Haunted Temple Studios says it's still a little while out on completing Skulls of the Shogun, an impressive turn-based strategy game due out for XBLA early next year. But the current focus, as I saw during a short demo at the company's HQ (which right now means a living room in an apartment belonging to one of the developers, just a few blocks from the beach in Venice, CA), is not only weeding the bugs out, but making the game look the way it should, so players can make the best strategic decisions possible.

For example, the game's archer is relatively powerful, with an attack value of six. When pitted against units with a low defense score, he can sometimes change the tide of a battle all by himself. Graphically, his role is clear -- he's got a bow, and you can clearly see when moving him around that he's meant to be a ranged character.

His power isn't quite as apparent, however. Haunted Temple is working on making him look just right: weak enough that he can't withstand a close-up attack, but strong enough that, at range, he's a force to be reckoned with.
We've seen the multiplayer game a few times already, but players will learn the tactics and abilities in the single-player game. Haunted Temple is also polishing the earliest levels, so they're not only fun to play through but teach players clearly what they can and can't do on the battlefield.

The story revolves around General Akamoto, who begins the game by, well, dying. He arrives on the Shores of the Dead, where after a life of honorable battle he's greeted with a waiting line. Frustrations rise when the guards tell him that someone calling themselves Akamoto has already come through and that he has to wait for 518 years to enter the afterlife. Some of the fallen soldiers in line rally to his cause, and Skulls of the Shogun starts teaching the player how to tactically control his recently dead samurais.

We've already talked in other previews about the game's skull-eating mechanic but, early on, Skulls of the Shogun also takes some time to teach positioning. In many of the game's maps (the single-player game boasts about 21 levels across a series of worlds, each patterned after a different seasonal world in the afterlife), there are environmental obstacles which smart players can push unsuspecting enemies toward, dumping them over cliffs or into rivers. In one early scene, one solid hit to an enemy precariously perched on an outcropping will end the battle quickly.

Skulls of the Shogun nicely allows for mistakes to be made early on, as long as you really push hard on tactics at the endgame. In one stage, I overreached against the AI, sending my summoned Salamander monk (a strong, ranged caster unit) a little too far afield, where he was quickly cut down by the enemy general. That loss turned out to be my win, however, because of the characters' relatively low health, I was able to rush the overstretched general with a few strong attackers, and win the battle even though I had lost some important troops. That fluidity is apparent in the multiplayer -- in Skulls of the Shogun, a battle isn't really lost until it's completely over.

Skulls can make that difference, too: Eating skulls heals your units, and eating three of them in a row turns a unit into a demon version of itself, unlocking extra abilities and an extra action per turn. In another map, I once again rushed a little too hard with my cavalry, leaving just my fragile general and a crow monk (who specializes in pushing units around rather than attacking them directly) behind and under attack.

Fortunately, there were quite a few skulls laying around the screen, and after I'd turned both my monk and general into their demon versions, their extra moves and strong attacks quickly cut down the rest of the enemy army. One of the skulls I consumed even had a potion effect on it that recharged my health every turn. Since potion effects stick to the skull that drank it, any character that eats that skull down the line gets that bonus, too.

Haunted Temple is also playing with the looks of those "demon" forms -- the devs want them to appear strong (because they are), but they also need to let opposing players know that if approached intelligently, they're not invincible. Another archer of mine also earned his demon form after I fed him a few skulls, but when I left him unprotected three enemy soldiers cut him down, despite his strength.

Skulls of the Shogun dialogue expertly balances humor and the feudal Japanese setting, as the grumpy General leads his rowdy troops through the afterlife in search of his deserved honor. The game is full of great animations and some nice filmic touches like scratches on the screen and almost-but-not-quite-Japanese gibberish from all of the characters. The single-player campaign is set to run about five or six hours at minimum, says Haunted Temple, but the option to collect "golden skulls" for various goals and even leaderboards for timed runs should help out with replayability, before players ever jump into a multiplayer match.

Haunted Temple is hard at work on making sure the game and its characters look "just right," and we're promised that we'll see it released sometime early in 2012.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.