Sense of Wonder
The older I get, the harder it is to find a sense of wonder… In my games. Sad but true. Sure, there’s plenty of fun to be had, but finding that one game that really clicks and creates those rare hours of complete gaming bliss? Those are next to impossible to find. There are so many derivative games treading the same old ground in the same old tired genres. This is the case with every genre, be it 4X or FPS or puzzle (match three anyone?), and I won’t even get started on the mobile market. Thankfully, every year a game or two lights up my Awesome Meter™ like a Christmas tree and gives me that distinct, nearly indefinable glow of happiness.
Last year there were two such games. My first brush with this sense of wonder was Stellaris. I loved it for a lot of reasons, warts and all, but mostly it just felt right – like a good game should. Interestingly, many of my favorite games have been flawed masterpieces, like Dragon Age: Origins or Deus Ex: Human Revolution. I’d also call Stellaris a flawed masterpiece, but Paradox are slowly turning it into a true masterpiece – thanks guys!
Anyway, my second brush with wonder came, fittingly enough, at Christmas. On a whim I downloaded the demo for Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun. I played it on Christmas Eve and was immediately blown away. I quickly dumped some Steam money on it and, well, here we are. So yeah, early spoiler, Shadow Tactics is great. But..
… What is it?
Shadow Tactics Defined
Shadow Tactics is an old school real-time tactics game. Remember the Commandos series? They’re a bit older now, but they were quite popular in the late 90’s. Commandos put you in charge of various special ops soldiers during World War II. The game featured real-time tactics, each soldier had different abilities, and you had to rely on stealth and planning because death plagued your every step. That is to say, you could die really, really fast. The series is still known for this unwavering difficulty.
Since the Commandos series died out, that type of game has become quite rare. I didn’t even suspect Shadow Tactics was a real-time tactics game until I downloaded the demo. Actually, I didn’t know what to expect, it really hadn’t been on my radar until I saw the game on my Steam storefront. The art looked great, and there was that rare demo. Nevertheless, swap the WW2 setting for a wonderful Japanese Shogunate backdrop around the Edo era, drop in a diverse crew of samurai and ninja (to mention just two of the five character types), then wrap it all in a beautiful modern package, and BOOM: Shadow Tactics is what you get.
And I do mean beautiful! Head to toe, this game is stunning. Each level has a different setting and tone – from castle walls to high cliffs – but they are all painted with an eye for color and detail. The animations are outstanding. Tree branches wave in the wind and leaves blow across dusty mountain paths. Cows chew grass and swat flies with their tails. Samurai stalk impassively while peasants scuttle about washing clothes or attending to gardens. And everything runs like a dream on my aging rig, even on the highest settings.
The music is also beautiful and perfectly evokes Japan in my estimation. Taiko drums thrum and rumble, bells tinkle as cymbals rise and harmonics echo. Composed by Filippo Beck Peccoz, the soundtrack is both traditional and modern. It’s altogether exceptional and worthy of separate purchase. On top of this, the sound effects are great, and the English voice work is excellent. As an added bonus, you can also choose to play with Japanese voices, which is a nice touch.
[Five and a Half] Samurai?
Well, not quite. Instead of a samurai, you actually start the game controlling a ninja named Hayato – a lone shinobi employed by the Shogun himself to infiltrate a rival’s castle at Osaka. Hayato is taciturn and happy to work alone. He can dispatch enemies with a melee strike or use a shuriken from afar. He can also throw stones in order to briefly distract enemies.
Hayato eventually runs into Mugen during his mission at Osaka Castle. Mugen is an armored samurai, strong enough to lift and carry two bodies at once (you’ll carry lots of bodies, this is a stealth game after all). He’s not nearly as stealthy as Hayato, and his ability to go vertical is limited. Despite that, his swordplay is deadly. His best attack is Sword Wind, an area-of-effect (AOE) series of strikes that can take out multiple enemies simultaneously. It doesn’t work on fellow samurai because, well, they’re samurai. He can also place a bottle of sake on the ground in order to lure an enemy into a certain area.
