I always enjoy a good surprise and that’s exactly what Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun has been for me. I saw it whilst casually browsing the upcoming releases on Steam and it looked interesting so I figured why not. When I started playing I was immediately taken aback by the depth on display here.
Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun is a top-down stealth game that looks and feels much like the classic Commandos and it does an excellent job of refining and modernizing the gameplay of that series. This is not a stealth game for the faint of heart. You will have to manage multiple characters who all have multiple unique abilities and pit them against varied enemy types with different quirks that you need to be aware of and large viewcones coupled with smart A.I. The fun doesn’t end there though as each stage introduces a few unique hazards to your silent progress. In a snowy level, you will have to be mindful of the tracks your feet leave as you move around. In a dark level, guards won’t be able to see as far unless the area they are looking at is well-lit. In areas where the guards are more oppressive or brutal to the civilians, they won’t go running for the nearest guard if they see you.
Almost every new level introduces at least one or two unique mechanics and this lends each level a difficulty curve that parallels the game as a whole. Everything clicks about halfway through each level. That’s where you get to the point where you’re juggling everything you need to be aware of properly, putting your characters in the right positions at the right time and using your abilities in effective combinations to keep everything moving at a brisk pace. Once you get to that point it feels incredible. Then, it all resets as you have to acclimate yourself to the challenges of the next level, but you still get constantly better at the game in general as it gets more difficult overall. When you get new characters in your party towards the beginning of the game it gives you a level that is well-suited to their abilities to start and then the next level they function much more as a piece of the puzzle. It’s one of the most finely tuned difficulty curves I’ve had the joy of riding along and Mimimi Productions deserves praise for it.
If controlling multiple characters in a real-time stealth game sounds too difficult, don’t worry because the developers at Mimimi Productions have come up with a brilliantly simple solution to a complex design problem. When you crouch in bushes or foliage, you are completely invisible to enemies. This gives you a very natural method to break up the pacing of the gameplay, allowing players to take time to plan out their moves while still preserving the timing that is so integral to stealth gameplay. I don’t want to gush too much but the design prowess on display here is nothing short of brilliant and it shows itself in a lot of these details in the margins, which is exactly where great game design lies. The seams that keep the game together are visible if you slow down and look to see, but the casual observer or someone just playing the game for fun is unlikely to pick out and break down these elements.
There are many other small details that contribute to the game's depth. For instance one of the female characters has the ability to wear disguises. While she is wearing a disguise you can go up to guards and talk to them in order to get them to look at you. You will mostly use this ability to keep their eyes where you want them and off of your other characters moving around in the background, but I also noticed after a little trial and error that the fact that this ability makes the guards stand where they are and talk to you means that you can use it to alter the timing of the guards patrols. Your different characters can drag dead bodies at different speeds, depending on their strength. These details keep piling on to create an incredibly deep game that you will have to use some brain power to make it through.
What you will be doing in the individual missions is varied as well. Some missions you will need to sneak into an area and steal some object. One mission, in particular, had you assassinating a high-ranking officer and the multiple paths through the level and multiple ways to kill him reminded me a lot of a Hitman level. The difficulty curve and depth of gameplay aren’t the only things deserving praise here. The visuals are bursting with color and each of the complex multi-layered maps you will be sneaking around gives the visuals plenty of room to impress. Enemies and allies are all visually distinct enough to give you all of the information you need at a glance. The story isn’t marvelous but the characters are unique and interesting enough to carry the plot which is mostly told through brief cutscenes and character interactions within the level so it never gets in the way of the superb gameplay, which is exactly what I want out of a video game story.
As far as problems with the game go my concerns are mostly technical and are largely forgivable due to the size of the team that created this. I experienced a few glitches like guards getting stuck on level geometry and characters repeating lines, but nothing game-breaking. My biggest issue is the load times. Loading a new level can take upwards of a minute and loading within a level 30-45 seconds. Sometimes more, sometimes less. This isn’t a huge amount of time but the game only has manual saves and involves a great deal of trial and error so you will be loading very frequently and the time can start to add up very quickly. The video options are also a little lacking, but the gameplay customization options are so robust that it's largely made up for as far as I'm concerned.
Those minor gripes aside Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun completely blindsided me by making itself a very strong contender for my game of the year in the final month of 2016. Stating that sentence in the year DOOM was released is one of the highest praises I can sing and I can absolutely strongly recommend that you pick up Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun as soon as possible.
An excellent stealth game with beautiful visuals and incredibly deep, complex and varied gameplay.
- Vibrant Visuals
- Challenging Gameplay
- Excellent Mechanical Depth
- Minor Technical Hiccups