Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun Review
PCAlso available on Apple Mac, Sony PlayStation 4, Microsoft Xbox One and Linux
Welcome to Edo-era Japan! You are a crack team of talented individuals supporting the Shogun as he fights off a group rebelling against his recent reunification of Japan following a long period of civil war. This is the basis for Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun - an RTS that takes the mechanics of the classic Commandos series and transports them through time to the world of Shogun: Total War. Your clandestine activities shall prove vital to restoring peace, ending the rebellion and bringing the wretched villain, Kage-sama, to justice. You will need to pick your way through rebel camps, mountain prisons and lantern-lit cities to track down leads on the whereabouts of the rebel leader and intercept weapon transports to reduce his strength. That is, obviously, once you have examined every possible enemy view cone and tried five different approaches and failed each time.
Shadow Tactics is terrifyingly engrossing. Each mission is built very strongly, posing a different challenge each time (as well as several minor challenges set both by the game and, often, by yourself) that lets you flex your tactical skills and gives you plenty of room for feeling flashy at the same time. Spotting and unpicking patrol routes and fields of view is an act of patience and creativity. You will misstep, and often, provided your approach to playing tactical games is anything less than that of a grandmaster surveying a chess board. But it never tests that patience and it always rewards your creativity. Successfully unpicking a guard post and the overlapping view cones of patrols gives you a great sense of fulfilment - like detangling a heavily knotted set of headphones. There is never a sense of the game cheating or pulling anything unrealistic. You will see where you went wrong or what you missed and you’ll typically know what to do next time. Or, at least, you’ll have a new plan to try. Creeping your way across a map feels deeply satisfying, whether around or through enemy patrols, as you make a sneaky sprint past a samurai or pull off a choreographed assault on a guard post. And then you’ll look up and notice a whole day has passed without you noticing.
To take on these missions, Shadow Tactics includes a cleverly equipped and more cleverly balanced team of agents with individual skills that each offer unique solutions to mission obstacles, but it is the ways in which you can combine abilities that success hinges on. Your team of characters - Hayato the shinobi, Mugen the samurai, Takuma the sharpshooter, Yuki the thief and Aiko the kunoichi - cover a good mix of disciplines and their unique abilities provide some powerful weapons in bypassing enemy guards, but using them effectively absolutely depends on coordination between the various combinations in each mission, as well as a touch of creativity in exploring how each skill can be used. The clever Shadow Mode gives you an opportunity to set up one ability for each character in advance to use at once or in quick succession at points where timing is key. You will rely on this often, synchronising attacks with each other or with a well-timed stone throw to make the most of the brief moment of distraction this provides. Yuki and Mugen are walking ambushes; Aiko is the queen of distraction. Playing around with combining these characteristics is not only key to progression - it is also really fun. You’ll find the occasional obvious solution and helpful hint in the early levels - the big rock balancing precariously over a mission target, for instance - but this is a useful warm up for when the game leaves you entirely to your own devices in dismantling the guards blocking access to a general’s camp. Missions have a variety of solutions and routes through the maps, and each challenges you to explore the various combinations of character abilities in order to reach your target. It feels very clever and very busy, supporting different play styles as well as replay value.
There is an intimidating balancing act involved with Shadow Tactics’s character set. On paper, many of the abilities that grant a character an extra edge could easily prove too powerful were it not for some clever limitations. Abilities need to be used with caution - bearing in mind cooldown times or the need to physically retrieve items before a second use - and, vitally, in coordination with other abilities. No-one going off on their own will manage for long. As an example, Takuma - with his tanuki sidekick and lethal creative streak - has the capacity to nullify any problem single-handed. The range on his rifle gives him the ability to affect huge areas of the map and barely generates any noise, letting you just click to clear routes with little threat of reprisal. His tanuki, Kuma, offers a method of distraction, and a powerfully effective one at that. Set Kuma to work and he will roll about chirping and generally acting cute, drawing in guards apparently quite starved for entertainment. Not only are these guards now looking the other way, but they are also clustered together making them a prime target for Mugen’s sword wind or Takuma’s other weapon, a grenade. He is the most direct and straightforward means of attack, but in balance, he is also the the most restricted in terms of movement.
