Skulls of the Shogun Review: Getting ahead in the land of the undead

Microsoft has never released a portable console like the Playstation Vita or 3DS, instead opting to publish Xbox-branded games for Windows Phone and Windows 8… A wise choice given the modern trend towards smartphone and tablet gaming over handheld game systems. With the Xbox 360’s excellent lineup of downloadable games, Windows Phone users rightfully expected the chance to play many of their XBLA favorites on their mobile phones.

Unfortunately, the number of robust, XBLA-quality titles released for Xbox Windows Phone to date is incredibly small. I count only Final Fantasy, Puzzle Quest 2, Castlevania Puzzle, ilomilo, Plants vs. Zombies, Sonic 4: Episode I, and Sonic CD as games with full console-level production values and quantity of content. Crimson Dragon Side Story, Hydro Thunder GO, and Civilization Revolution would be on there too if not for their Playstation One-era graphics. Maybe 11 games out of Xbox Windows Phone’s over 150 titles feel like full XBLA games and not just smartphone/casual titles.

Well, add another game to the top-tier pile because Skulls of the Shogun from 17-BIT and Microsoft Studios fits right alongside the XBLA and Windows 8 versions that released alongside it.

Caesar betrayed

Skulls’ campaign mode features a deep and amusing story. It begins with the assassination of General Akamoto, a man on his way to becoming Shogun (military ruler of Japan). After being stabbed in the back by a trusted associate, Akamoto wakes up as a skeleton in the afterlife. The underworld’s powers that be quickly discover that our general takes kindly to neither betrayal nor authority other than his own.

In most strategy games, the dialog would be deadly serious. Skulls, on the other hand manages to keep things lighthearted thanks to consistently clever dialog. Whether Akamoto is flirting with the Spring Goddess Sakura or trading barbs with the mysterious villain and his associates, this tale never ceases to amuse during the 20-mission campaign.

Shining strategy

Skulls is a turn-based strategy game. Each side gets five moves per turn, regardless of how many units it possesses. Normal units only get one action per turn though. These consist of medieval Japan-themed warriors like Cavalry, Archers, and magic-wielding monks. All have their own attack and defense ratings and ranges of movement.

To pick a unit, tap it or use the Next Unit button to toggle between the warriors on your side. Once selected, you can move the fighter anywhere within his circular movement radius. If an enemy is within range, tap it to attack or toggle between targets with the Next Target button. Selecting units and targets this way is often necessary on Windows Phone because unfortunately the touch-based controls lack the precision of the XBLA version. It's far too easy to accidentally target something when you just want to move a unit from point A to B.

Targets at the edge of a character’s attack radius have a chance of dodging, as do those hiding within patches of bamboo. Enemies can often counterattack (indicated by their pose during targeting), making it important to choose your targets carefully.

Each side’s general (including Akamoto in Campaign mode) is its single most important unit. Generals can take and deliver copious damage, and they even start with two attacks per turn. But if a general falls, his side automatically loses, so protecting the leader plays a significant role as well.

To power up your general further, have him chow down on the skulls of fallen foes. Every skull eaten bestows three extra units of health. More importantly, the general or normal unit who eats three skulls becomes a demon for the duration of the battle. This grants the eater an extra action or attack per turn, making him extremely useful combatant.

Spirit walls, shrines, and magic monks

There’s more to winning these battles than just trading blows with opponents. For instance, melee units can knock back opponents into thorns for extra damage and even off of cliffs for instant kills. To protect your team from knock backs, position them close enough together to make them glow red. This forms a spirit wall, locking those units in place. Spirit walls also prevent enemies from attacking anyone behind the wall’s front line. Positioning archers behind a line of melee units will protect them from their enemies’ counterattacks.

Skulls also features mild resource management in the form of rice paddies. Standing on a patch of rice and choosing to haunt it will cause your team to gain rice for each subsequent turn until the rice runs out or the paddy gets captured by an enemy. Luckily a unit doesn’t have to remain standing on a paddy or shrine during subsequent turns in order to retain ownership of it.

