Samurai strategy ticks all the boxes
Microsoft, a dominant force in the technology industry until relatively recently, now finds itself in a battle to remain relevant.
REVIEW: With tech juggernaut Apple going from strength to strength, Microsoft's latest strategy is surprisingly similar to the one that transformed its previously insignificant rival into a market leader.
Just as Apple ties together its Mac, iPad and iPhone models with a combination of closed-shop digital delivery, seamless integration and cross-platform software, Microsoft seems to have realised that putting all their eggs in the rapidly shrinking desktop basket might not be the best idea; opting instead to widen their focus to include the growth sectors of tablets and portable digital devices.
With Windows 8 failing to convince or convert PC users, and the Surface tablet/Windows Phone units receiving mixed reviews, one area that continues to pay dividends for the company is its Xbox division, with downloadable content delivered via its Xbox Live Arcade service proving particularly popular with gamers.
If Microsoft is to replicate this success across its newly launched platforms, it needs some "killer apps" to help it stand out in a crowded market.
The first game to be rolled out simultaneously and exclusively across Xbox Live, Windows 8 and Windows Phone is 17 Bit's Skulls of the Shogun, and it's difficult to think of a game more suited to the various devices it will be played on.
A turn-based strategy game in the vein of Advance Wars and Valkyria Chronicles, Skulls simplifies what can often be a complex genre by removing the grids, statistical analysis and trial-and-error approach of similar games in favour of a stripped down control system and a straightforward structure.
It also livens up what could otherwise have been a humdrum military tactics game by injecting a healthy dose of tongue-in-cheek humour, an eyecatching line-drawn art style and one of the few crossover themes that hasn't yet been done to death - samurai zombies.
You control the recently deceased Akamoto, a high-ranking general who was on the verge of being named shogun before being ruthlessly assassinated by his second-in-command. Akamoto arrives on the shores of the dead, only to be greeted with a 500-year-long waiting list for admission to limbo.
Rather than join the queue and wait his turn, the general decides to take matters into his own undead hands and use his tactical prowess to take on the armies of the undead and avenge his own murder.
Despite being a fearsome warrior, Akamoto prefers a hands-off approach to combat. Each level unfolds with you surveying the battlefield, identifying your plan of attack and attempting to outhink and outfight your enemy by commanding the various troops (infantry, archers, cavalry) at your disposal.
You are given five moves per turn, with each command requiring your unit to be within range of their target. Attack from a distance and you risk missing your enemy, move too close and you leave yourself vulnerable for counterattacks.
Beneath its cartoonish surface lies a surprisingly deep and detailed game, with no two battles playing out the same way. In addition to the lengthy campaign mode, multiplayer options include local, online and an innovative asynchronous mode where you send your moves to an offline opponent and await their reply, creating the kind of long, drawn out battles seen in games of play-by-mail chess.
Indeed, there are a number of similarities between Skulls of the Shogun and the original turn-based strategy game. Both involve different units with varying abilities and strengths.
Deciding when to attack and when to sit back is vital and success and failure will hinge on your ability to be able to think several moves ahead and make educated guesses on your opponent's intentions.
Like all the best strategy games, Skulls is easy to pick up, instantly addictive and devilishly difficult to master. While the first few campaign battles seem relatively straightforward, the difficulty curve is surprisingly steep, and later levels require patience and tactical flexibility as the enemy AI adapts to your playing style.
Skulls manages to be simultaneously silly and cerebral as well as working just as well on mobile devices as it does on a big-screen TV.
It's definitely the best strategy game I've played in a while and if future Microsoft mobile exclusives are of a similar quality, it might even convince a few Apple acolytes to make the switch.
Skulls of the Shogun, (Xbox Live, Windows 8, Windows Phone) 17 Bit Software.
- The Nelson Mail