Haunted Temple Studios’ Skulls of the Shogun took me by surprise at last year’s PAX East. It was my first look at the game, and its attractive cartoon art style immediately drew me to it. Within a few minutes of playing, it was obvious that the developer had backed the visuals up with incredibly fun turn-based combat.

At this year’s show Haunted Temple CEO and Creative Director Jake Kazdal stated that many members of the crowds that had continually gathered around his studio’s booth throughout the weekend had followed a similar path of attraction to the inspired strategy game. “I think it’s a different dynamic for this kind of game, and people really seem to be digging it,” Kazdal said. “The art style sort of draws [convention attendees] in, and then they start thinking like ‘Wow, this is different than any other strategy game I’ve played.'” Although inspired by the Advance Wars and Fire Emblem games, Skulls of the Shogun definitely has a unique and wonderful vibe all its own.

Last year’s demo featured an early map, but it wasn’t the very beginning of the game. It was fantastic to experience the game with resource-gathering (rice paddies) and some other mechanics already in play. This time out, though, the build on display got rolling right from the game’s opening scene. Kazdal stated that a professional writer was brought in to deliver “high-quality” writing, and it showed.

A great shogun is run through during a cut-scene and finds himself in the afterlife. Being the pompous leader of armies that he is, General Akamoto refuses to fall in line like the rest of the deceased. He gets into a humorous argument with someone issuing orders and ends up running him through during a sequence that teaches the player the basics of combat. The banter between the characters is intentionally silly, with a lot of colloquial language being tossed around and goofy debates going on. At one point a character even quotes the movie Anchorman.

Shogun is clearly a game that doesn’t take itself seriously, and that’s just fine. Akamoto stands out as someone who demands respect. He gets it after proving his battlefield prowess, but the soldiers all act behave like goofballs when not addressing him directly. It works tremendously well when paired with the colorful art direction and should hold players’ attention whether the story itself ends up being interesting or not.

Once the characters are done horsing around it’s time for a proper battle to get going. There were only a few unit types to take control of in the first stage, but Kazdal revealed that the final game will contain quite a few more. After racking his brain for a moment, the studio’s CEO was eventually able to say with certainty that there are 11 or 12 total varieties that will be unlocked throughout Skulls‘ 20 single-player maps.

Getting back to the opening level, the objective was simply to wipe out all the enemies on the screen without losing Akamoto on the battlefield. A reckless approach to combat cost him his life during my first attempt and it was game over. Learning from my foolishness, I kept the dead warlord in the back the next time around or positioned him right on top of the other units, which created a nice little buff.

I rolled right through the enemy the second time around (go me) by leaning heavily on my lone archer and a melee unit powered-up to demon form. The shogun stayed safe and still got in a kill or two of his own. His power will tempt players to take him on the offensive, but, as previously mentioned, he must be used wisely or the match will end. Although a few stages will have other goals, the main point of most levels is to protect the life of your own shogun and kill the other team’s.

That means gamers will need to pay close attentino to the general’s life meter. His meter is clearly displayed on a flags being carried around, as with all units. The flags flash before attacks are finalized to show how much damage a successful hit will dish out, allowing for another layer of strategy when it comes to what foe to target when. It’s a fantastic design choice that allows players to easily manage health without cluttering up the screen. They blend in as part of the character design but stick out just enough for easy visibility.

Health can be regained by having units devour the namesake skulls of fallen enemies. Have one unit consume a trio of them and he’ll power up and take on a demon form. The resulting dynamic will often force players to strategize a bit and consider whether it is more beneficial to heal a unit on the brink of death or beef up another one that already has eaten a skull or two. Competent management of the mechanic will keep smart players alive in situations that might prove perilous for others.

“Your units are your units,” said Kazdal. The player’s approach to using the skulls will effect the outcome of each stage, as I saw during my time with the game. “By eating skulls then, you’re going to power up to demon form. And then you gain more and more powerful monks and then the monks eat more skulls and they gain more and more powerful magic, and so you get some really high level…big, massive skills.”

The team approached the gameplay with the intention of making it fun for strategy vets and newcomers alike. “You know…if you know how to play strategy games you’re going to be fine,” Kazdal explained. But he also stated that even those who initially don’t have a clue what they’re doing will figure it out “within a stage or two.”

On top of the campaign, Skulls also has 30 multiplayer maps, some of which are designed specifically for three participants. Kazdal said that those specialized maps have “three sort of home bases, and there’s like contested stuff in the middle. They’re meant for — they’re balanced for three players to have even matches.” The bulk of the maps are designed for four combatants, but the three-on-three maps should provide for a nice break from the norm.

Although development is just about done, the release is still a good six months or so off. The XBLA version will release on the same day as the PC one, which is being designed with Windows 8 in mind. Expect the title to be available when Microsoft’s OS launches, probably for 1200 MS points on 360. Kazdal said there has been some internal debate over the pricing due to what is perceived as a large amount of content for that price, but the creative director insisted that he has no desire to go higher than 1200.

That price would be plenty fair judging by what I’ve experience in my two rounds with the game. Skulls of the Shogun is already an excellent strategy game that all Xbox owners should be strongly considering come release day.

Check out more awesome XBLA game previews and impressions from PAX East 2012!