[Disclosure: A review copy was provided for the contents of this article]
Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun is a tactical, stealth action game that blends the theme and feel of Tenchu with the gameplay of the often forgotten Commando‘s series. Yes, despite its instantly forgettable title, Shadow Tactics is actually much more interesting than you might first have thought. Whilst the isometric view and real time, tactical gameplay feel like throwbacks to a bygone era, they fit beautifully with the setting of the game, which is built upon the classic vision of Feudal Japan, albeit interpreted through a semi cel-shaded art style.
The difficulty level and potential for frustration are similarly old-school in feel as well, and players who expect to rush around slicing enemies to bits at will are in for quite a hard time. Shadow Tactics requires measured, cautious play, and even the toughest player character – a Samurai named Mugen – is vulnerable to prolonged combat with multiple enemies. This is partly because of how Shadow Tactics feels to play, with slow, deliberate controls and context sensitive attacks. In truth, it isn’t designed as a fighting game. Instead, players use the individual and widely varied skills that Mugen and the rest of the five person team have available to them to gain an advantage.
I really enjoyed the variety of characters available in the game, both from gameplay and thematic perspectives. There is the aforementioned Mugen, who is a master swordsman that is unrivaled in single combat and dangerous against small to medium sized groups of lesser, unarmored foes. He also has a bottle of Sake, which he can use to lure enemies out of position (and usually to their demise.) He is a bold, honorable and likable character, and the idea that he often has access to a drink is absolutely no surprise. By contrast there is Yuki, a young girl who is just as bold, but filled with nervous energy and often, remorse at having to kill her enemies. Her skillset is less focused on direct combat, and more on luring enemies with her birdsong and killing them in a trap that she can place.
The player has access to a further three characters to include Hayato the Ninja, Aiko; the mistress of disguise, and Takuma, an elderly man who comes equipped with a sniper rifle and a little animal pal that is capable of distracting enemies. The enemies themselves commonly comprise of bog-standard peasant soldiers armed with muskets that are easy to kill, but dangerous if they happen to spot you first. These guys also appear on occasion with melee weapons, and as a hat-wearing variant that is immune to distraction techniques. There are also a range of samurai who pose an immense threat to anyone aside from Mugen, and can even see through Aiko’s disguise if she moves close to them.
This band of brothers (and sisters) is formed over the first few missions, but Shadow Tactics does a fantastic job of introducing them organically and as part of the interesting, low key story that is built around the rise of a new Shogun, shortly after he successfully unifies Japan. Unfortunately, despite this newfound peace, there is always someone out to cause trouble, and of course, Mugen is sent to deal with it. It isn’t long before the bigger picture is revealed, and in the style of a good Kurosawa movie, nothing is as you might expect.
Across the thirteen story missions, Shadow Tactics dishes out its plot across every bit of a hard fought twenty five or so hours, with perhaps a few hours variance depending on difficulty and skill level. I played on normal, but I also tried a couple of missions on beginner and hardcore, and yeah, hardcore is exactly what it says it is, whilst beginner helps a little albeit at the cost of any opportunity to earn badges via the in game reward system. This kind of game is so rare nowadays that I actually forgot how difficult the likes of Commandos and Desperados were, even if I did love them. I almost always found a “fair” way to proceed in Shadow Tactics, but one of the best things about games like this is that you’ll often use characters in such a way that you’ll think you’ve outsmarted the game, when actually, you’ve simply achieved one of the four or five ways to get past a given challenge.
The other challenging element in this game is the controls (and predominantly the camera) which can only be panned and zoomed whilst holding the right trigger. Every other function – attacking, carrying enemies, jumping and so on, is fairly well handled considering that Shadow Tactics was originally a PC game. Some of the combinations of holding the left trigger, aiming with the stick and then hitting X to throw an object can be a bit fiddly, but never game breaking. I found the game a bit slow to begin with if I’m honest, but once you realise that the gameplay relies much more on careful planning than on reaction time, you’ll be able to reconcile the way the controls are set up in turn. A feature I did like here was shadow mode, which enables the player to set up one character to move and take one action at the click of a button, which you can activate whilst using another character. This is indeed a very simple inclusion, but a powerful one that is essential as you progress further.
All in all, I found Shadow Tactics to be a very satisfying game. It has a great story, excellent characters and, should you wish, Japanese voice acting which really enhances the level of immersion with English subtitles. The graphics are nicely detailed and solid, although a better zoom level, a camera lock button and a better control method would have been appreciated. The controls a decent enough, and the level of content on offer is much higher than most similar priced games will offer, with lots of level variety. Where Shadow Tactics really shines is in the gameplay, with a very enjoyable mix of stealth, action, tactics and planning all used to great effect.
I’d probably often go with a “Try It” recommendation for this kind of game due to its lack of universal appeal, but you have to get off the fence sometimes, and I actually think you should: