Available On: PC
The recent XCOM reboots may have revitalized the turn-based tactical genre. But there exists an even rarer gem: the tactical real-time stealth game. Combining top-down views, large maps, and enemy viewcones creates an experience I hadn’t seen in years. Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun goes several steps further by wrapping it within a rich, character-focused drama set in the war-torn age of shinobi and samurai.
The First Samurai
Shadow Tactics fully embraces its beautiful but deadly world of 17th century Japan. The story opens as the Shogun takes power to unify the warring country. Instead of playing as the plucky rebels, you play as the Shogun’s defenders against a new rebellious uprising.
While you may play as randomized soldiers in other tactical games like XCOM , here you play as actual characters. There’s Mugen the fatherly samurai and Yuki the unhinged child ninja-in-training. Shadow Tactics features five very distinct characters, each with their own set of realistic abilities and traits. Ninja characters Hayato and Yuki can use hookshots to reach rooftops, while the cantankerous old man Takuma has a powerful long-range rifle (with very limited ammo).
You’ll need all their skills to tackle the large maps and scenarios across Japan. Again, XCOM relies on randomized content whereas Shadow Tactics features carefully crafted level designs full of enemy patrols and multiple paths. Almost each level features at least two main ways to approach an objective. Need to take out a powerful, well-defended daimyo? You can either sneak in and poison his tea, or set Takuma up on a watchtower and lure him out.
The story is a fun and satisfying journey throughout a dramatic period in Japanese history. You’ll be tasked with assassinating enemies, stealing important papers, and rescuing allies. The focus is always on your five heroes and the fun interplay between them. I loved that between each tactical level was a cutscene at a safe-house where our characters bickered and planned their next move.
In the Shadows
Save scumming is the act of constantly saving your game and reloading the second something goes awry. It’s generally frowned upon in gaming, but Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun actively encourages it.
If any enemy spots you they quickly raise the alarm, spawning more guards to hone in on your spot. Nine times out of ten it’s game over. Your heroes are stealth assassins, not warriors. Even Mugen can’t stand up to multiple gun-shots.
Instead you’re meant to constantly quicksave and quickload when things go awry. This motivates you to use trial and error and experiment with your methods. In fact the game actually pops up a warning if you haven’t quicksaved in over a minute – and I’m thankful for it, though I wish it at least auto-saved after cut-scenes.
You can’t pause the action. You have to play very slowly and carefully, monitoring enemy patrols and surveying the open map to plan your moves. You do get a Shadow Mode, which lets you set up a combination of abilities from multiple characters to execute at the same time, such as sneaking up and taking out multiple guards. The controls took some learning as I was constantly moving the wrong character or messing up Shadow Mode in the early game. And one mistake often leads to instant death.
To further the challenge, you won’t even have access to all five characters until much later in the game. Early on your team splits up to tackle various objectives. You have to rely on unique team combinations and abilities to bypass each obstacle, reminding me of the excellent puzzle games The Lost Vikings.
Each level also includes multiple badges that can be earned. It’s a great example of the right way to add difficulty – make it an optional challenge. Badges include not using certain characters’ abilities to not killing anyone in the level. Levels offer a wide range of variety and challenges, from snowy villages where guards can track your footprints to rainy rice fields whose puddles make noise and draw attention. The top-down Unity engine looks strikingly beautiful. Nearly each level has a distinct aesthetic.
Shadow Tactics hasn’t been rated by the ESRB. Enemies die violently and leave behind bodies (which you should probably hide). The story is a very mature tale of war and death akin to an R-rated film.
Given the rarity of the genre Shadow Tactics could have just produced solid tactical stealth gameplay and been a fantastic experience. But to also utilize an awesome historical setting and focus on well-written characters and story make Shadow Tactics one of the most compelling and memorable tactical games you’ll ever play.