A turn-based strategy game somehow doesn't seem like a turn-based strategy game when it's peopled with cartoon skeletons, midget samurai and bobble-headed Japanese deities. Skulls of the Shogun isn't a case of style over substance - it's a case of style altering and enhancing substance.
This game of small armies battling across lavish (but cheerfully preposterous) 2D environments is the tale of a recently demised ancient Japanese general traversing the afterlife in the pursuit of vengeance and honour. But what would, in other hands, be haughty talk of duty and ritual is here a merry farce, strewn with gags and silliness. It's ever so slightly twisted too, as best evidenced by the fact that units gain health by eating the skulls of their defeated foes.
As for the battles, they are turn-based strategy deconstructed, all possible fluff and bloat discarded, and then reconstructed as something lean and impeccably well-balanced. There are only seven different types of unit (and in most cases you'll only have five in play at once) and each army rarely exceeds ten troops. So it's a matter of using everything you've got very, very carefully, and quickly learning exactly what everything does, what counters it and what guarantees it'll be immediately killed in the next turn.
That said, it's also a game in which reinforcements are gained quickly and regularly, so losing units is a common and non-heartbreaking occurrence. There's a lot of scope to come back from an apparently losing situation: for instance, your enemy might leave his strongest unit standing near the edge of the cliff, so a single swipe from even your puniest fighter will send it tumbling over.
Perhaps critical to the strategy, apart from the extreme balance and focus on a handful of unit types, is that attacking an enemy almost always causes damage to your own guys. So you can't just charge in or hack away at whoever's nearest: you've got to swap your units in and out to make sure no-one gets killed in your own turn, let alone in the enemy's.
On top of that, there's no fog of war or anything that conceals one army's movements from the others'. Everything you do on the small battlefield is entirely apparent to the enemy, and vice-versa, so you're constantly reacting to an ongoing situation rather than secretly plotting or fearfully wondering what's out there.
Skulls of the Shogun is, much like last year's XCOM, a pretty solid answer to the ancient question of how to make strategy games work on console: throw out anything that isn't absolutely necessary, then do the most with what remains. It's very much a game which feels as though it's arrived fully-formed, not in need of additions, changes or new features.
However, despite very neatly carrying its singleplayer mechanics over to a high-speed, high-tension multiplayer mode, the small number of units and maps means it could wear thin relatively quickly. It's a tough one: were there more things in there, Skulls might have more longevity, but that would well harm its immediacy, charm and balance. Nonetheless, it's perhaps 2013's first essential Xbox Live Arcade purchase.
On PC it's a different matter, due to the game's creators striking a deal with Microsoft which has made it exclusive to the divisive and as yet not well-adopted Windows 8. PC feels like Skulls' natural home, but it's simply not available to the majority of PC gamers - and, good as the game may be, it's certainly not worth upgrading operating system specifically for it. If you're an owner of a Windows Phone or Microsoft Surface tablet though, Skulls is available there too - and is an arguable essential.