Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun Review – Samurai Commandos
Shadow Tactics: Blades of the ShogunDecember 6th, 2016
It's hardly a secret that I'm a fan of strategy games. This extends to each and every sub-genre: real-time strategy, grand strategy, 4X and the tactical varieties. What was always strange to me is that real-time tactics (RTT) has been treated as the unwanted step-child of the genre. It's particularly strange since, compared to the rest of the genre, it was almost consistently successful. Titles such as Close Combat, Myth, Blitzkrieg, Kessen, Desperados and the ever popular Commandos ruled the roost. 2009 marked the last year it was truly active; since then the genre has practically been kept afloat by Eugen Systems with R.U.S.E and their Wargame franchise. 2016 brings us Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun by Mimimi Productions, one of the best in the genre.
Commandos is probably one of the more well-known games, and one of the most prestigious in the genre. It's also the series that Shadow Tactics borrows the most from. This is stealth in the likes you haven't seen for a long time. Feel free to kill, there's no doubt that you're going to have to. However, you need to be wary since if you happen to be spotted, you're probably going to die.
Welcome to Edo period Japan. Time to serve and save the Shogun, defeat the rebels and make it out alive.
Each of Shadow Tactics’ thirteen missions tasks you with a wide variety of objectives and has you travelling across multiple areas of Japan, each beautifully and painstakingly created. Unlike the Commandos and Desperados games, Shadow Tactics is fully 3D. Spinning your camera around to reveal a previously unseen ledge or checking around corners to see a guard standing watch on a building’s balcony, the use of 3D and the camera allows for the game to feature multiple paths and puzzles for you to overcome.
But simply using the camera to see the enemies and watch the patrols isn't what makes the game so entertaining. One mission puts you in the middle of a heated battle. Runners for the rebels make their way from the front line to the back, carrying intelligence and supplies. Other missions put you in villages or cities, each thriving with friendly and unfriendly civilians alike. Birds perch on a building's roof, carts make their runs to the market and people go about their daily routine. You can even enter the buildings, though they don't actually have maps of their own. What happens is that the character icon is shown on the building and a line points out the exits available to you, though should an enemy head in, you're going to get shot.
It's following these patterns, making reasonable assumptions and using the world to your advantage that makes Shadow Tactics so engrossing. It's streamlined and logical. Climb onto a roof and scare a flock of birds, their flapping distracts a nearby sentry and has him walk towards you while you loop around and stab him in the back. Maybe there's been some snowfall recently - your tracks will show up on the floor, attracting attention from a patrolling guard. He follows the tracks to a bush, searches it under the assumption only to die at the hands of a well-placed trap, his corpse covered by the bush, never to be found again.
God forbid it, or you, are ever located. Once a corpse is found then all hell breaks loose. Any buildings in the game that have enemies inside have doors highlighted in red. Should the enemy see you, these buildings are suddenly your worst enemy as hordes of guards swarm out of them. Suddenly patrol routes have changed, there are extra people on the lookout and everything is busier.
Thankfully the above statement isn't completely accurate. Not every corpse results in pandemonium breaking out, and this is another aspect in which Shadow Tactics makes itself stand out. Have you ever played the early Hitman games? If you have, you'll be well aware of the games willingness to let you kill through a variety of means. A sharp icicle crashing down into the skull of a passing samurai. The brakes on a cart are looking a little loose, a little risky for the two guards a little downhill. A startled bull kicking out randomly, hitting the guard next to it. Studying and using the environment is something that isn't brought into games enough, this shows how good it can be.
Beyond using your environment, you also need to think about planning your actions with the five available characters. Hayate is the stereotypical ninja-for-hire, armed with a hook shot that lets him scale huge structures. Yuki is a child with cat-like skills, an excellent thief and able to lure enemies into well-placed traps. Mugen is a loyal samurai, excellent swordsman and the only one able to beat the hardest enemies in single combat. Takuma is a one-legged sniper, deadly behind the scope and accompanied by his pet Tanuki. Finally, there's Aiko, an ex-geisha with deadly weapons and the ability to disguise herself to pass by enemies.
Each character has four abilities at their disposal (they unlock as the game progresses). Though there is a large amount of overlap in function, they certainly have a time and place to be used. One example is Hayate, Yuki and Takuma each having a noise-based distraction/luring ability. The difference, however, is that Hayate throws a rock which has a lower radius than Yuki's bird whistle or Takuma's pet Tanuki, letting you be careful whose attention you actually grab.
