Ever since infiltrating Shadow Moses at the ripe old age of 10, I’ve always had a soft spot for stealth-based games. If done right, they can be some of the most thrilling and rewarding experiences in interactive storytelling. Lately however, it feels as though many developers crowbar a stealth mechanic into their action game just to tick off another genre when it comes to marketing. Thankfully, Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun is a shining example of how great a sneaky game can be when it’s afforded the care and attention this type of game deserves.
As almost all of the entire Assassin’s Creed fan base will tell you, Japan during the Edo period is the perfect setting for a stealth game. In a world populated by shoguns, samurai and ninjas, you play as a rag-tag team of companions performing wet work for the benevolent ruler of the land. The simple but surprisingly well-written campaign takes you all across the country, trying to thwart a plot to overthrow the unstable union of the warring regions. Each of the 13 missions gives you a varied combination of the five main characters and tasks you with utilising their unique skills to eliminate targets, steal important documents and rescue hostages in distress. The different abilities of each character and the changing lineups within the levels mean that you have to play each mission differently, rather than rely on a comfortable favourite. It’s actually a lot of fun to analyse a situation and decide how best to execute the multitude of enemies standing between you and your objective. The three ninjas Hayato, Yuki and Aiko can throw a mid-range shuriken, lay a trap and lure a guard into it or disguise themselves as a geisha and seduce a group of enemies respectively. Mugen the Samurai has a powerful, circular death spin capable of eviscerating multiple goons at once, and octogenarian sniper Takuma can pick off targets from across the map (or send out his adorably enthralling Tanuki to give them something cute to look at before he wastes them).
A weapon to surpass Metal Gear!?
One of my favourite parts of Shadow Tactics is the approach to level design. Despite similar gameplay, each mission feels totally fresh and different, thanks to the gorgeous and varied environments and the multiple pathways to achieve your goal. The isometric point of view and the free-floating camera allows you to see the whole map at any time and from any angle, which is great for planning your actions or just taking in the beautiful scenery. In one level, you leave traitorous footprints in the snow-covered ground and in another, you have to skirt the balance of light and darkness to avoid being overwhelmed by a wave of bloodthirsty soldiers. Even the colour scheme of each location has been thought about carefully and reflects the tone of both the characters and the overarching narrative. Your band of merry mercenaries is fully voiced in Japanese and English, and their banter throughout the levels serves to further the story and provide insight into their lives and motivations, which is fantastic because missions can take anywhere from 20 minutes to multiple hours, depending on how stealthy you want to be.
Another great feature of Shadow Tactics is the quick save/quick load function. Although it’s a staple of PC games, finding one in a console release is both refreshing and a godsend. It allows for fast-paced trial and error, which is very important for a challenging, tactical stealth game such as this. It even provides you with a handy timer, so you know to hit that quick save button before taking any big risks (although this can be turned off if you prefer to live dangerously). There have been similar mechanics in other recent stealth-based games, like the Dishonored series, but none have made it as easy, or as fast to utilise.
Four flavours of feudal Japan
I absolutely love the isometric P.O.V. and although the free-floating camera allows you to fly around the map, it’s frustrating that the game doesn’t include an option to follow your currently selected character. It can be very disorientating (and deadly) to sprint past an enemy’s view cone, only to find yourself off screen and in the middle of a group of angry men with pointy spears (although maybe you’re into that). I find it surprising that this option has been omitted since a lot of the other UI elements and the controller map can be adjusted to suit your preference. It’s definitely not a deal breaker but it does take some getting used to and even now I still find myself struggling with it occasionally.
Shadow Tactics also includes a cool mechanic called Shadow mode, in which you can organise and coordinate your characters actions before executing them simultaneously. It feels pretty amazing to orchestrate a grand tactical game plan, but I found myself rarely using it due to some minor drawbacks. Shadow mode only allows you to perform one action per character, which means although you can sneak up and kill multiple enemies at once, you are then standing out in the open with a corpse at your feet, with no way of getting everyone back in cover quickly. It also operates in real-time so it becomes almost useless in a pinch and I feel like it could have benefitted from pausing time while using it, or at the very least slowing it down.
Hey man, be honest with me….is there a ‘kill’ prompt over my head?
Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun is a fantastic game and a sterling entry into the stealth-action genre. The diverse mission paths and level challenges (including speed and no kill runs) encourage multiple playthroughs and the cast of lovable rogues makes for an enjoyable romp through feudal Japan. Shadow Tactics has been available on PC since last December but the recent release on consoles allows for a much wider audience to experience this lovingly crafted tactical espionage action game. I highly recommend picking it up and living out the dream of being sneaky ninja. Or Samurai. Or Geisha. Or even an old man if that’s your thing.
Reviewed on PS4