Rice can be spent to summon new units from captured Shrines or to fuel monks’ advanced magic spells. To get a monk on your side, capture its spirit shrine. Early in the campaign you’ll gain access to the healing focused Fox Monk, but eventually you’ll encounter monks who can cast attack spells too. The more skulls a monk eats, the more spells he gains.

Skulls Anywhere and crossing platforms

The Windows Phone version of Skulls offers two types of multiplayer: local and asynchronous online multiplayer. Both support up to four players. In my experience with the asynchronous Skulls Anywhere mode, it sent and received moves flawlessly. Turn notifications pop up when launching the game or any time during gameplay, though disappointingly the game’s live tile doesn’t display the number of turns available like AlphaJax does. On the bright side, Skulls Anywhere even supports cross-platform multiplayer with the XBLA and Windows 8 versions – a first for Xbox Windows Phone games.

On top of that, save games are stored both on the device and in the cloud and can be accessed from the other platforms. Of course, you have to buy other versions of the game in order to benefit from the Play-Pause-Resume functionality because Microsoft doesn’t support universal app purchases at this time. Of the three versions, the XBLA and Windows 8 versions have the best graphics, and only the XBLA game supports real-time online multiplayer.

Hot graphics and batteries

The artists at 17-BIT are a talented bunch. They’ve created some excellent vector-based character designs, with the exception of the female goddesses whose faces more closely resemble E.T. than human beings. The music is also top-notch, bolstering the feudal atmosphere with energy and intensity.

As good as Skulls’ art generally is, the Windows Phone version lets us down from a resolution standpoint. The game runs great on Windows Phone 8, but it was clearly developed for Windows Phone 7 and lacks high screen resolution support. As a result, everything has a jagged and aliased appearance. User claims that Skulls looks ugly on newer devices are exaggerated, and I frankly I tire of hearing it about every Windows Phone 7 game that comes along. That said, a patch that improves the game’s display on Windows Phone 8 devices would be most welcome.

Skulls also reportedly causes some users’ phones to run hotter and deplete their batteries faster than normal. In my own experience, heat and energy consumption are no different from any other graphically intensive game. Skulls has a lot going on under the hood, so don’t play it on a low battery.


The Windows Phone and Windows 8 versions of Skulls each offer 200 GamerScore a piece while the XBLA game awards 400. Otherwise the three games’ lists are identical. Players who buy all three games can look forward to a total of 800 GamerScore – not bad for the cost, really.

You can’t just get all the Achievements in one game, load up another version, and unlock all of that version’s though. Campaign progress, skulls, and time carry across the cloud but players still need to complete the Achievement-based objectives on each version. It’s kind of a headache. Look to this thread for more details.

The two most challenging Achievements involve completing the Campaign in less than three hours and (separately) collecting all 55 gold skulls. The time-based one will require a speed-focused playthrough, likely on the Casual difficulty.

As for the gold skulls, each mission has 1-3 of these for fulfilling side objectives like winning without losing any units or powering up a certain number of allies to demon form. Sometimes these goals are mutually exclusive, so you’ll need to play a mission two or more times just to complete them all. They can also be quite tough on Normal difficulty, so you might need to go back on Casual to polish them off. Check out this guide for tips.

Overall Impression

Skulls of the Shogun is an incredibly accessible and clever strategy game. The Windows Phone version’s controls and graphics could be better, but from the standpoints of content, depth, and production values it’s absolutely peerless. If only a full XBLA-quality experience like this came along at least once a month instead of once a year, Xbox Windows Phone would be the mobile platform of choice for serious gamers.

To my mind, Skulls is the single best Windows Phone game so far and easily worth the post-introductory price of $6.99. For now Microsoft is offering it at the introductory price of $4.99. If you want to see more robust games and exclusives come to Windows Phone, don’t hesitate to pick it up from the Store.

Paul Acevedo

Paul Acevedo is the Games Editor at Windows Central. A lifelong gamer, he has written about videogames for over 15 years and reviewed over 350 games for our site. Follow him on Twitter @PaulRAcevedo. Don’t hate. Appreciate!

