Skulls of the Shogun review: See you in Hell

Full disclosure: I've never died before. I have no idea what the afterlife looks like, where it's located, who runs its admissions process or if it even exists. I just don't. However, if an afterlife does exist, I'd be totally fine if it resembled the fantastical environment in Skulls of the Shogun.

The entire game takes place in a Japanese warrior's afterlife, with bright Asian line art, a cast of mystical characters and a betrayed general out for revenge. Somewhere along the development process, Skulls of the Shogun could have transformed into a gritty, deep commentary on the futility of life and honor, but thankfully its cheerful, Saturday-morning art style saves it from tumbling too far down that dark rabbit hole. In the end – and I do mean the endSkulls of the Shogun is joyful, cheeky, and like most memorable experiences, it's best with friends.

So the next time you see your best buddy, clap a hand on his shoulder, look deep into his eyes and say, "We're going to the afterlife." And don't forget to smile.
%Gallery-171897% Skulls of the Shogun is 17-Bit's stylized, turn-based strategy game for XBLA, Windows Phone and Windows 8, and it can support one game across all those platforms in asynchronous multiplayer mode. There are clear reasons that Skulls of the Shogun took its sweet time coming out – after a reveal in 2010, it was supposed to launch alongside Windows 8 in October 2012 but was delayed, with a solid release date announced just this month. But that's all right, because, for one, it launched on all those platforms at once. For another, Skulls of the Shogun is packed with myriad ways to play.

It has four main modes: the solo campaign, local multiplayer, online multiplayer and online asynchronous multiplayer. Each way to play offers its own perks, though I suggest starting with the campaign. The multiplayer modes don't provide any tutorials, and while winging it can be fun, it's really best to know which statue summons the healing monk before your general hits 1 HP.

The campaign layers abilities well, introducing new strategic concepts in a way that isn't overwhelming. Full disclosure part two: I'm pretty terrible at strategy games. Maybe my mom never played enough Risk with me as a kid, but whatever it is, I'm simply not good at planning ahead or waiting for the opportune moment, both crucial aspects of successful strategy gaming. That said, I enjoy strategy gaming when its mechanics are presented in a concise format, so that when I make a mistake I know that it is my fault, and not the result of obfuscation from the game designers. Skulls of the Shogun handles this process beautifully in the campaign, adding new minions, enemies, buffs and skills at a steady, manageable pace.

In some battles, players control dozens of soldiers, composed of archers, infantry and cavalry members. Their job is to protect the general as he meditates at the back of the field, and to kill the other army's general as he does the same on the opposite side. Each soldier has its particular strength, with archers shooting long distances, infantry offering extra defense and cavalry able to travel the farthest. Once the game gets going, each battlefield has statues lining its nooks and crannies, and soldiers can spend one turn to haunt a monument, summoning a monk in the following round (if the other army doesn't slay then mid-haunting). The three monks each have standard abilities tailored to individual play style: The fox monk can heal teammates but doesn't attack on its own; the salamander monk spits long-range fireballs; and the crow monk blows enemies back, potentially pushing them off cliffs or into water, where they perish instantly.

The general is a playable, potentially powerful character as well. As he meditates behind his army, the general gains HP, one point per round. The longer he rests his pretty little head (the ornate hats he wears must be heavy), the more stamina he will have when a player chooses to wake him up. The general has can move long distances and has strong attacks and, when leveled up appropriately, he can end a battle in a single turn. If he dies, though, it's game over.

The most important lesson that the campaign teaches is that eating the skulls of one's enemies is the most satisfying thing a Shogun can do. Devouring the skulls of fallen foes grants extra HP to soldiers and the general, and eventually allows them more actions per turn, and when monks chow down they gain new abilities. Mmm-mmm, marrow.

Local, online and asynchronous multiplayer modes shove players directly into the fray (though asynchronous is more like a series of nudges). The main difference between local and the other two modes is that you can smack your friends upside the head if they start to have too much fun eating pilfered skulls. This isn't a game that will destroy friendships, though it may spark some amiable rivalry. The cartoon armies, mustachioed generals and adorable sound effects (the salamander monk says "morp" every time he moves) do a lot to balance out any ill feelings. The solo campaign, too, adds a healthy dose of graphic-novel inspired wordplay and banter that keeps the entire game entertaining, even when it's not actively in strategy mode. Think Deadpool meets The Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy.

Skulls of the Shogun is extremely well-balanced across the board, in terms of enemy progression, ability types and skill layering, so much so that it's easy to forget all the other things it does right. This is an indie game with support from Microsoft that launched on four disparate platforms simultaneously, and not only does it look adorable, but its design is precise and intuitive, allowing players to test out attacks and see potential damage in a few steps without penalty. Each soldier carries flags behind him, and as his health drops his flag deteriorates, providing a simple, one-glance system for assessing the battlefield. The maps offer a wide variety of size and texture, the soldiers are well-suited to success with different play styles, the AI is clever, and the overall tone is tongue-in-cheek without being patronizing. Skulls of the Shogun does a lot of small, yet crucial things extremely well.

Skulls of the Shogun encapsulates whatever essence puts Castle Crashers at the top of the XBLA charts year after year, and does so without infringing on that game's intellectual property or overall vibe. Plus, it's on three extra platforms at launch and it has more mustache jokes than any game in recent memory. If the afterlife is filled with burly skeletons, cute anthropomorphic animals, glorious battles and mustaches galore, maybe it won't be such a bad place to spend eternity. Just make sure your teeth are in good condition when you get there – these skulls aren't going to chew themselves.

This review is based on a download of the Xbox Live Arcade version version of Skulls of the Shogun, provided by Microsoft. It is also available on Windows 8 and Windows Phone.

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