Game Review: Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun

Alan Stock Alan Stock
Expert Contributor
September 29th, 2017

I'm a lover of travel, photography and video games, from the UK. I have worked in the games industry and very passionate about games and their design. Never get bored of them!

Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun is a real-time tactical stealth game out now on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. Alan Stock dodges some view cones to bring you this review for ComiConverse.

Shadow Tactics is an easy game to sum up: it’s Commandos in feudal era Japan. Although I never played the old game Commandos, after hearing of its similarities, I checked out some videos of it. The similarities between the two games are immediately obvious. In both you control a squad from a top down view in real-time, sneaking around enemy bases and patrols and avoiding their view cones - infiltrating bases, luring out and assassinating guards. Even the interface is very similar.

Shadow Tactics Viewcones

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This is far from a bad thing. Commandos was a good game, and there have been few other titles that have tried to replicate its unique take on real-time stealth tactics. Shadow Tactics takes the formula and refines it. Set loosely in the samurai Edo period of Japan, when guns were wielded as ready as katanas, you command up to five infiltrators. You can only control one at a time but switch between them at will. Each of your crew has their own special items and abilities, mainly in the form of attacks and lures. Mugen, a samurai, can kill multiple enemies with his sweeping blades, Tacoma has a sniper rifle, Aiko can wear a disguise, Yuki can lure with her whistle, and so on. The game’s plot has this motley crew of assassins hunting down a rebel warlord for the Shogun, told through cutscenes and in-game events.

Shadow Tactics Night Market

The game’s large levels are attractive, colourful and detailed - fully populated with lots of enemies, civilians and animals. The setting makes for a vibrant selection of locales including castles under siege, mountain shrines, lush forests, rice paddies and snowy villages. The 3D environment allows for vertical movement (Commandos was 2D), sneaking on rooftops and along ropes is a great way to stay out of view, but beware of enemy watchtowers. Although the view is from above, you’ll often need to rotate the camera as every side of the levels is used. Despite the high level of detail in the game making it visually busy, a handy button highlights interactive objects such as enterable buildings, bushes to hide in and climbable vines to make planning your infiltrations easier.

Shadow Tactics Castle Highlights

 

Enemies in Shadow Tactics all have visible viewcones indicating what they can see (you can only view one at once but can switch between them at will). If you are unsure if a spot is safe, you can drop a marker - dotted lines reveal which enemies can see it. Light sources, cover, height and whether you are crouching all affect how much the enemy can see, but it’s always clear. This is calculated stealth - and with patience and practice you become adept at plotting routes through viewcones and planning around their movements. Guards are stationary or patrolling but investigate sightings or disturbances, and get will hunt around if suspicious or altered. If you are outright spotted, the alarm is raised, you’ll be shot at, and hordes of reinforcements will arrive quickly - meaning certain death if you don’t escape and hide in time. If one of your character dies it’s Game Over.

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Shadow Tactics Rice paddies Sniper

The stealth gameplay is tight in its focus. Level design is excellent, with careful enemy placement, patrols and outposts. Observation and planning is vital, but with no time limits there is plenty of time to execute your infiltrations. As the game gets more advanced, enemies are covered by their colleagues by multiple angles and patrols, meaning there are no easy kills. The environment has many interactive elements. Some of it helps you: bushes and crops to hide in, rooftops to traverse, water to swim in, boulders to push on enemies - making it look like an accident. Others are hazards, chickens which squark if you disturb them, puddles which make noise, footprints in snow which can give you away, and so on. Add to this multiple level objectives, different enemy types and optional objectives for added replay value, and there’s a great deal of complexity here.

Shadow Tactics Cutscene

 

Fortunately, you have plenty of tools to deal with the hazards ahead. Distraction in Shadow Tactics will be your main crutch - luring enemies out of position or making them look the other way whilst you sneak by or assassinate a lone guard. Thinning the crowd is the best tactic, picking them off one by one until there is a safe route through. For more difficult scenarios, the Shadow Mode mechanic is invaluable. This neat idea allows you to queue up single commands to teammates and then execute them all at the same time with the press of a button. You use this to have multiple teammates work together. A typical shadow step might be: Hayato throws a rock to distract a civilian, whilst Takuma snipes a now-unwatched lookout, at the same moment Yuki jumps off a roof to stab the remaining guard. There are many tricky scenarios to deal with, but lots of ways to approach them using various abilities and the aid of Shadow Mode. It’s just a shame that Shadow Mode only allows one command to be queued at a time, limiting its usefulness. Say all your characters are out in the open after the Shadow Mode is over, now there’s no way for you to get them all to safety as you have to cycle between each one and move them yourself.

Shadow Tactics Shadow Mode

Overcoming the well-designed encounters in Shadow Tactics is incredibly fun to begin with, but like many stealth games, the issue of failure rears its ugly head. In the early game, getting spotted is bad, but redeemable. If you get away with your life, enemies pour out of guard huts nearby, comb the area, and then replace most of the guards you already took out, plus some extra patrols. This is still manageable and adds challenge, plus an obvious punishment without a game over. However, the game quickly ramps up in difficulty, and then getting spotted is basically a death sentence. There’s very little margin for error. Your characters will quickly die, or enemy activity will be so intense after your blunder that you might as well reload. You will likely be quicksaving and reloading a ridiculous amount in the later stages - it’s really easy to miss small things and make mistakes. Maybe a distant guard was just in visual range of the guy you stabbed, a patrol arrived at the worst time, or you skimmed a vision cone too closely. And although experimenting with ability combinations and Shadow Mode is a big part of the game, when the punishment for failure is usually death, then it takes the shine off a bit. Load times are fairly quick but the constant grind of “mess up, load, try again” gets immensely tedious. The game could have done with a less punishing fail-state, or at least instant loading times.

Shadow Tactics Snow Footprints

Although there are lots of good ideas here, Shadow Tactics does start to wear thin after a time. It’s a long game, although there are only thirteen levels they each take hours to complete. After about half the game, you’ve seen most of the mechanics it has to offer. Although the core gameplay is good, it gets repetitive. No new enemies types are introduced to spice things up, and although level design remains good, you will generally be using similar tactics again and again to isolate and take out enemies. Lure a guard from the crowd, thin the numbers, repeat. Even with the variety of character abilities on offer the gameplay starts to feel samey. Shadow Tactics does an admirable job of providing replay value, with lots of interesting challenges you can return to achieve in each level, but by the end of the game I didn’t feel any urge to go back. It overstays its welcome, despite the quality of the core experience. New ideas, enemies or scenarios would have helped to breathe life into the later stages.

Shadow Tactics Tightrope Walk

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Still, as stealth games go, Shadow Tactics is one of the best I have ever played - and certainly the purest. It has a great stealth system with complex but predictable rules, bringing the tactical focus come to the fore. Shadow Mode allows you to pull off some supremely satisfying chain of events - watching your plan come together with perfect execution at a button press feels great. Getting through levels without being spotted, and meeting extra mission criteria is very rewarding. It’s a shame about the game’s punishing fail-states and the repetition in its latter half - and on consoles the control scheme is quite awkward. But overall Shadow Tactics is a quality, polished title in an engaging setting, and not since the days of  Tenchu have I felt like such a ninja. Back to the shadows for me.

 

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