Don't let the "multi-platform" thing fool you. Skulls is 100 percent a Microsoft exclusive. You'll simply be able to play it on anything that runs Windows or some approximation of it. Xbox Live Arcade, yes, but also Surface tablets, Windows Phone devices, and Windows 8 PCs via the new operating system's app store.
As you might have read in our earlier previews or our recent Joystiq Indie Pitch, the 10-15 hour campaign casts players in the role of a recently deceased samurai lord from feudal Japan. Horrified at being forced to wait in line for half a millennium before being admitted into the afterlife, our General Akamoto takes matters into his own hands. He enlists an army of zombie Ronin to fight by his side and sets out to carve his way into the great beyond.
The simple concepts at work in Skulls of the Shogun are explained in roughly 30 minutes of tutorial, running through movement and combat as well as resource gathering, unit upgrades, and healing. User-friendliness is a clear focus. How far you can move in a turn, for example, is relayed on screen by a circle surrounding your selected unit that shrinks as it moves.
With a few notable exceptions, every unit has one "action" per turn, whether that's attacking, eating an enemy skull for an upgrade, or "haunting" a location to milk its precious resources. Movement is separate from this, so you could shrink half your movement circle to close the distance to an enemy, attack, and then use the rest of your move to retreat. The Shogun, analogous to a chess game's king in the sense that it's game over if he's eliminated, can perform two actions per move.
Depth is there for those who take the time to learn the systems. Knockback is a factor to consider in combat, especially when you or your enemy take action near the edge of a cliff. This danger can be offset by forming your units together into a Spirit Wall, a knockback-immune state that is indicated on the screen by a colored circle that surrounds the grouped units. Resource-gathering – rice, natch – is also important, as you can capture shrines that allow you to expand your army and bring in healers.
Then there's the upgrade system, which revolves around ordering units to chomp down the skulls of downed enemies. Each consumed skull provides a health boost, but any unit – including the Shogun – that consumes three transforms into a demon. These powered-up units all gain some hefty stat boosts as well as an extra action per turn. Even early in the game, there's a constant push and pull between keeping your units healthy and feeding one enough skulls to nab yourself an upgrade.
Gamepad controls on an Xbox 360, PC, or Surface (thank you, USB port!) are straightforward, with button icon indicators on the screen to guide you along. Touch controls for Surface and Windows Phone are easy to grasp as well, and they're flexible enough to allow for a variety of different approaches.
Those who prefer to use a two-handed, gamepad-like grip will find that units can be cycled through via thumb-accessible virtual buttons. Similar, contextual buttons allow for orders to be issue and unit movement is handled by an invisible analog control that roots its center to wherever you place your finger. Alternatively, Skulls also supports more of a tap-based interface, allowing you to select units, set destinations, and issue orders via taps and double-taps. It's an impressively user-friendly setup.
The campaign seems like a solid time-sink based on what we've seen, but Skulls of the Shogun is a perfect candidate for online play. Only the Xbox 360 version supports proper real-time multiplayer – real-time in the sense that you and a friend can step into a match and take turns moving – but all versions of the game support asynchronous, cross-platform multiplayer. That's your dash of Words With Friends right there, only replace the wordplay with murderous zombie samurai. There's also local, pass-the-controller/tablet/smartphone multiplayer to round things out.
Skulls of the Shogun is currently going through Microsoft's certification process, the final gauntlet that the game has to run through before it can be released. Unfortunately, certification is also an uncertain process and it's further complicated in this situation by the fact that the game is coming to four different platforms. All that said, 17-BIT hopes that release plans will be finalized soon and that the game will be up and running in the coming weeks.
Adam Rosenberg is a writer and dudebro academic based out of Brooklyn, NY. He's a full-time freelancer who has contributed to a wide range of outlets, including G4, Rolling Stone, MTV, and Digital Trends. You can follow his and his dog's exploits on Twitter at @Geminibros.