Earlier this year, the wonderful Awesomenauts reinvented the Multiplayer Online Battle Arena genre for consoles, making it accessible without diluting its core qualities. The similarly cartoonish Skulls of the Shogun does just about the same job for turn-based strategy - and if anything, makes an even better fist of it. In a year of Xbox Live Arcade essentials, this is right up there with the very best.
It's been inspired by Nintendo's chunky handheld classic Advance Wars, though there are no grids here, merely the same immaculate balance of its small clutch of units. Your infantry guys are strong but can't move very far, while archers can hit enemies from distance but have no way of countering a close-quarters attack.
Horsemen are useful for recon purposes and have the widest movement range, though their offensive and defensive qualities are pretty average. Then there's your general, who's simultaneously your most powerful warrior and your Achilles heel - if he's taken out, you've lost.
Defeated rivals leave behind skulls that can be eaten for a permanent boost to your maximum health and a small but potentially significant HP refill if you've been hit. Visit a shrine and you can call upon a monk with supportive magic abilities, or you can 'haunt' rice paddies to earn currency for recruiting new ronin.
Stick two units together and they'll form a barrier that can't be knocked back - useful if you're near the edge of a cliff or hidden in a bamboo patch that offers you a 20 per cent chance of your opponent's next attack missing. This tangle of systems knots together brilliantly, and it's all patiently explained in a series of training missions that never feels like a tutorial.
It helps that it looks lovely, too. The charmingly angular anime art pays homage to TV cartoons of the 1960s and '70s, and there's absolutely no menu clutter. Instead, soldiers raise their swords when in a position to counter and cower when they're not, while HP is displayed on each unit's flag.
Lob in several brilliantly designed multiplayer maps - playable locally, online, or even asynchronously with Windows 8 PCs, tablets and phones - and you've got one of the finest console strategy games ever.
By Chris Schilling. Skulls of the Shogun costs 1200 MP, and you can download it here.
A smart, funny strategy game
- Clear and immediate design
- Delightful art and animation
- Plenty of replay value
- A ton of multiplayer options
- Perhaps too lightweight for some