  • Fun game^^
  • "The game runs great on Windows Phone 8, but it was clearly developed for Windows Phone 7 and lacks high screen resolution support"
    Totally inexcusable and downright ridiculous. Games like these should be panned in their reviews. I didn't buy a brand new Lumia 920 to play games developed for 2 year old phones. First Angry Birds and now this, and that too for a $5 game.
  • No, it's not ridiculous at all. Had they waited until WP8 was ready before submitting the game for certification, it would've come out several months later.
  • And would have been a true showcase for what gaming on WP8 is like.
  • Yeah, no. Development doesn't work like that, if they had aimed for WP8 it would take at least another 3 months minimum to come out.
  • Do you really think that the developers won't update the game to accomodate for higher resolution screens?
    They offer a trial, and if the resolution isn't 'good enough', I'd wager people won't purchase it for their WP8 device.  
  • That's ludicrous, this should have been a WP8 launch title. The specifications of WP8 didn't catch anyone by surprise, especially Microsoft studios. Gaming on this platform is an absolute joke.
  • Honestly I didn't even notice the resolution issue until it was mentioned in this review.  Its certainly a point off for them, but I wouldn't pan such a great game based on that one issue.
  • Running at a lower resolution isn't a bad thing. It improves the frame rate and reduces battery drain. Sure it would be nice to have a settings option for higher resolution on HW that can handle it (and this is an insanely trivial code change, BTW), but most people wouldn't understand the tradeoffs and would just complain that the game sucks because it drains their battery super fast and makes their phone uncomfortably hot.
  • Very good points.
  • I could care less about graphics on my PHONE. Does anyone buy games for the phone expecting console or PC resolution? No. It's a new world when we start complaining about phone graphics. For now, lets just enjoy games that are casual and fun.
  • Tonight when Real Racing 3 is released on iPhone, I challenge you to tell me the same thing after seeing those gorgeous graphics.
  • So what are some examples of things that you care less about?  Just trying to get an idea of your caring levels since graphics isn't at the bottom.
  • High five!
  • +1
  • It is a fun game and loads instantly on my 920.  Not sure if I care for the higher resolutions since my phone is only about 4.5 inches in size.
    I also have the Windows 8 version.  The game can scale itself based on the resolution of window.  Now a days, the PC games can adjust its display to the screen resolution of the machine.  So it is not difficult to have the phone version doing the same thing (especially if there are only a few phones out there).
    So if the phone version looks good and run smooth, why bother to scale it to full HD which burns more battery and just don't offer much visual difference.
  • You realize that games take a long time to develop? Windows Phone 8 came out in November. This game probably started development October the year before. So much whining. 
    It's a spectacularly good game.
  • This game has actually been in development in one form or another for 5+ years.  It's a team of 3 guys and it started off as an iOS title, then XBLA only.  Microsoft started funding them, then the WP8, Windows 8, and lastly Surface (ARM) versions were introduced which obviously lengthened the dev period.
  • Honestly, even at 4.99€ it's a no no for me. Way too expensive for a smartphone game. (That's another thing that pisses me of. The conversion rates. 5 dollars it's NOT the same as 5€. The fact that Americans pay less for their games really p*sses me off. And doesn't help at all the sales)
  • I just came back from visiting family and friends in France and all I can say is whine more. Everything costs more over there comparatively and I don't see many foreigners whining when they visit here and feel rich as Midas.
  • Seriously, the cost of the game is well worth it.  By far, it is the BEST game on WP right now, and is an accessible game for any time of gamer (from your casual to hardcore gamer.)
  • This game has got a 15 hours + campaign. Well worth the money.
  • I might not understand your all's VAT tax well, but I've always assumed that was the reason why products seem to be the same amount in dollars and Euros.
  • At least check out the trial (either on Windows Phone or Windows 8). It's a really well made game. Honestly, there's very little out there of this caliber for this platform.
  • Come on, it's the price of a meal at McDonalds.
