Ever since I first laid my hands on the original Thief I've been in love with stealth games. The constant danger, the thrill of the hunt, and the knowledge that all of your plans can go awry at any second - all of this makes stealth games so much more absorbing than your run-of-the-mill strategy/puzzle game.
As such, it shouldn't come as much of a surprise to hear that I had an absolute blast with Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun - a Commandos inspired strategy game that's all about sneaking around, making elaborate and well-thought-out plans, and then trying to resolve the mess that occurs once those plans inevitably fail. And since that description doesn't really do it justice, allow me to show you why exactly I've spent the past week toying around with Shadow Tactics.
The lovely art design is certainly one of the reasons
Much like the Commandos series of old, Shadow Tactics isn't a game where you control just one character, but rather up to five of them depending on the mission. These characters aren't just your everyday interchangeable protagonists, however, as each one of them brings a unique set of skills to the table. The Samurai is slow but powerful in close quarters combat; the Shinobi is perfectly designed for quick and silent assassinations; the Thief excels at luring enemies into carefully prepared traps; the Marksman does pretty much exactly what you would expect, though he is missing a leg so he's incredibly slow-moving; and the Kunoichi is able to disguise herself in order to distract guards and provide her teammates with a way forward. If that sounds a bit overwhelming, don't worry as Shadow Tactics eases you into things by first giving you missions with only one character, and only once you're accustomed to that will it upgrade you to two, and so forth.
While things become quite interesting when you have an entire cohort at your disposal, even playing as the Shinobi alone is rather satisfying. You have to constantly stay away from enemy lines of sight, take the guards down one by one and dump their corpses into a nearby shrub so they won't be discovered, and then make your grand escape by grappling onto a nearby roof and running off into the night. Even though all of this might seem insanely complicated, doing these sorts of maneuvers is surprisingly easy, mostly because the UI is just that good at keeping you in control. You can queue up abilities beforehand so its never a panicked rush the moment an opportunity arises, enemy sight-lines are marked in such a way that you always know when you're going to get spotted, and best of all, there's even a preview of how much sound your abilities will make so there's never an element of luck there to mess you up. The end result of all of this is some incredibly smooth gameplay, and even though the controls are occasionally clunky I've never had a single moment of frustration due to the mechanics themselves. They just work!
If you can't take care of business yourself, ask gravity for help
This is especially important in the missions where you get to control multiple characters at once, a task that in theory should be nearly impossible given that Shadow Tactics is a real time strategy. But instead of being a hellish nightmare, its actually the best part of Shadow Tactics as combining multiple abilities at once results in such a spectacle that I can't help but stare in awe, shocked that I managed to even come up with all of that on my own!
The reason this is even possible is the aforementioned ability for each character to queue up one action, which you can then execute simultaneously. For example, if you need to eliminate three guards patrolling along a rather well lit route, its probably a bad idea to straight up attack them as you'll alert half of the camp and wind up with more holes than a fine piece of cheese. What you can do instead is queue up an attack command on each of your characters, so the moment you press the button they will all go in for the kill at the same time, and then focus all of your attention on choosing the perfect moment to strike. Once you're in position you should use a couple of distracting abilities to make the guards turn around for a split second, hit the magic button, and then watch three ninjas descend upon the hapless guards with deadly precision, only to vanish back into the bushes the very next moment. Given how hard Shadow Tactics tends to be you're probably going to fail miserably the first couple of times, but once you actually manage to successfully pull of this type of a stunt the feeling of accomplishment will be quite something!
The crew is in position, the targets are set, and the only thing left is to press the button
And speaking of difficulty, it is important to note that I am not exaggerating when I say that Shadow Tactics is hard. Even normal mode which is usually the "so easy its barely worth the trouble" difficulty is challenging enough that you're going to be spending well over an hour per each level, constantly trying out new tactics and approaches. Thankfully there is a Quick Save system, so every time you find yourself at the wrong end of a Samurai sword you can rewind back and try again. In most games this would be considered "cheating", but given how each and every section of the map in Shadow Tactics is essentially a complex puzzle saving is not only important, its encouraged! And if you think I'm just looking for excuses, I should probably mention that Shadow Tactics even has a built-in menu option that regularly lets you know how long it has been since your last save, just so you don't find yourself repeating a difficult section!
