I know what you’re thinking when you look at those screenshots: "What on earth have they done to my beloved series?"
At first glance, it looks like The Creative Assembly has made that terrible mistake of 'trying something new'. And, to be fair to the team, something new is exactly what Total War Battles: Shogun is - not just for the series but for strategy gaming on smartphones as a whole.
If you want a pithy high-concept description of how Total War Battles: Shogun plays, imagine Plants vs Zombies forming an alliance with Command & Conquer, Chess, and Trenches and then having a quick drink with the original Total War PC series before taking to the battlefield.
There are the five ‘channels’, much as with Plants vs Zombies, but you can move your troops forwards or switch lanes in real-time. Switching lanes requires some waiting time before you can do it again, and, like the pawns in Chess, you can’t move backwards.
As in Trenches, the aim for the majority of the campaign missions I played involved starting on the left-hand side of the battlefield and either holding down the fort or making my way to the enemy general on the far-right.
Troops, meanwhile, are manufactured in buildings (Command & Conquer). There are the usual generic coins with which to buy simple troops like ronins, but there's also a selection of support and resource constructions like lumber mills that you have to link together (and protect) in order for them to function properly.
Stick it to 'em
On top of all this is the subtle influence of the Total War series - features like carefully manoeuvring troops to attack simultaneously, for instance, or the lack of a health bar for each of your units.
Instead of monitoring health abstractly, you have to rely on your observation skills to determine how well each individual fight is going, with your motion-captured troops jabbing, back-peddling, and sparring individually with the enemy.
Watching your heimin race forward together with their two-pronged spears and plunge them into the bellies of the enemy’s cavalry is certainly more engaging than seeing hit points slowly diminish.
Additionally, there are many points in the Campaign where you’re given the chance of earning extra XP (and therefore unlocking more of each building’s skill tree) by taking part in side missions.
These missions seem to be designed to show off just how much is actually going on under the simplified surface, often coming across as puzzles. One I played, for instance, saw me trying to construct an unbroken string of buildings in order to create a Shrine - one of the special buildings.
The fact that each building has its own ‘shape’ - iron mines take the form of hexagons arranged diagonally in threes, while lumber mills come in annoying U-shapes - means that planning is vital in order to maximise space.
Other missions centre around special units like monks and ninjas, with the latter able to sneak past most troops without detection.
Multiplayer, meanwhile, takes the perspective up above the battlefield, splitting the play area in half and allowing two players to crowd around the iPad.
Total War Battles: Shogun may look like an unwelcome departure, but I saw enough depth and potential during my 40-minute hands-on to suggest that it's worth keeping on your radar.
We’ll see whether it can win the war when it hits iOS and Android on April 19th.