Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun Review
Keep an eye on the Samurai
A deadly plan is about to be executed. Yuki, the youngest in a squad of stealthy assassins, will act as the bait. Yuki will carefully position herself along a patrol route and use her footprints like a trail of breadcrumbs. It does not take long before a patrolling guard sees the fresh trail in the snow and begins to pursue. Yuki runs, just out of his view, around a building and into an open area. The guard follows and takes just one step into this exposed area before an old assassin fires his sniper rifle with incredible accuracy. Ordinarily this would kill, but this is a no normal guard. This is a Samurai and he is merely stunned. Before the Samurai can recover, a third assassin emerges from the darkness and finishes the job with a brutal melee attack. The guard's lifeless body falls onto the bloodied snow and Yuki's trail of footprints vanish into the night.
Yuki takes the elevated route to her next objective
The above snippet is just one of hundreds of encounters in Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun, a game focused on the tactical planning and neutralization of enemies across expansive levels. Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun is an isometric, real-time, tactical, squad-based, stealth game that shares a lot in common with the Commandos series. That particular series hasn't been active since 2003—not counting the first-person entry. Fortunately the team at Mimimi Productions was sick of waiting for a proper sequel and have taken it upon themselves to produce a spiritual successor that shares some core foundations with the Commandos series, in a different setting.
Set in feudal Japan during the Edo period, players will command a newly-formed squad of five unique characters that work for the Shogun in a time of relative peace. Unfortunately that peace is under threat by a mysterious foe that leads a rebellion in hopes to overthrow the Shogun. While this rebel leader's identity is a secret, the threat is real. To aid the Shogun, the unconventional squad will use their sneaky abilities to steal information, overhear conversations, kidnap VIPs, and eliminate conspirators. They'll have to get their hands dirty—and their blades bloody.
The five squad members working for the Shogun have different skills. You've read about Yuki—she's a young thief with the ability to set traps and call guards with a whistle. Takuma is the old sniper, and despite his crankiness he can throw grenades and use a pet Tanuki to distract guards. There is also Hayato, a ninja mercenary who can throw a deadly Shuriken or briefly distract with a stone. Mugen is the leader of the ragtag group, and he can either use his sword to kill multiple enemies or place a bottle of delicious saké to lure foes. Finally there is Aiko, who can wear disguises to walk freely among her enemies before stabbing them in the back and throwing their body into the bushes.
The differences between the squad members are not just from their main abilities; subtle changes are important given the strategic time constraints. For example, Yuki can only slowly drag bodies while crouching whereas Mugen can run and carry two at once. Hayato can perform the quickest melee kill while Takuma is the slowest when running due to his injured leg. These differences need to be taken into account as they can lead to victory, defeat, or Seppuku.
That's one way to hide bodies
During missions, the idiosyncrasies of these characters' personalities are also exposed. Character histories and their motivations are slowly revealed via crisp dialogue, cut scenes, and animated sequences between levels. The squad forms in the opening missions of the game, and there is some disagreement. Over time, a strong bond develops and characters become likable due to their attitudes, rather than their proficient ninja skills. The consistent yet subtle delivery of story proves additional reward as levels are completed.
Players will utilize the strengths of characters in thirteen sizable levels packed with foes. Although most levels do not feature the entire squad—typically players only control two to four pre-selected characters—the levels are designed carefully around their abilities. Guards are everywhere and some will patrol repeatedly. Each guard has a view cone, with a light-green area that will detect any incursion and a dark-green area that can be crawled through. Although it is possible to run through view cones, spending too long in one will result in detection that brings trigger-happy reinforcements to search the area thoroughly. Detection often results in damage taken by one or more characters, and killing the irate guards or trying to hide without further injury is near impossible; any character death is a mission failure and limited health packs make detection a problem best avoided. Only one guard's view can be observed at any time, although a placeable marker will detect those currently looking at that position. Avoiding the view cones, or acting between their sweeping movements, is crucial when completing levels.