Planning your moves is the main focus of the game and this is where Shadow Mode comes into play. Due to the roster of five characters with varying abilities, you also need the ability to use them concurrently. Shadow Mode allows players to do this by letting them set up commands and hold them until the final command for all the team to go ahead is given. There's little more pleasing than planning a move with all five characters and demolishing a patrol of two guards and a samurai. Lure the two minor guards with Yuki's bird call. Then you take aim with Takuma and shoot the samurai, stunning him. While this is happening Aiko and Hayate have both snuck in and killed the two guards, while Mugen moves in for the final blow against the Samurai.
Later levels are particularly good for allowing this use of complex tactics. This is primarily due to the inclusion of more challenging opponents. The base guards are littered throughout the game, easily lured, easily dispatched. Strawhats are more attentive to their duty and won’t be lured away with simple tricks, but can still be killed fairly easily. It's the Samurai you need to be wary of; these will kill anybody apart from Mugen in single combat and can see straight through Aiko's disguises. The only way to kill them is in single combat with Mugen, or by stunning them first with a shot from the five characters pistols, or Takuma's rifle, before taking the final strike with somebody else.
Of course, anything and everything is likely to go wrong. Quick save and quick load will be your best friends in Shadow Tactics, followed very closely by patience and then quick thinking. All levels feature a number of medals to be obtained, promoting multiple playthroughs and the exploration of each map. It's exploring these options, taking the time to map out patrols, watching the line of sight of the enemy and ultimately making your move that takes time in the game. Sure, you can quick run, and there's a medal in each level for that, but in reality each and every level will take a reasonably long period of time to complete, some lasting into the hours. What matters the most is that it never gets boring, as difficult as it can be.
Appealing is probably the best way to describe the aesthetic qualities of Shadow Tactics. The vivid contrasting colours and the bold outlines that comes with the cel-shaded look appeals to me more than any highly detailed grey-a-thon ever will. If that were the only thing then it may still be enough, but even though the game may not have the best textures around, it's still got an impressive attention to detail.
It's here where the world pushes in that final piece to make it feel truly alive. The paths created through people constantly walking over it. The marks on buildings from the weather, people and the animals. The sway of the trees in the wind and even the grass on the ground. The look and sound of running water in the background and the rustle of a bush as a nearby guard walks through it. It all works together perfectly.
On the topic of sound comes a small point I want to make. I mentioned in my Firewatch review at the start of this year that games rarely ever reach excellent in voice acting. What's perplexing is that Shadow Tactics both manages to be average and excellent at the same time. The English voice acting is average at best, main characters doing their best but with the rest being simply bad. My advice: always choose Japanese audio. It's nothing short of fantastic. Emotive, fitting with the characters and only adds to the atmosphere. Reading subtitles is a small trade-off for vastly superior voice acting.
It's particularly good as throughout the game the characters really grow. While they may start out as stereotypes, the level of development is surprising, likely the best in the genre since the exceptional World in Conflict. Throughout each level small bits of details will be released, characters will talk about their past, what made them who they are. Even if it's not about anything emotional, little jokes here and there add a little levity, character and world building to what is a deep game.
Shadow Tactics fills a hole in the genre that has long been relegated to the past. Frankly, this is a hole that needed filling, particularly when you realise just how good it can be. Modern stealth games (Dishonored, Thief) all too often leave stealth as a side option for progression, not the core one. This is where the game truly stands tall. It wants you to be stealthy, it punishes you if you aren't, but it always gives you a means of escape.
The major benefit is that Shadow Tactics never repeats itself too much, nor does it reach the point of difficulty that you end up cursing the game. This is what a RTT game should be: interesting, challenging but fair. If you're a fan of the genre or stealth games, this is well worth your time and money. Those not normally interested in the genre should check out the demo because there's a very good chance it'll draw you in.
PC version reviewed. Copy provided by publisher
Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun is a fantastic return to form for the real-time tactics genre, with a particular emphasis on stealth based gameplay. Reminiscent of Commandos, it offers a fantastic tactical approach in a brilliantly designed world that will do more than enough to grab anybody’s attention. Not without its difficulty, it's never too hard that it's unfair.
- Outstanding level and world design
- Colourful and vibrant visuals
- Compelling gameplay with levels that offer a variety of paths to take
- Huge depth of tactical options, combined with stealth based gameplay
- Very difficult and requires frequent quick saving (The game gives you a timer by default, warning you that you haven't saved recently enough)
- Game suffers from minor technical hiccups, such as characters getting stuck on objects