When it comes to games, there isn’t really much you’d find me unwilling to try. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t certain things I look for when picking my next game. One of those things in particular is a good challenge. Whilst I’m happy to sit down and blast my way through a casual game that takes up no more than a few hours of a Sunday afternoon, there’s nothing I enjoy more than getting stuck into a game that wants me to dig down deep into my skillset and throw everything I have at it in the hope that I’ll make it to the next stage.
In recent years there hasn’t really been too much that has been able to give me quite a run for my money like that, besides the deliberately hardcore platformers that is – I’m looking at you Super Meat Boy. Recently that has changed however, as I have had plenty of time to sit down with the latest game to come my way, Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun.
Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun is a hardcore tactical stealth based game that’s played from a top-down perspective, and has a story that sends players back to Japan’s early Edo period amid a civil war. During the game, you take control of an unlikely group of characters as you sneak your way through the shadows of each level to infiltrate the enemy.
There are five characters for you to control. Mugen is a sake-loving samurai and holds the ability to cut down several enemies at once, whilst Hayato is an agile ninja complete with shurikens which allow him to strike without being seen. Next is Takuma, with his pet racoon, a mysterious marksman with a gun attached to one of his legs. He can often be used to take out enemies from a long distance while the youngest of the group, Yuki, is a street child who is able to place traps and lure enemies via the use of a soothing bird call. Finally we have Aiko, the master of camouflage who can distract enemies with her disguises.
All five characters play an important part in the game, but it isn’t until later levels in which you use all of them together, with the early stages playing out with just a few of the characters together until the others are found and unlocked.
Before we talk about the gameplay though, one thing that is very striking early on is the design. Anyone who frequents tactical games will know exactly what I mean when I say that this is a game that was clearly designed for PC. There are some titles that you simply don’t expect to work on console and tactical games are usually up there on the list. Shadow Tactics appears as one such game as it is complete with everything that would normally be a nightmare on console. I’m talking a camera that requires you to turn it manually to see different areas of the map and to be able to find all of the patrolling enemies, manually switching characters which would normally be tied to a shortcut button, and large areas that all feel like they would be better suited on PC.
Fortunately for us, the guys over at Mimimi Productions have done a fantastic job of translating the controls to the Xbox controller and they work exceptionally well. Everything you do in game feels very natural, and utilising the camera whilst moving your characters plays out very fluidly. Whilst the controls are certainly not the reason to be buying the game, they play a big part in how comfortable the game feels to play, and with so many ports from PC feeling uncomfortable to get to grips with, Shadow Tactics is one game that gets it right.
Onto the gameplay then and I think it’s worth mentioning that if hardcore games, or lots of patience and multiple mistakes, are something you don’t cope well with, then Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun is a game you need to avoid like the plague. If the idea of a stubbornly difficult tactical stealth adventure has you feeling excited however, then you may just be looking at the best stealth console option we have seen in many years.
There are three difficulties that you can choose from – Beginner, Normal and Hardcore. As I mentioned earlier I enjoy a good challenge, but if you’re anything like me and like to dive straight into a new game on the hardest setting, you’d better fully expect to be kicked back out fairly swiftly. Even starting on the Normal difficulty is a brutal challenge, but if you hope to achieve any of the games badges which are in-game challenges, then this is where you’ll need to start.
At the start of each mission players are joined by the protagonists for the mission, discussing what the plan is. How you achieve it is pretty much entirely up to you, as although the missions are very linear in their outcome, how you get to the end is down to how you play. If you want to go in using one character to the end, that’s up to you. Although you’re unlikely to succeed. But the gameplay is very open to playstyle, making for plenty of replayability should you wish to approach a mission differently next time.
Each mission within Shadow Tactics is very different from the last, with each objective usually involving a new gargantuan task for players to overcome, such as a prison breakout or burglary. The enemy threat however is very similar with areas overcompensated in patrolling guards, and key areas harbouring unique enemies such as those that cannot be distracted by usual means. Despite the importance of the overall goal in each mission, the real enjoyment comes from each enemy encounter.
All of the enemies within Blades of the Shogun follow specific patterns and to progress past them, you need to disrupt it. This is usually done by killing the various guards in each mission, but simply running in and swinging your sword around won’t be enough. Experimenting is essential with successful missions not likely until you have failed several times over in any given area and picked apart what you need to do to succeed. This isn’t as painful as it sounds however as toying with enemies is rather enjoyable thanks to the various abilities held by each of the controlled characters. The save system in place allows players to save at any moment to ensure they don’t lose too much progress if things go wrong – if you remember to save that is.
One way of dealing with enemies is to utilise Shadow Mode. This is particularly useful when you come to a situation requiring teamwork. In Shadow Mode, each character can be assigned to a particular task such as killing a specific enemy, and then after activating Shadow Mode all characters work in tandem for a lovely showing of brutal teamwork. This is a great way to dispatch large groups of enemies, and allows for some rather extravagant tactics if you’ve made mistakes up to that point.
Throughout the game there are many different variations of enemies, some of which are harder to deal with than others, but how they behave to the player is usually the same. Most can be found with rifles to attack players from long range, and all enemies in the game have their own field of vision. This is represented by a cone which points the way they are looking – if you are found to be too close, the enemy will lock onto you and their alert meter will raise. If this happens they will shout for help before usually closing on your position and gunning you down.
Each of the games environments can also have an impact on how the enemy behaves towards players, with snowy environments leaving footprints behind, which can guide enemies towards the players location. Of course, those with a tactical mind could also use such hazards to their advantage with well-placed traps for unsuspecting enemies.
Whilst there is a story within Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun, it’s probably quite a blessing that it isn’t as full on as many other story driven games. There are only 13 missions within the game, but it isn’t uncommon to be spending hours planning and executing a mission, so remembering exactly what is going on can be quite difficult given the lack of cutscenes and cinematics. That said, the story isn’t a dull affair and with in-mission dialogue between characters also playing an important part and helping to fill in the gaps, there is enough there to understand the purpose of each mission.
Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun brings a particularly brutal challenge, but at no point does it ever feel unfair. With some of the best stealth gameplay I have seen in a game for some time, and unusually large maps to utilise as a playground, there are many hours of fun to be had with this refreshing tactical showing. The controls transfer perfectly to an Xbox controller as well, so this is one franchise that I hope to see more of in the future.