If you were even mildly considering purchasing Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun, well then, let me convince you why this is one of the most stellar stealth titles of 2016. I do not jest; this game comes overflowing with high levels of immersion, and has a slow, methodical elegance in its gameplay that will delight anyone who appreciates ninjas, traditional combat, and careful, tactical manoeuvres that take time, cunning and ingenuity to execute. Shadow Tactics is Mimimi Productions’ next endeavour following 2014’s The Last Tinker: City of Colors, and boy is it a vast departure from Koru’s adventure through Colortown. Shadow Tactics is like an edgy second cousin that jumped straight out of a Japanese history book, and I don’t think I’ve come across a game quite as engrossing in a very, very long time.
It seems like this a pretty divisive topic amongst gaming brethren and sistren, but let’s just say Shadow Tactics is not ‘stealth optional stealth’; On a scale of Call of Duty to Hitman, this would be Thief. This is a hardcore stealth experience where outwitting enemies and remaining unseen is crucial for survival. There is no option to withdraw your trusty pistol if you become frustrated at the slow-paced nature of the game, because the AI is OP, you are UP, and that is precisely the point. Waiting, and sussing out the environment to plan an intelligent attack on your foes are the highlights of Shadow Tactics, and when you get it right, it’s pretty phenomenal. For instance, Mugen the Samurai is armed with a bottle of sake, which he can use to distract certain guards by appealing to one of our most primal reward systems: pleasure. In which other game can you lure the AI with the temptation of alcoholic beverages?
Then there’s Hayato, the low key ninja who comes equipped with a lethal shuriken, which is especially useful for targeting enemies from a distance. He’s lightning fast and deadly quiet, and can propel himself onto roofs to evade wandering eyes; The AI are pretty sharp, and will catch onto anything suspicious, like perhaps you left a dead body lying around. If you don’t cover your tracks, guards will definitely notice.
Across the course of the game, different characters will reveal themselves to you, like the wild child Yuki, sharpshooter Takuma-san, who is basically the Japanese equivalent of Deadshot, and last but not least, Aiko, a master of disguise who camouflages as a geisha to distract enemies, and simultaneously proves that women have been using their charming ways since the 1600’s.
2. A rich, immersive look at Japanese History
The missions in Shadow Tactics are all set against the backdrop of the Edo period, a time when ninjas, samurai and shogun were firmly entrenched in the vernacular. There isn’t a smartphone in sight, and people are still using wagons and horses instead of checking out that souped up Chevrolet that just drove past. So while the world of Shadow Tactics is centuries away, the locations are real, the names are real, even the ancient Japanese dialects you hear in game are all very real. On the first mission, you need to infiltrate Osaka castle and pass through yagura mon, a gate which is heavily guarded by unflinching samurai. The next mission sees you through Nakasendo, which is the actual name of one of the five routes connecting Kyoto to Tokyo (Modern day Edo). Here you need to seize an illegal transport headed for Kyoto, but it certainly won’t be easy. Every mission rides on a wave of historical information, and manages to balance enjoyable gameplay along with it.
3. Brilliant characterisation
Not only do these heroes have exceptional voice acting, but they all have living, breathing personalities that will make a quick impression on you. All these characters are likeable, whether it’s the stoic Mugen, eccentric Takuma-san or sassy loner Hayato, and there’s a good chance you’ll have a soft spot for one of them. And the way they interact with each other is just priceless; Yuki is keen to impress Hayato with her acrobatics, which she apparently learned from ‘alley cats’, but he’s the classic, dismissive older brother type common in many anime, and is too busy mocking her general lack of strength. Best of all, there is an option for Japanese audio in addition to English audio. Naturally, there are subtitles displayed on the screen, so if you’re looking for a truly authentic experience, I recommend sticking with Japanese audio.
4. Amazing artistry
Upon launching the game, you’re greeted with a partially animated menu screen that is just pure talent, but your heart will beat just a little faster at the beauty of the in-game environments. Such ornate, meticulously crafted landscapes and world maps are awesome to behold, and teamed up with the atmospheric soundtrack, create an irresistible draw that instantly pulls you into the story. What’s more, the tiniest artistic details, like footprints on the snow, are often entwined with gameplay mechanics such as guards being able to follow the trail you leave behind.
5. Fresh perspective on an old-school genre
There is one specific ability in this game which has an absolutely tremendous influence on gameplay. I haven’t seen it used to such effect, which is most likely due to my relative inexperience with strategy titles, but what I’m referring to here is the ability to rotate the camera. It gives you major insights into what’s happening around the corner, so not only do you have a better understanding of the scope of your plan, you can also see hooks, bushes and climbable objects that weren’t previously visible. Just imagine being able to do this in other isometric games like Age of Empires! There’s also a zoom feature, which is more standard, but also useful. The different visual perspectives add such a rich layer to the overall game design, and fit in with the structure of the missions seamlessly.
Shadow Tactics is a wonderfully immersive, historically rich strategy game that you can soak your mind into for hours on end. Its sheer authenticity, engaging gameplay and astounding aesthetics complete the package and make it a true classic. Could anyone have predicted that we’d round out 2016 with such a brilliant, dark horse of a game? Perhaps not. That is the point of being stealthy, after all.
Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun is now available on Steam (PC, Mac and Linux). For those who want to test the waters before diving in, there’s also a free demo.