At the very end of the first mission Takuma arrives (in an awesome fashion), and you get a small taste of his abilities. He’s a surly old cripple with a penchant for sniping. His rifle is deadly at range, especially if he can find an elevated position from which to fire, though ammunition is often very limited. He can also throw grenades, taking out many enemies in a single area, but they are of course VERY LOUD.
Takuma also has a subordinate character of his own named Kuma – a tamed tanuki, no less! Takuma can send his little friend to an area and have it do tricks in order to garner the attention of all the enemies in a large area. Then plink!, right in the noggin – or you can lure them to your other characters for a more silent death. Good stuff.
Hayato meets up with Yuki at the beginning of the second mission. She’s a young thief who wants to become a ninja… And she also believes that everything is actually asking to be stolen. Yuki wants Hayato to teach her his skills. He’s – of course – not a big fan of this notion, preferring to work alone, but allows her to tag along. She turns out to be quite useful. She is just as stealthy as Hayato, relying mostly on traps to kill silently and then dragging her foes into a nearby bush. She can also blow a note on her flute in order to bring nearby enemies to her position, great for luring them into her traps.
Lastly, you meet Aiko, an old “associate” of Mugen’s. She’s a capably stealthy character with her hairpins and her sneezing powder, but her best ability is disguise. Aiko can find disguises while on missions, don them and walk freely about the map. While in disguise, she can scout the mission area. She can also engage guards and civilians in conversation, locking their view to her and keeping them in one spot. Samurai, however, can see right through her subterfuge and will quickly attack.
The tale is straight out of a Kurosawa film, or even a James Clavell novel. The story in Shadow Tactics goes that someone is plotting against the Shogun, a shadowy figure known only as Kage-same. He is a secret enemy of the Shogun who wishes him dead. No one knows who he might be, least of all the Shogun, so your team has been tasked with finding out. Eventually the conspiracy grows into an insurrection and I won’t spoil much more than that. It’s an engaging and enjoyable story with just enough mystery to keep you playing. The characters are stereotypical but they are fleshed out and interesting. The dialogue during the various cutscenes is quite good. Also, the banter during missions is funny and illuminating.
Going All Yojimbo
So Shadow Tactics looks good, it sounds good, and it’s full of character. But how does it play? Quite well, though with a couple of caveats.
Shadow Tactics is split into missions with short cutscenes between them. You venture from a castle to a village to a prison and more. The missions can be very tough. Thankfully, a wonderful system for saving and loading is in place. You hit F5 to quicksave and F8 to quickload. The game keeps your three most recent quicksaves in memory. You’ll need them! There’s a ton of trial and error in the missions, and that’s half the fun. At least the quickloads are very fast after the loooong initial level load. Funnily enough, there’s even the default option of a timer to remind you how long it’s been since you last hit the quicksave button. You can toggle this timer off in the options menu. Still, any game that goes to the trouble to implement such a feature is already telling you something about how difficult it might be. If even a single member of your crew dies, it’s game over!
Most missions require you to sneak around, use cover to stay hidden, and slowly work your way toward the objective. You can kill everyone if you want, or you can stun your enemies and hide the sleeping bodies. Or throw them over a cliff, or toss them into a hut. You have options!
Fortunately, you can mostly concentrate on the enemies in a small area. For example, if your crew takes out the five baddies outside the gate, then you can sneak inside and worry about the next batch of enemies. These feel like smaller puzzles that fit together to make up the large mission map; however, these aren’t puzzles with a single solution. The beauty in the design is how open these seemingly simple puzzles can be. Again, you have options!
There are also badges – smaller map objectives, some of which are tied to Steam achievements – that encourage you to return to a map and try different paths and solutions. These badges are hidden from you before and during your very first play of a mission, which I like, but they are great for replayability. Some of them are insanely tough, like having to finish a mission in a very short time or not use Takuma’s rifle during a certain mission.
