little bit more. The plot/humor for the second one didn’t connect with me as well, and made the plot drag a good bit.

    I’m pretty sure they added more stuff to the PSP versions – unlockables, mechanics tweaks, etc – I didn’t care for the DS port as the physical limitations of the cartridge made the game a little lackluster.

    I think I’ve worked out what games I’m going to be playing later….

  4. Yeah, I’d like to give them all a try at some point–though I get a little annoyed with “mechanics” that are just gimmicks. I don’t remember the geo-stuff too well, but reading your description of it just reminded me of the awful Zodiac system in the Final Fantasy Tactics Advance games. Can’t it just be simple “kill-the-badguys”? Sure, different weapons have different effects, and stats change the effecitveness of whatever–but introducing random elements into the equation annoys me. It’s like a more complex Blue Shell from Mario Kart.

    • I actually enjoyed the law system in both FFTA and FFTA2 – though I think the Geo Panel system is better, as you can actually change the laws during play (most of the time), and it allows the developers to convey abstract ideas in a concrete fashion. “That’s a healing pool? [puts cursor over it] +20% Recovery?” A concrete explanation of what it does, and how to activate it.

      With a few edge cases where you have no direct control, (e.g. no knockback, no crits etc) I found that the law system forced you to be creative and inject a little more variety into fights, rather than just “kill the bad guys” – it is supposed to involve (either genuinely or artificially constructed) strategy, otherwise they’re just RPGs on a grid rather than a strategy RPG. Other games convey this through attacking from formations like Valkyria Chronicles, FFT giving height/facing advantage. While I enjoy FFT and it has a great story and a good system, I don’t really get how/why it qualifies as a Strategic or Tactical game.

      • Well, I dig tactics that result from reasonable things–cover, altitude, terrain types, etc. Front Mission 3, a totally underrated turn-based strategy, did some of that. But the laws thing in FFTA was totally arbitrary– “Don’t do this in this battle because we said so.” Doesn’t make sense.

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