I’m always telling anyone who will listen: “Chess is ok, but I think it should have lore!” Punkcake Delicieux, developers of Shotgun King: The Final Checkmate, heard my pleas around the middle of 2022 and launched their roguelike inspired by the world’s most popular abstract war games on Steam. Over a year later, I’m experiencing it on my Switch, truly the perfect place to play a game that is at its best in short, concussive bursts.
The story of the Black King being driven mad by the betrayal by his people and his encroaching enemies in white is a great reason to give this king some motivation to expand his moveset past the ability to move one space at a time in all directions. Primarily by trading in his holy scepter for a shotgun, and bringing the rampage to his opps directly. That’s really all there is to it. Instead of going any further to craft some sort of actual story, let’s just admit now that anything further would be too much further; most of the world building opportunities are taken in the simple but sometimes darkly evocative art and slight or silly animations.
Each stage of your run (called floors here) gives you a non-standard arrangement of chess pieces that move in their classic patterns to take you out before you can do the same to their leader, usually another king. Taking away the predictability of your standard chess set up and having to rely on more in-the-present threat assessment and decision making gives Shotgun King a fun puzzle game vibe in the same ways that Zack Gage’s Really Bad Chess and Damian Sommer’s Chesh do. Mix all that with the delicate dance of your own movement and offense—moving, shooting, and reloading spends turns and every piece on the board moves at different speeds and on different turns—and you have a lot of tactical bang for your brain’s buck.
Every floor conquered leaves you with a choice before moving on: you must take a gift to help you on the next floor, and a curse that slowly (or sometimes quickly) grows the strength of the next group of enemies. They are paired at random, so one’s ability to mitigate the potential ruin of the other is largely out of your hands. It’s tough to know which boons are worth the cost on your first several runs. Expanding your ammo count, turning your shotgun into a sniper rifle, or adding a moat in the middle of the board are all examples of pretty interesting and game changing abilities that can feel great sometimes, or completely undone by the poison pill you’re forced to swallow it with. Adding more pawns to the board doesn’t seem like a terrible idea until you’re forced to take a debuff down the road that will promote them to the new king after you take down the first one. Only time, and many failures, will help your predict board states down the line based on these variables. Some roguelikes feel largely “solved” once you find the handful of overpowered buffs that help you win a run consistently. Twoish hours and a couple of clears under my belt, this doesn’t feel like one of those games.
After storming all ten floors and taking down the boss, your fury doesn’t have to end. You can jump right back in with modifiers that make everything just a little harder in the classic Throne mode. Or you can take on some of the other specialty modes, like an endless survival challenge or chase mode, which is a bonkers escape mode where you must outrun an increasingly dense horde of enemies coming from all sides. I don’t know that any of these modes give Shotgun King the staying power of something like a daily puzzle or leaderboards, but they are fun takes on the original formula that grabbed me pretty tight, even if it was for a limited time.
Shotgun King: The Final Checkmate is a challenging and fruitful take on one of the oldest games in human history. The art and story are a bit dark, but lighthearted, yet the clever and tricky roguelike tactics are dead serious. I can’t think of a better break between the endless assault of bajillion hour RPGs that all seem to want to drop at the same time, flaying your free time to pieces like buckshot from ten paces away. If you need a quick hit of brain scratching without the requisite time sink, pull this game’s trigger.
Shotgun King: The Final Checkmate released on PlayStation, Xbox, and Nintendo Switch August 24th, 2023.