But whether you will personally enjoy this type of difficulty, that is a rather... difficult question to answer. I consider Dark Souls to be my favorite game of all time, so I'm obviously a bit of a glutton for punishment, and as such I found Shadow Tactics' difficulty to be fairly refreshing. Sure, I had to constantly repeat some of the more dastardly sections, but I never got stuck for so long that things became frustrating. Although, I must admit that this is mostly due to one big flaw with Shadow Tactics' AI - the guards can easily be dragged a ridiculous distance away from their original position.
The guards love chasing after ghosts into shadowy corners and bushes
The way this works is that if you combine multiple distraction abilities on the same guard, instead of simply taking his attention for a couple of seconds you will be able to pull him as far away as you wish. And once you've dispatched one guard, repeating this process becomes even easier and quicker given that there is now a much lower chance for discovery. Since you have an infinite supply of rocks and whistles, doing this for nearly every single encounter in the entire game is pretty damn easy, and as you would expect, pretty damn devastating on the fun factor.
I discovered this little trick fairly early on, but I tried to refrain myself from using it entirely given how overcoming challenge is the name of the game. However, there are some sections that are just so annoying it feels like the developers expected you to exploit your way through them. I mean, when you have seven guards all staring each other straight in the face, its kind of impossible to get through them without resorting to such cheap tactics. And for me the presence of these 'death corridors' is a massive mistake given that Shadow Tactics is otherwise the epitome of "challenging, but fair".
Reaching that bridge might seem impossible, but through the proper use of abilities its surprisingly easy
One of the reasons these 'death corridors' are so annoying is because the map design favors a sort of linear progression. In other words, even though the maps themselves are fairly wide and somewhat open-ended, you will be progressing through them one section at a time. Given that Shadow Tactics is primarily a strategy game I consider this to be perfectly fine, especially since each area has multiple avenues of approach, but the side effect is that you sometimes simply cannot avoid going through seven guards having a big ol' stare-down.
On the positive side, each and every single map does something new in order to shake up the gameplay. Some simply give you new tools with with you can ply your trade, others introduce vastly different terrain, and some take place during nighttime. None of these things sound terribly important, but in reality they have a massive impact given that different types of weather conditions and terrain actually have a noticeable effect on gameplay. So if there is snow outside the enemies will be able to track your footsteps, if its nighttime you'll be able to sneak around much easier as long as there's not a bonfire near by, and so forth. What this means is that you not only have to deal with the usual stealth game problems, but also a variety of map-specific ones, which all goes towards making each mission feel just a bit more special.
Doing things at night is tricky due to all of the lights, but there are also ways to turn them into an advantage
But the maps aren't just unique in terms of mechanics, they are also unique in terms of visuals, with no two maps looking alike. When you combine this with a not often seen Japanese aesthetic you get some rather lovely locations - everything from snow-swept villages to giant temples nestled in the mountains. The graphical fidelity isn't anything special, and there are a couple of low quality textures hanging around, but from a purely aesthetic point of view Shadow Tactics is quite pleasing on the eyes. And that is a good thing indeed given that you will be spending 15-20 minutes per each section of the map!
And finally, I just want to commend whoever created the five main characters. While the story is about as generic as it gets, the characters themselves are so likable, and so full of personality that I genuinely enjoyed having them around. This is partly due to good writing that manages to make them sound like real human beings, and partly due to the outstanding voice acting that manages to bring each of them to life. Its certainly not an important part of Shadow Tactics, and if it was missing I probably wouldn't even care, but the presence of such strong characters is most definitely a positive thing as it makes the world feel much more engaging, and conversely, much more enjoyable!
Shadow Tactics is an excellent strategy game, and a worthy successor to the Commandos series. Does it have some problems? Absolutely, but none of them were severe enough to dampen my enjoyment. All of the characters are unique and exciting in their own way, there is a good degree of variety when it comes to the missions, and most importantly, it is tricky enough to provide a steady stream of challenging encounters, from the very beginning to the very end.
However, while I had an absolute blast with Shadow Tactics over the past week, I am fully aware that I firmly belong to its rather niche target audience. As such, it is important for me to reiterate this once more: if you cannot handle some deviously difficult puzzles that will force you to restart over and over again, then chances are you will find more frustration than enjoyment in Shadow Tactics. On the other hand, if you're a fan of stealth/strategy games and if hellish difficulty is something you relish, then you may have just found something you can sink your teeth in.