Skulls of the Shogun is an interesting experiment in cross-platform gaming: it's a multiplayer strategy game available for the Xbox 360, Windows 8, Surface, and Windows Phone, letting you play with your friends no matter which device they're using. While the limited success of some of those platforms could impact the game commercially, there's at least good news for those who have bought into Microsoft's ecosystem: Skulls not only works across several devices, but more importantly, it’s also a great game. It blends a charming and absurd sense of style and humor with gameplay that manages to be both accessible and challenging — it's the rare strategy game that actually works well with a controller.
The rare strategy game that actually works well with a controller
The game is a classic tale of revenge — after meeting an untimely demise, a Japanese general forms a new army and begins fighting his way through the afterlife, where a mysterious figure has been impersonating him. The story is told through cutscenes filled with incredibly goofy dialog. This is the kind of game where a character can say something like "should we eat our own team's skulls too?" and it doesn't feel out of place. But the story, of course, is just a set-up for the game itself, and here things are quite a bit deeper than the relatively simple narrative.
The most important element of the game might be just how easy it is to pick up and understand. Moving your units and performing actions is simple, and you only have a limited number of turns each round, after which you'll sit and watch as your opponent does the same. There's territory to capture, letting you earn currency and purchase more troops, and you can eat the skulls of your fallen foes to gain health. As with all good strategy games, there's a balancing act between strategic planning and actually going out and attacking your enemies. In the single-player campaign you'll sometimes have specific goals to accomplish — like getting your general safely to a bridge, for example — but most of the time you'll simply need to either kill the enemy general or all of his troops to proceed.
The campaign is meaty and a great way to learn the ropes of the game, as it does a great job of introducing you to the different units and some of Skulls' unique mechanics (like eating skulls). But once you've completed General Akamoto's quest there's still plenty to do. Local multiplayer lets you take turns in battle while playing on the same couch or passing a mobile device around, and the online mode lets you play asynchronously with friends. It feels sort of like a deeper version of the mobile hit Hero Academy, letting you take your turn whenever you're able to, and then send it along to your opponent.
"The idea that your game playing experience can follow you throughout the day on any platform is one that is super interesting."
It was this ability to essentially pick up and play the game anywhere on any device that enticed developer 17 Bit to put in the extra work for a cross-platform release. "As our busy lives get even more full of distractions and the ability to do all our gaming on the comfort of our couch evaporates, the idea that your game playing experience can follow you throughout the day on any platform is one that is super interesting," says 17 Bit's founder Jake Kazdal. "I wish all my gaming experiences could be accessed from anywhere I am, at work on my PC, on my mobile device, and at home on my console hooked up to my big screen. I know I for one would finish way more games!"
While the game remains the same content-wise across all four platforms, the team had to worry about getting the same experience to work with three different controls methods: a mouse and keyboard, touchscreen, and Xbox controller. And these different inputs required different interfaces. "There was a fair amount of work put into designing the interfaces for each version," says Kazdal. "There are some significant design changes in the interface between versions, but other than that the game is identical." It helps that the gameplay of Skulls lends itself to all three inputs — plus, if you really like using the controller you can always just plug it into your Surface or PC.
The success of Skulls — not to mention the success of the Windows Phone, Windows 8, and Surface platforms — could very well determine whether or not other developers follow 17 Bit's lead. Of course, not all games will work so well with all three control methods, but provided the financial incentive is there, it could be worth it for other developers to make their titles work across all Microsoft devices. It's more work, naturally, though that can be negated somewhat with sound planning. "If the game is designed from the outset to work on all three there can be a lot of time saved," Kazdal explains. "The upside is certainly there, and the marketing boost you get from having three separate titles as one can be a large consideration too." For now, Windows Phone gamers at least finally have a great game that's not available on iOS or Android.