The end of the tutorial sees Takuma’s position hit by cannon fire, costing him a leg but providing him with an excellent opportunity to be creative - his rifle is put together from his wooden leg and walking stick. Clever though this may be, this requires him to be stationary when firing, prevents him climbing anything more challenging than a ladder, and makes that firearm in his false leg a somewhat noisy addition to his running. Line of sight has also been very well modelled within the game, requiring you to find a good spot for Takuma to nest up if you need him to take a shot. And ammunition is limited, ensuring you have to choose wisely when picking your targets. To get the most from Takuma, you need the others to help him through the map by clearing pathways and diverting attention, or to draw enemies into his range. Shadow Tactics does a fantastic job at maintaining that difficult balance between fun abilities and good challenges and Takuma sums that up perfectly.
Mechanically, the game is incredibly well built and balanced and that’s definitely the good news for anyone looking for a strategy game in a format that has been short of new entries since Commandos and Desperados. With many stealth games and RTS games out there, Shadow Tactics offers something somewhat unique whilst combining the two genres in a very nice challenge. But, above all this, these testing puzzles are presented in an absolutely gorgeous and compelling package. Visually, the game is lush. Maps are vibrant, colourful, organic and packed with personality. Animations add real character - Yuki will sit on the floor stretched out whilst waiting for commands, before unleashing a vicious flurry of attacks with her dagger in order for her to bring down her much larger foes. The practical aspects are well designed - colour-coding your characters clearly and distinctly and giving you a clear picture of enemy behaviour and points of access. A highlight tool is available for the more cluttered areas, showing up boxes, hooks for climbing and doorways either occupied or vacant. Building range from tiny farm shacks that look ready to blow over in a slight breeze to the grand, towering castle that sets the scene for the final showdown. From packed streets strewn with paper lanterns - showing off the game’s lighting rather well indeed - and a beautiful bath-house filled with colour and greenery to the harsh, snow-covered, mountainous prison that feels desolate and isolated, proving to be an ideal setting for one of the major emotional points in the story.
Which is the most unique and compelling aspect of Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun - the story. Storytelling tends to be something of an afterthought with RTS games. Typically, you get a general idea of the world around you and some funny quips from your units but the focus is purely on how you can overcome the obstacles of a mission and your characters are nothing more than tools for proceeding through each objective. With Shadow Tactics, it feels like narrative was much more important a consideration in development. Unavoidably, that focus on the mission is there for the most part. But, through the cutscenes between missions and the little sound bites during the missions, you see not only the developing drama around Kage-sama and the rebellion but also genuine character development and chemistry that is really entertaining and remarkably moving at times.
The characters are fairly archetypal. Hayato is the stoic mercenary, Mugen the honour-driven swordsman. Eventually, they have a discussion about motivations. It’s familiar ground but it is hard to deny the charm and character that these little interactions are absolutely stuffed with. Mugen’s joy when bringing out the sake to lure over a guard never failed to bring out a smile and Takuma’s shifting tone between friendly, cryptic mentor figure and vengeance demon incarnate certainly kept things interesting. Through this, the story really adds some vitality to the core mechanics. What starts as a fairly calculated objective to root out the rebel leader becomes deeply personal, which feels rather unique for this genre. You will laugh, you will cry and you will care about what is going on as it impacts on the gameplay. The twist might be obvious to anyone who has witnessed any form of fictional drama and the characters may have come out of a catalogue, but Mimimi Productions have turned the parts into a very strong whole and created a world that feels worth spending time in.
The game isn’t without its hiccups. Missions take an absolute age to load up, something you are warned of at every loading screen. Quickloads are, mercifully, much quicker, which you will be thankful for considering just how much you will come to reload after raising an alarm. There was the odd bug that cropped up - Kuma getting stuck in a ladder and requiring a reload in order to get free stands out - as well as a full crash at one point. But the vast majority of the time the game ran really smoothly which is remarkable considering how much was often going on around the maps. The game was rather finicky about ledges when trying to get a character to jump or throw something down. The pathing in the game does not account for jumps, so you need to find the exact spot to do the desired action. Most of the time this was easy to get but occasionally, often during somewhat urgent situations, these icons just wouldn’t show, leaving you holding a dead guard out in the open just as a patrol comes round the corner.
But there really was little to complain about. Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun was an incredible challenge wrapped in a pretty package and hiding a really engaging story with a surprising amount of emotional weight. It also feels quite a fresh idea in combining two quite well-explored genres, requiring some impressive physical and mental dexterity in coordinating movement as strategy. Once you complete each mission, a list of additional challenges open up, offering something else to aim for in additional playthroughs, or simply giving you the opportunity to loudly exclaim ‘you want me to do what?!’ before inevitably giving it a go. Such is the attraction of the puzzle this game puts before you.