In addition, most missions add wrinkles that keep the gameplay fresh. For instance, the Imai Town mission is set in the snow. Enemies are able to see your footprints in the snow, and they’ll follow them to find you. There are secret tunnels in another mission, giving instant access to a variety of locations once you find the entrance. Many missions also offer more than one route to finish an objective. In one mission you have to assassinate a local lord – you can snipe him with Takuma or poison his tea with Yuki. There are also oxen with proclivities for kicking enemies to death if you pelt them with a rock at the right time (the animal, not the enemy), or rocks that sometimes fall and kill without warning – they just take a wee nudge.
The enemies are also diverse. Basic soldiers are easily distracted and wander around on simple routes. Straw Hats carry rifles and cannot be distracted by most means, but will certainly call for help. And their rifles seriously hurt when you’re seen. Bullets are like that. Samurai, on the other hand, cannot be killed with most melee attacks, unless you’re Mugen. They can also see right through Aiko’s disguises. The game mixes and matches the various enemies to good effect.
There’s also a Shadow Mode, accessed by pressing a key, that lets you set up a single move with each team member. Keep in mind, there’s not really a pause option in Shadow Tactics. Shadow mode lets you set up intricate ambushes and combinations that would be nearly impossible with normal reflexes. Maybe if you have 300 APM, but not this reviewer! Anyway, once you’ve set up each crew member’s move or attack you can use number keys to activate the moves in any sequence or you can just hit Enter and every member will do his thing simultaneously. It can be seriously gratifying when you see your crew go into action and in a split second, five guards are dead in three different areas. Love it!
While it all may sound a bit mechanical on paper, it works well in the game. The missions are lovingly crafted and fun. However, some of the mechanics of getting around the map can be cumbersome at times. Mostly, this comes when you have to navigate at different heights, like around varying levels of a castle. When you click to move on a balcony the game will often think you’re clicking on the hook on the other side and drop you to the ground, or that you’re clicking on an enemy on another level. The fully three-dimensional camera controls help with this but it can still be frustrating. There’s also the option to highlight enemies and objects with a press of a key. Unfortunately, you can see highlighted objects through buildings and walls and the game often thinks you’re clicking on something that’s two floors below where you’re actually trying to click.
Also, if you’re not patient, Shadow Tactics may not be your game. There’s a lot of hiding in bushes and on rooftops, watching the movements of the guards, and thinking about what tactics you’ll need to employ in order to overcome them. You can’t charge through a map like a madman, even if you’re Mugen, although he’d get further than most. Still, if this waiting and watching and figuring out puzzles isn’t your thing, I’d definitely steer clear. That said, when you do figure out a brilliant solution and finally pull it off, it’s an amazing feeling of accomplishment, so it can certainly be worth the time.
Ultimately, Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun is a refreshing breath of tactical fresh air. Eschewing the strategic portion of games like XCOM 2 for a linear set of tough missions, the game relies on the scenarios and the characters to tell the story. There’s no RPG element either, no playing with stats and items between missions. The meat of the game is in the gameplay itself, whether you’re pulling off a daring combo with three or more characters or you’re just silently creeping up on a lone guard. It’s a blast. I’m definitely happy I stumbled onto this gem and I hope it gets the recognition it deserves. Both old-timers who remember the Commandos series and younger players alike are sure to find a lot to like in this amazing game.
TL;DR: Shadow Tactics is an amazing blast from the past. It’s lovingly detailed with great characters and dialogue and a ton of charm. The gameplay, while often very puzzle-like, is still quite open, offering more than one viable solution at every step. Pulling off a sweet combo with two or more characters and hiding the bodies before anyone is the wiser is a great feeling. The different missions are also very replayable, with some options (and achievements) looking well-nigh impossible at first glance. It takes a lot of patience, particularly in the latter levels, but Shadow Tactics is a great strategy game.
You might like the game if:
- You love Japanese culture and cinema
- You don’t mind quickloading a lot – I mean A LOT
- The Rubik’s cube is your best friend
- You like a game to test your patience, in a good way
You might NOT like the game if:
- You’re not really into Kurosawa – but you might still dig it!
- You hate having to constantly quicksave
- The Rubik’s cube is your biggest enemy
- You’re not at all patient
Chris reviewed Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun on his own copy and has played 20+ hours on an Intel Core i7-4790 CPU (3.60GHz), 12GB RAM, nVidia 4GB GTX 745.