Each level is a sandbox of sorts, as guards can be taken down with a multitude of options and from different directions. There are accidents—boulders, icicles, plant pots, and crates—that will dispose of guards without bringing reinforcements. Bushes can be used to hide bodies or as points of respite to formulate the next move. Roofs can be scaled by most of the squad for navigation or aerial attacks. There are no interior spaces—buildings act like linked hiding spots—but doors to huts are good places to dump civilians, who cannot be restrained and tend to run for help after waking up in a rice paddy with a headache. Often the levels have two or three main ways to complete objectives, offering good replay in addition to the challenges and difficulty options. It is possible to kill every guard in each level, although it may take hours. Patience is rewarded; waiting for the right time to attack allows the squad to go undetected as the levels are wiped clean.
Just as players will learn the quirks of each character, they will need to learn the differences found in some levels. The game introduces a few excellent stealth-orientated oddities on a per-level basis. One of these is footprints in snow that can betray your position or provide an endless source of lures that vanish after a brief time. Another appears during night missions, where view cones are greatly reduced, lights can be extinguished, and straying into the light will get you caught quicker. Although the sprawling levels are designed well enough to not require such modifications, they are a refreshing addition that keeps players learning new tricks and applying knowledge.
It is easier to sneak through view cones at night
Due to the careful level design and extensive guard placement, completing levels is a challenge. Typically it is a matter of finding guards that are isolated or infrequently observed. Breaching can feel like a never-ending process of tracing enemy view cones backward until one guard reveals himself as an easier mark. The margin for error is tiny; characters need to be placed precisely and skills need to be used with just seconds to spare. Once you break through, the other guards may fall like dominoes. While the challenge is great—and a fun way to spend hours—some chokepoints are a bit rigid and force predefined solutions. The upside is the perfect guard placement across all levels, allowing just enough time to chip away at a steady pace.
The design of the levels makes it advantageous to keep the squad close together. Apart from Takuma, who is more useful sniping from an elevated and distant position, keeping the others grouped ensures that any situation can be handled by the best character for the task while the others provide backup. That's not to say the squad does not divide and conquer. Outside the missions that force their division, splitting up to eliminate guards facing each other is common.
This is where Shadow mode comes in handy—it allows players to assign a single order to each squad member that can be executed simultaneously at the press of a button. Assigning orders in Shadow mode does not pause the action, and sometimes you will need to watch several patrol loops to ensure the plan will function correctly. This mode is often used to execute Samurais, since Mugen is the only character that can take them in a direct fight. Performing a flawless Shadow mode execution of three or more guards, after carefully positioning all characters, never gets old. Shadow mode is nearly essential, but it just makes things easier since you are not dealing with several buttons and mouse clicks in a short time span.
Shadow mode makes a dual Samurai kill a mere formality
All this action takes place from an isometric view, but the world is fully three dimensional and nicely rendered by the Unity engine. Japanese buildings, tents, wagons, pagodas, oxen, and other geometry provide appropriate occlusion for all the sneaky action. For the most part, the world design matches the occlusion, but one building failed to stop a view cone from bleeding underneath. Changes in elevation also make view cones harder to interpret, and the final sequence featured a multistorey building that was good at blocking camera views and not much else. You will need to rotate the camera frequently to get the best angle, as clicking on foreground objects can mess up a good plan.
Fortunately the game is polished and nearly technically flawless. Initial load times are long, but quick save and quick load are fast enough given their frequent usage. Levels are packed with detail, like colored lanterns, noisy chickens, secret passages, cherry blossoms, and gunpowder barrels. The AI is decent, searching areas well aside from a few jerky movements. The effective Japanese music fades nicely into the background during long missions, although there are a few powerful rolling compositions in some levels. Audio is subtle and infrequent, but all sounds are high quality. It is clear that a lot of care has gone into this game's development as each piece feels refined.
Don't get detected
Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun demonstrates that the Commandos style of gameplay is timeless. And that not only do we need more of it, we would be fortunate if Mimimi Productions were at the helm. Their Japanese squad-based stealth experience is as challenging as it is satisfying, rivalling a series that is now a fading memory. It has immaculate level design, exacting guard positioning, and a pet Tanuki that is cute and helpful. Sneaking through hordes of guards and eliminating them with the smallest margin for error does not get much better. We also get to do it with five likable and diverse characters that makes for a thought-provoking tactical experience. So clean your blade, the Shogun needs help and Yuki has a plan.