Mimimi Production's stealthy strategy title almost snuck past us, but luckily we caught it just in time.
Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun is a single-player, real-time stealth strategy game set during the warring states period in Japan. The player controls up to five different characters in order to complete a map's objectives, all while its inhabitants go about their routines. Main objectives are fairly straightforward, but there are several hidden objectives unique to each map that the player can discover as they explore. Completing each map reveals the hidden objectives you didn't uncover, and there are three levels of difficulty, which encourage tackling the map in different ways later on.
Using point-and-click movement and contextual activation, a character can sneak through bushes, fall from the rooftops to take out enemies, topple barrels, throw boulders, and other environmental and character-dependent actions, in addition to a list of five hotkeyed abilities unique to each character, which include a basic attack and an area-of-effect ability. Each of them also can toggle to non-lethal versions of specific attacks, and some of the attacks are stronger or ineffective against certain enemies. Non-lethal is a legitimate approach for non-assassination missions, though be warned that victims tend to recover pretty quickly. Line of sight plays a huge role in the game, with patrols having vision cones that show what they can see, with the outer portion allowing crouching characters to go unnoticed. You can click on a single enemy to see their cone, and place a marker on the ground that shows you all of the characters who can see that point at any given moment. Kill a character in front of another guard, make a loud noise, not hide a body in time, or not get out of a character's field of vision before they notice you, and they will alert their fellows, prompting a hunt that takes patience or quick thinking to avoid.
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As with most stealth games, patience is a virtue in Shadow Tactics, and as such some players may not enjoy observing environments and patrol routes, or not just rushing in and trying to take out everyone at once. There are moments, though, when this is possible; in addition to area-effect attacks, the game allows coordinated, pre-planned actions from each of the team members that can be executed with a single key-press. As for the exploratory nature of the game's problem-solving, interactive elements in the environment can be highlighted if you like, and the characters' banter will sometimes give you clues as to how to proceed. A hallmark of a good stealth game, in our opinion, is how flexible the game is with player blunders and unconventional solutions, and Shadow Tactics does permit a good degree of creative problem solving and impromptu changes in plans, although the game is far from a sandbox, and can be very unforgiving. Even on the lower difficulties, save your game early and often and expect to load a lot.
Every time you start up the game, the first loading of a full level takes a while. The screen prompt says a minute, but on older machines this may be several. Once loaded, the map is full of detail resembling a David Macaulay book, an intricate machine that the player must pick apart or sneak through. The sounds and music are evocative, and we used the Japanese language audio with subtitles, which are well-acted. There are times when depending upon subtitles that you will miss what was said, especially at the end a mission when you're not allowed to review prior conversations anymore, and simple statements from characters are not subtitled, but each character has enough personality to help elevate them above a simple list of abilities.
While it's called Shadow Tactics, we found that taking a strategic view worked much more often than quick tactical decisions, the latter often resulting in unforeseen consequences requiring a do-over. There's nothing wrong with this, but it can be frustrating at times to think you're almost done but still require several more obstacles to be circumvented that you'd rather just muscle your way through so you can finish. There are items later in the game that allow for easier passage, and some player-character abilities let you get through quicker than others, but sometimes the player may want to take a breather or even a break if they find themselves a bit flustered.
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The fully rotatable map is great, but buildings and other environmental props can sometimes obscure contextual clicking, which can be extra demoralising when you knew what the character should do, but it a building altered the context of the click. You can make the camera do quarter turns, or increment the turn to see down alleyways, but sometimes it's not easy to fiddle with the camera when your character is being hunted. Same goes for quick thinking to save a character from being caught, you may tell a character to do something, but they will go about it in a way that exposes them to a guard's line of sight, or their uninterruptible animation takes too long, or a character doesn't crouch after a specific manoeuvre. Practice helps prepare you for some of these idiosyncrasies, but given how many ways all the elements can interact together you can find a new frustration every once in a while.
Other than a few repetitious dialogue-related bugs and the aforementioned annoyances, the game is often thrilling and clever. When your team manages to pull off a mission it's quite satisfying, and their banter during missions and brief cutscenes, when you manage to catch them, allow for some fun characterisation. The different character powers might make one character more of a favourite than another, but most frequently maps will play to characters' multiple strengths. For example, the more physical samurai is unsubtle and slow, but can take out heavy targets or large groups, while quicker characters can climb easily, but may need the samurai to deal with tougher enemies unless they can work together. Character powers vary enough that several approaches are possible, whether by methodically terminating hapless guards or by avoiding patrols entirely. Once primary loading is done, the reloads are relatively painless, only a few seconds long, and the multiple quicksave slots and manual saves help you backtrack if you screw up badly. The campaign missions vary enough that, while you'll see repeated elements from time to time, maps are always adding complications and advancing your knowledge. They feel like they've got just the right amount of increasing challenge, while each maintains its individual character.
Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun is a game that surprisingly feels perfectly at home on consoles. No surprise perhaps as it has always been developed with a controller in mind. Nevertheless, there is a multitude of button and radial menus to keep track of as you command your blades with a DualShock 4 or Xbox One controller. It's clear that Mimimi has been pushing the limits of what can fit on a controller as resetting the camera involves pressing both R2 and R3 on your DualShock 4. From a technical point of view loading in the maps takes a little longer than we would have liked, but there's no loading mid-level so it falls within what's acceptable. In terms of the visual fidelity, the game shines more in terms of design rather than technical merit. This is a genre that has largely been overlooked in the last decade, even on PC, so to say that Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun offers something missing on the console scene is an understatement.
Shadow Tactics is an accomplished and stylish blend of action and stealth that's tough but fair, requiring diligence and curiosity from the player instead of mere brutal efficiency (though there's a place for that in here too). While there might be annoyances, there are also interesting challenges, new contextual effects, and item interactions to keep you engaged. You can't do absolutely everything, but the game's measured approach, like a well-prepared meal, leaves one feeling sated after every level is finally completed.
8 / 10
Lively characters with interesting abilities, Beautiful maps full of detail and interaction, Well-honed game mechanisms.
Requires patience and perseverance, Quick thinking sometimes thwarted by obstructions or unexpected behaviors, Prepare to save and load a lot.