  • One thing I don't understand is, doesn't MS realize the portable market. I mean look at ios. Most downloads are games. Here MS is both a hardware and game manufacturer yet nothing spectacular in the game front regarding wp8. I'm I missing something. There's promise of great games about a year ago and I don't see anything. I can say though initially games came out strong but now nothing.
  • You say look at iOS but how many first party games is Apple producing? Devs flock because of that established user base and much better chance of "winning the lotto" than in real life (but the not actually a guarantee of profit if you are not the cream if the crop AND have word of mouth/ marketing)
    Microsoft is out there employing their own game devs and offering monetary incentives to third parties. And now porting from iOS is a viable option in WP8 unlike in WP7. So do you expect MS to literally hold a gun to game developers heads now? Force them to support WP8?
  • Holding a gun to someone's head to force them to develop for your platform? The game industry abandoned such draconian practices long ago! Most have traded their guns for wads of cash, I heard it works quite well in terms of coercing developers. ;)
  • The issue with this is you get a released title, and that is it.  No updates, no bug fixes.  It's really pathetic on a developers part to do that.  I still refuse to buy anything from inmotion software due to the i dig it issues.
  • I expect Microsoft and their own game studio to start churning out games for the platform rather than wait for other companies to port existing games. There is no reason why the platform shouldn't have 100's of MS developed games already.
  • You expected MS studios to pump out 100s of mobile games in the span of 2+ years? Really? If so you have NO idea how software development works. Even Gameloft isn't squirting out clones that fast. You gave me a good chuckle at least.
  • Microsoft could afford to have at least 12 Xbox Windows Phone games in development per year though, and just release one per month. That way they'd keepo the platform supported with exclusives and help spread third-party titles out better.
  • I bought this only a few days after it was released.  Its a great game and I'm loving it so far on my Lumia 920.  At first the controls were a bit confusing and I accidentally performed some actions I didn't want to.  But as I've gotten used to it, accidents have become a lot less common.  About half way through the campaign I believe.
    I would love to play this on my Surface RT as well but I can't justify an extra $10 just to have the option of a bigger screen to play on.  If they had offered the WP version for free with purchase of WinRT version, then I would have gone that route.  So in the end, their individual pricing looses them $5 from me.
  • I believe this is the key to bringing Xbox users to WP. Nobody wants to buy 3 versions of the same game for 3 premium prices.
  • I was a sucker and bought the game for the phone and for Windows 8. So I can play it on my laptop, phone and Surface RT for 15$. To me, the game is worth it. So well made.
  • Fun game on the phone. The controls keeps it from being a 5 start game. I'd give it 4 stars.
  • Excellent game.  I totally recommend it.  Apart from the draining of batteries it feels totally solid on my Lumia 810. 
  • Really fantastic game. SUPPORT this game.
  • Fantastic game, easily the best there is on windows phone. Those moaning about the price need to get a grip of reality, this is a console quality game and while there is a point to be made about buying once across platforms, the current price on windows mobile is fine. The strategy games on android and ios retail for as much as £17 and don't compare to this game.
  • It might be a good game but its definitely not for masses...people want fun, quick and addictive games...something like subway surfer, temple run and others...
    This trickle of below average games in WP platform is really frustrating...
  • This is a game you can show off to your friends with other phones that are not WP8
  • All I want... Is dodonpachi maximum back. Ever since getting a WP8 device I've been without ssh and thus without suitable IRC access (the only working ssh client does not hold a candle to the ssh client pro), and without dodonpachi (the only good bullet hell on WP). I love WP8, but the fact that there are no alternatives to basically the only two apps I used on WP7 is incredibly upsetting. Oh and an app with .flac support would be welcome; vlc is still a long way off and probably won't be a very good music player anyhow. This is incredibly off topic but I don't see the point in making an entire thread over this in the forum.
