Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun on PC
There’s a guard keeping stubborn watch over a gate; he’s wearing a wide-brim hat, which means that he isn’t easily distracted by noises (just go with it), and will not leave his post unless he sees an enemy. He’s flanked by two other guards; these guys aren’t wearing hats – the fools! One is distracted by an enticing bottle of sake; the other is curious about a noise he heard from around the corner. A silent and mercifully non-lethal clobbering for the sake-chaser; a less lenient dagger to the throat for the noise-investigator.
Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun is both a love letter to Commandos 2: Men of Courage and Desperados: Wanted Dead or Alive, and a perfect mix of stealth and strategy. You control a team of stealth operatives on a mission to bring about nationwide peace and the behest of a new Shogun in Edo-period Japan. The game’s master stroke is in its combinations.
First combination: Stealth meets real-time strategy. One thing that players love is to not only make decisions, but to see the impact of those decisions – it’s surely the lifeblood of the medium. We like to have control; we don’t mind if there is some chaos, but we have to be able to navigate reasonably well, and we need to understand the rules of the worlds that we jump into. Rules like our hat-wearing friend there never leaving his post – this ended up working against him as a skulking shinobi named Hayato sidled up to him from the periphery, safe in the knowledge he wouldn’t budge, and slipped a blade into his skull. The RTS elements introduce an exhilarating degree of control. The overhead view is perfect for taking in a wide spectrum of the obstacles in your way, and it also paves the way for the game’s excellent titular mechanic.
Second combination: the mixing of different characters’ approaches into one elegant plan of attack. Entering Shadow Mode allows you to issue multiple commands to the different characters at your disposal, before hitting the enter key and watching the action unfold. It feels similar to the Dead Eye mechanic in Red Dead Redemption – you paint a portrait of death over the canvas of your environment, and watch as it all sleuths and slashes into fruition at the touch of a button. This extra layer of control and planning enlivens the stealth and refines what stealth gameplay really is – it’s a puzzle. Stealth play is about surveying the pieces on the board, marking out a plan of attack and executing that plan as best you can; you might think that filtering it through an RTS lens might sieve out some of the chaotic messy fun of having to move and shoot and leap yourself. Not so.
Third combination: Order and chaos. Little moments of random, or rather unplanned, behavior put your stratagems and your reactionary instincts to the test. Perhaps you were caught in the eye line of an unseen guard high on a balcony; you might not have hidden that poor, clobbered guard’s body as well as you thought; or maybe you miscalculated the patrol route of a samurai – those guys aren’t to be taken lightly. The trick is that these have a wonderful ripple effect on your squad, as it means you will often have to reshuffle one character due to another’s mistake. Small adjustments on-the-fly and strong reflexes can conjure some frenetic and exhilarating play. In the midst of chaos, there is also opportunity.
Of course, the game wants you to make a plan and stick to it, sometimes so much so that it can get a little nagging. A prompt pops up if a minute goes by without you hitting the quick-save; it turns yellow and eventually red, constantly reminding you to take stock of your actions. The game rewards the meticulous, and though there are dozens of ways that any one scenario can be beaten, the quick-save mentality will entrench players within their instincts and encourage them to nail their execution. One may know how to conquer without being able to do it. This can lead to some infuriating sequences where you know precisely what needs to be done, but executing it perfectly – and perfection is almost always what is required – will take many, many tries. But at the same time, when a plan could do with a tweak, the options are myriad for the tinkerers out there. It’s in this regard that the game has such replay value. Death-dealers, merciful sleuths, non-lethal thumpers, and silent assassins – truly, all things to all men in Shadow Tactics.
It is a little ironic and more than a little irritating that Shadow Tactics slips up in its execution. When beginning a level, the initial loading time is outrageous. Over two minutes outrageous. Things are speedier once the whole level has been prepared, but I made a cup of coffee at a leisurely pace once to come back to the same loading screen. That isn’t hyperbole, I promise.
On top of this, the game crashed on me more than once – a hard, straight-to-the-desktop crash – and there are some frame-rate jitters during more intense and cluttered scenarios. A glitch at one point warped my samurai warrior Mugen through a door whilst he was attempting to whelm a cadaver in shrubbery.
Final Combination: visuals and sound. There are numerous reasons why Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun is easy to keep coming back to; putting gameplay to one side, the look and sound of the game is very nice to be submersed in. Some great colorful voice acting gives each member of your squad a vivid identity all their own, and the game’s shifting score accompanies every scenario perfectly. The one gem to be salvaged from the game’s long load times is the delightful score that plays during. The vibrant cel-shaded environments are gorgeous. Each level stands out from the last, be it an autumnal garden smoldering in browns and rich reds, or a leafy, damp forest flush with swaying bamboo shoots and trickling water.
Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun will have you plotting the art of war like a master tactician. You will forge elaborate plans and test them in the fires of a a beautifully realised Edo-period Japan. Sealing each successful maneuver with a tap of the F5 key will become like signing your signature on a war document, and you will learn the importance of perfect execution. Small issues with the game’s execution unfortunately hold it back, but it’s still an excellent stealth game and an engaging strategy game dressed in sumptuous finery.
Score: 4/5 – Great