Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun is one of the best surprises of the year. A tactical stealth game that draws inspiration from greats like Commandos, which debuted in the late nineties Shadow Tactics, proves that if done correctly, these types of games can and should thrive on the market and work just as well on consoles as they do on PCs.
In Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun, you take control of five unique characters tasked with protecting the Shogun and eliminating his enemies for the glory of Japan. I was surprised to see just how much story there is in Shadow Tactics and how well it’s presented. It doesn’t tell a grand story in any way, but it accomplishes what it needs to through character conversations during missions and pre- and post-mission cutscenes.
Shadow Tactics for all intents and purposes is a stealth game. You can, of course, try and go in and fight and kill all your enemies by force, but you’ll die rather quickly. When I first started Shadow Tactics, the first impression I got was “oh my god, it’s an isometric Tenchu.” The developers at Mimimi Productions expertly crafted a world where you can pretty much do anything you can think of in order to to get to your objective while choosing to either kill everyone that gets in your way or simply sneak past them.
As a stealth game, you’re able to climb on rooftops, sneak through bushes, swim and hide underwater, and distract your enemies with various tools and abilities. Each of the game’s dozen levels presents an objective, and how you get to that objective is up to you. Multiple paths exist to the same destination, and it adds plenty of replay value to the game. Much in the way that the Hitman games set up its scenarios, there are multiple ways to get the job done.
With so many different ways to reach your objectives, each of the game’s five characters play drastically different and call upon their different skills and abilities to get through certain tasks. Unfortunately, you won’t get to choose which of the five characters you bring on each missions, since they’re predetermined for you. Utilizing their skills is where the fun comes in.
Hayato is your ninja, he can throw stones to distracts enemies as well as throw shurikens to kill from a distance. Mugen, the samurai, is your heavy hitter, who’s able to kill up to three enemies in a group and lure guards with saki. Yuki is great at setting traps and luring enemies to her position, springing her traps. Aiko is able to disguise herself as a servant or a townsfolk and distract guards as well as blind them with sneezing powder. Takuma is your team’s sniper, specializing in long distance assassinations and able to use an adorable tanuki to distract guards.
As you can see, each character specializes in unique skills that you’ll take advantage of during your missions, and there are plenty of opportunities to utilize their abilities for special kills. Hayato can throw a stone at a bull, which will get angry and kick a guard that just happens to be standing next to it. See some explosive barrels? Simply have Takuma shoot them from a distance, taking out groups of enemies. Situations like this are present throughout every mission and require the right timing to execute. Another great ability allows you to execute multiple actions with different characters at the same time.Shadow Mode allows you to set up actions of multiple characters to execute at the same time. You can even eliminate two guards at the same time or lure one into a trap while another character kills his buddy after he’s distracted by a bottle of saki.
As I mentioned earlier, the developers virtually thought of everything. Guards are not so easily duped, and enemy placement can sometimes mean having to take drastic and timely actions to execute. Each enemy has a view cone that you can see by simply tapping on the left D-Pad and moving a cursor to see what they’re able to see. The view cone acts much like the view cones enemies have in a Metal Gear Solid Soliton Radar. These cones consist of a solid section and some lined sections. The lined sections mean that a guard will not notice you if you’re crouching but will see you if you’re standing up and running, while the solid part simply means they’ll see you and go on alert. Guards respond to loud noises. Footsteps on water or heavy footsteps on wood alert them. In one level, they even see your footprints in the snow and follow them to your location, adding just another thing for you to watch out for.
You also face off against a variety of different enemies. Guards with straw hats won’t be fooled by your lures or distractions, and samurai can’t be killed by anyone other than Mugen or if they’re stunned first. The enemy variety changes fast throughout the game, and your tactics have to evolve with them. The missions may seem impossible at first, but if you stick with them, the satisfaction of getting through them without ever being seen is pure bliss. One of the problems I faced is the trail and error of some of the objectives. You can plan for everything to go perfectly right, but somehow you get spotted by a rifleman on a rooftop that you didn’t think would see you, throwing all your plans out the window and forcing you to restart your save. It’s frustrating for sure, but thanks to the game’s fantastic save system, where you simply tap the Touchpad to save, returning seconds after you were spotted is so much better then starting the mission from the beginning, especially since some of the missions can last up to and hour or two to finish. What’s even better is you’re constantly reminded at the top of the screen how long it’s been since you last saved.
The major thing that hurts Shadow Tactics is its controls. It took me well over a few hours just to get a hold of the controls let alone master them. The biggest problem comes from the 360-degree camera. The Right Analog Stick shifts the camera, but in order to rotate it you must hold down the R2 button and rotate it with the Right Analog Stick. L1 allows you to switch between your character’s abilities, while R1 allows you to switch your characters. It sounds simple enough, but believe me: When you’re in the heat of the moment, it gets pretty confusing what button you’re pressing and what angle you have to be at just so you don’t come out of cover or fall of a bridge.
Graphically, Shadow Tactics is gorgeous to look at. The open areas are packed with detail, from battle ridden castles to snow covered towns. It has a great level of detail, even though some of it is hard to see due to the isometric view. I wish there were more music to the game, though, as most of it was fairly quiet–unless, of course, you got spotted.
Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun hooked me from the moment I made my first kill. Its stealth and tactical execution is one of the most satisfying experiences I’ve had in a very long time. Even when I failed–and I failed a lot–I loved every moment of it.