While at PAX East last month, I visited the Haunted Temple booth and got a taste of their new strategy game, Skulls of the Shogun. They were showing off both multi-player and single-player at the show, but I only tried out multi-player. Although I remembered rumblings about Skulls of the Shogun from previous conventions, this was my first experience playing it myself.
Skulls of the Shogun boasts a playful art style and theme that sticks in your mind long after you drop the controller. All of the starting troops, from soldiers to generals, are skeletons dressed in different types of Samurai-style attire. Summoned troops, such as magicians, don't adhere to this skeleton precedent, but they never look out of place amongst their undead cohorts. The whole game has a cartoony, almost comical style that makes the fantastical elements of the gameplay appear natural. It gives the game a unique look that feels instantly memorable but not overwhelming.
My multi-player mission was simple enough: Kill the other team's general to obtain victory. Of course, that means I have to keep my own general safe to avoid utter defeat. To accomplish this, each team has a handful of beginner units and, through map control, are able to enlist more units as the match plays out. We started off with soldiers and archers, but we both quickly captured points that allowed us to summon more powerful healers, magicians, and other units. The setup feels ripe for advanced strategies; strategies I was unable to cook up on-the-fly during my match.
The troops in Skulls of the Shogun have an insidious solution to powering up beyond enemy lines: Eating enemy skulls. Whenever a character dies, he leaves behind a skull that persists on the battlefield. If a member of the opposing team reaches that soulless skull, they can feast on it for a boost in health and power. The point of no return in my demo arose when my enemy's general choked down my strongest unit's skull. The resulting powered up general was too much for my puny army to handle, and I had to concede defeat.
Beyond being the key to victory, generals have another factor that differentiates them from other units. They begin the skirmish asleep. Why would an army enlist a series of narcoleptic troops? Well, for each round the general remains asleep, he becomes more powerful. I did my best to stay hands off the general until I absolutely needed him to, figuratively, rain fire down on my adversary. Management of your own general's sleep schedule, in addition to ensuring the other generals get minimum rest, seems like an early game move that could pay off in quick victories.
In addition to showing off the current build of Skulls of the Shogun, Jake Kazdal, founder of Haunted Temple Games, was kind enough to give me an interview about how this game came together.
Erich: How would you describe Skulls of the Shogun?
Jake: Skulls of the Shogun is a turn-based strategy game heavily inspired by arcade brawlers. It's very simplified, streamed, and fast-paced. Although it's a strategy game, there's no defined grid and no menu surfing.
Erich: How did the idea for this come together?
Jake: I love strategy games, especially the simplified and fast-paced ones. Games like Fire Emblem, Advanced Wars, and Shining Force. I really wanted to do something like that, but even faster if possible. With Skulls of the Shogun, I was trying to figure out how to shave away some of those remaining edges, and make something quicker and more arcade inspired.
Erich: You've been in the game industry for a while, how does indie development compare to larger studio development?
Jake: It's a lot of work. It's definitely a very different job to have a small studio and do everything yourselves as opposed to working at a big company and having one job. It's a very different experience.
Erich: How did the art come about? Why choose something 2D and cartoonish over something more realistic?
Jake: For the last couple years before I started Haunted Temple, I was doing realistic, hard edge sci-fi stuff and I wanted to do something new. I wanted to do something more stylized and cartoony. I didn't want to go for hyper-realistic stuff because I couldn't do it all by myself, either. Skulls of the Shogun was originally meant to be a 6-month iPhone project, but it kept getting bigger and bigger.
I'm glad we decided to stay with something cute and simple because I wanted to do something iconic and memorable. Something people would see and know that its different. It would stand out in a crowd of strategy games that are generally serious and military based.
Erich: Would you say this is primarily a single-player or multi-player experience?
Jake: It's really both. Single-player has a ton of work put into it; I'm a campaign kind of guy. Our game has a 10 to 15 hour campaign with really good story and writing.
Multi-player is huge, too. We have dedicated 2, 3, and 4 player online and local multi-player. You can sit down on the couch and play up to 4 guys, which takes advantage of our dynamic alliance system. There's a lot of shit-talking and a lot of fun.
Erich: How does a 4-player match go? Is it chaotic?
Jake: It's fairly chaotic. People tend to be cautious the first couple rounds and see what plays out. Then, the dynamic alliance system starts to come in. 'Hey, this guy is trashing us, let's team up for now and take him down.'
Erich: Do you think this might have a life as a tournament-level competitive game?
Jake: Absolutely. One of our QA guys is a competitive Smash Bros. player and he's all about balancing and tuning. He's been spending the last couple months tweaking every single map and making sure they're balanced. We would love to get this game into competitive play.
Erich: What platforms can people find Skulls of the Shogun?
Jake: We will be shipping day and date on Windows 8 with XBOX Live Arcade and Windows Phone releases around the same time.
Written by Erich "H2O mystakin" Sherman. Erich is the PMS|H2O Editorial Director. Keep track of him and his shenanigans on Twitter!