  • And I have emailed both devs about this. No response from either. :/
  • Anyone knows when will the developer patch the resolution problem?
  • Best game ever to grace Windows Phone, hands down. I loved every minute of the campaign and now I'm enjoying multi. Or at least trying to. There seems to be no insentive for people to finish async games (like there is on Alphajax for instance) so even getting one win is proving difficult.
    This is surely the only game I didn't mind paying $5 for.
  • Add me : katrolisa . Always finish my games ;)
  • " If only a full XBLA-quality experience like this came along at least once a month instead of once a year, Xbox Windows Phone would be the mobile platform of choice for serious gamers."
    I couldn't agree more!!!  I really hope MS is actively working with other gaming houses to release quality games like this across WP, Win8 and Xbox.  THIS is the future of gaming IMO.
  • Yet no one wants to pay $5 for them.
  • Although I'm not into turned based games, this seems to be a lot of fun and its fantastic that its available on Win8, Xbox and Surface. Wish the developers all the best and hope they make good money out of this. Now, I only wish if MS would bring Halo Wars to WP I'll be all over it.
  • Yeah I agree, but I don't think 343 Industries is going for the mobile gaming route. Plus, it DID take two separate disks (one for campaign, the other to install Multiplayer) to use Halo 4, so unless you only want the Ensemble Studios Halo RTS game on your mobile, seeing the Halo franchise on WP with their current first-person-shooter graphics is still very far off.
  • bring something halo anything halo. Is Ms so out of the loop that we will never see anything halo on Windows Phones. I sure hope not!
  • stupid game :/
  • Maybe I am a bit old school, but if I am going to be paying $5 (or $7) for a product that is available, on average, for .99; it needs to be absolutely amazing.
  • Sounds like this game fits the bill then. Just 10 years ago we'd have paid $50 for a title of this caliber.
  • If you want a really good made game, check out LAST GUN X from the guys at The Giant Machine. These guys are a group of really cool guys putting a lot of effort into making  windows 8 and windows phone 8 games
  • So much complaining...
  • WP7 game? i hate MS. Real Racing 3 and Infinity Blade worth more than the WHOLE microsoft windows store.
    they fool iOS in their ads! they're just fooling themselves.
  • That's funny, I prefer Skulls to either of those games. Maybe the problem is your taste or the exaggerated value you place on 3D graphics?
  • I've only played the trial a few times on my Lumia 920 but after about 10-15 minutes my phone feels like it's on fire.  I love the game and want to support the devs but don't want my phone melting from it.  ANyone else have similar issues?
  • Yeah my 920 heated up like a solar flare then rebooted itself. Exact same thing happened the two times l tried to use Skype.
  • Very similar.  I know the Lumia 920 runs hot, and if you look at tear down videos you can tell the heat is coming from the processor (not the battery)...but it feels like they overclocked the bad boy a little too much.  I wouldn't be too worried...there is probably software that will 'stop the problem' if your phone gets too hot (aka...turn it off).  Computers do it all the time, it is the BSoD.
  • I was at DFW airport, downloaded over WiFi, played about an hour and the battery drained about 40%, it doesn't seem to be doing much on the screen so I wonder why the huge drain. I am playing plants vs zombies now and it seems I can play 4 to 5 hours, and there is a lot more going on
  • You mention the battery life but didn't really go into it?
    I have a couple of different examples (screen shots of an app) where I was playing at night before I go to bed, so the Battery app that I use rolls over and starts to calculate that day's usage...and it is always about 40% an hour.  I think this game would burn through a full phone in about 3 hours!  That is pretty crazy...
  • That's because I didn't personally experience battery problems. I believe the devs are at least investigating it though.
  • Err... Actually, kurokawa is the name of the enemy, not the protagonist .. /nerd
  • Not a nerdy correction at all! Can you believe we even ran the review by the devs and nobody caught the mistake? Fixed now.
  • I just recently got this on XBLA, will be checking it out soon!
  • Just bought this today. This is the funniest game I have played in a long time. Great music. Interesting story and the dialogues are just hilarious. The graphics could have been better though. Not a deal breaker, but graphics really could have been better.