Two guards keep watch over their surroundings. A noise takes the attention of one for but a moment. By the time he looks back, his companion has already been killed and dumped in the bushes. He’s going to join him soon. It’s a common situation in the top-down real-time tactical strategy game Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun, a title that proves how much satisfaction can be found in every victory, no matter how small.
Shadow Tactics taught me all the basics at a relaxing pace. In a matter of minutes I was leaping over buildings, distracting guards, and performing silent kills with ease. By the end of the first level, not only had I met three playable characters, but felt comfortable with the controls and style of gameplay.
Victory in my assignment secured control of the land for the Shogun, whose rule brought about a nationwide peace. Naturally, others are still after power, though, and a group led by the mysterious Kage-sama starts to rebel. The Shogun hires a Ninja, Samurai, Sniper, Trapper and Geisha, to deal with matters as subtly as possible. They turn out to be great characters, making up for the unoriginal storyline with interesting dialogue, delivered by great voice actors. I genuinely cared about them, as constantly risking their lives brought about a deeper trust and friendship within the group.
Even though I got to look after three of the characters in the first mission, it was back down to two for the following level. As much as I was excited to discover everyone’s abilities, it was a relief not to think about five characters within a real-time strategy space all at once. Instead, Shadow Tactics‘ difficulty gradually increased through clever guard placement and level design. Slowly building my team during this learning process helped me appreciate what each character could do on their own, as well as how they could be used together in different ways.
While the basic ability types are all relatively similar, I was amazed by how even the smallest difference could completely change a scenario. Having the Ninja throw a stone might not distract guards for long enough, so one could be lured away by the Samurai’s sake, or the Geisha could get them to permanently turn their heads by talking to them through a disguise. The kill could then involve a simple melee attack, or maybe an onlooker first needs to be taken care of with the Sniper’s long-distance shots, while the Samurai’s Sword Wind kills all in its range with one swoop.
When it came down to it, I had 15 abilities to consider for every collection of guards I needed to get past. Despite multiple options, there was no relying on one or two abilities to get the job done. I couldn’t just lob the Ninja’s shuriken at everyone I could see, because it had minimal range, and needed to be picked up in-between uses. Similarly, the whole map couldn’t be picked off by the Sniper, as he had very little ammo. Each ability having its own limitations forced me to think about every move with precise detail.
For the majority of the gameplay, characters all had to be controlled separately, but they could help each other with a joint attack using Shadow Mode. The technique allowed me to prepare one ability per character, then release these at the same time in a flurry of movement and death. Sometimes I used it for a simple tactic, like having the Sniper’s tanuki distract the guard, while someone else killed them from behind. Other times it was a skillful coordination of all five characters to take out a large group of tricky enemies. No matter what the reason, or abilities involved, a successful Shadow Mode was always fun to pull off.
Keeping me constantly challenged was the clever AI. Enemies came in three types; Regular guards – who fall for every trick in the book, Straw hats – that refuse to move from their post so cannot be distracted, and Samurai. These guys not only see through the Geisha’s disguise technique, but are so strong that only the Samurai on my team could kill them without help from a companion. As an extra, maps would have civilians going about their business, who could alert nearby the guards to my presence.
Enemies all had a view cone, that turned yellow if they were suspicious, then red for attacking and raising an alarm – causing extra guards to rush to the scene. Not only did I have to be aware of their site line, but also what they could hear. Running through birds caused them to fly up into the air, and no one dies in complete silence. Careful consideration of both the environment and available abilities was crucial for each situation.
My favorite moments in Shadow Tactics occurred when I managed to succeed after the initial plan backfired. Having to use some serious quick thinking to come out on top was really rewarding. It always happened from misjudging how good the AI were, such as leaving footsteps in the snow, or a body still brushing their view cone, so they were now wandering over to investigate. But oh look, now that they’ve moved, I can attack in the unmanned space, set a trap where they normally stand, or jump out to kill them while they’re inspecting the body. Sweet satisfaction.
There were always safe places to hide and observe, but clever AI placement, coupled with how precise Shadow Tactics expected me to be, meant a huge reliance on the quick save button. It required a number of smooth button presses to distract a guard, kill someone else, grab their body, then drag it into a bush. On more than one occasion I resorted to asking my partner for a literal extra pair of hands on the keyboard, so I could finally nail that one guard with a particularly annoying sight line.
I don’t think I’d ever fully appreciated save states until playing Shadow Tactics. Being able to save at any time really encouraged me to stay patient in tough situations, and keep my mind open to new strategies. It was even possible to load any of the last three saves for those times when I accidentally saved at the wrong moment. As someone who rarely picks up a strategy game, this feature really helped me to appreciate the genre.
Constant saving also made level length less of an issue. While most missions hit around the 2 hour mark, post-mission notes do say that many can be speedrun in about 15 minutes. To me this is proof of how well everything has been designed. Maps are huge with multiple pathways being chocked full of guards, but they can still be beaten in a flash for those really willing to get to know the area and discover the best skills for each moment of gameplay.
Variation in the beautiful locations and designs of the levels themselves meant that I never got bored. As the camera panned over a map at the beginning of a mission, I was always excited to delve in and see what new challenges awaited me.
It’s a testament to Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun that just writing about it makes me want to delve back in. Even the times that I got stuck were still enjoyable, and nothing compared to the flash of inspiration that led to victory. All the different elements just blended together so well that I hardly noticed all the hours go by as I played.
This review is based off a PC copy of the game, which we were provided with.
Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun provides a satisfying challenge, making gamers feel like a badass for even the smallest of victories.