Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun

December 12, 2016 by Samuel Wicks

Tactical stealth-- really good tactical stealth-- in medieval Japan.

Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun

Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun is a title that inspired me to think of noble samurai defending their Daimyo from hordes of evil ninja. I expected Kensai ‘sword saints’ and deadly ninja doing battle on a tactical map in the style of XCOM, perhaps with Chi Wizards summoning up dark forces of Oni to present me with a greater challenge. I didn’t think I’d see a thoughtful game in which combat should be avoided at all costs, and in which the heroes had quite down-to-earth abilities. I definitely didn’t expect to see quite so many muskets.

Shadow Tactics is set in Edo period Japan, a time known for its isolationism and general internal stability. It’s a time period when Japan was ruled by a series of leaders holding the military title of Shogun, rather than the divine title of Emperor, and is the basis for many stories set in “Medieval” Japan. Despite my initial reaction to the title, everything I’ve seen of the game so far takes the setting somewhat seriously, while still allowing itself to have a little fun.

Allowing a little fun. Takuma-san, master sharpshooter, tries to think of another Haiku Allowing a little fun. Takuma-san, master sharpshooter, tries to think of another Haiku

Mechanically, Shadow Tactics’ focus is on stealth. It’s much more Invisible Inc than XCOM, with the additional caveat that it takes place in real time, not in turns. Initially, this worried me. I’m not a big fan of real time strategy games; I like to be able to think and plan before executing orders, and I’m not comfortable having to do so on the fly. Fortunately, Shadow Tactics didn’t take that away from me.

Like many stealth games, places to hide are plentiful and enemies are predictable, so you have time to look around you and plan your next move. The game makes it easy to see where guards are looking at any given time, and where their blind spots are, so you always know whether or not you’re safe. Hiding under a bush or behind a wall lets you catch your breath and take a look around, planning your next set of moves in peace. Although it’s a real time game, the flow of action still makes it feel as if it were turn based. Take an action, pause for thought, see what happens and then begin planning your next move. It’s methodical, but not slow.

That didn’t stop me from messing up frequently, though. I ducked behind cover where I thought I was safe only to have a guard finally come round on his extremely long patrol route, or tried to silently assassinate someone when I didn’t realize guards could see me from the other side of the courtyard. Luckily, the game is quite forgiving, making it easy to quicksave and quickload at any time. In fact, the expectation is that you’ll be doing just that, and the game has a prompt to remind you if you haven’t quicksaved in over a minute. You can turn it off in the settings, but for me it was a godsend, often popping up just after I’d finished a vital move and reminding me to save so that I didn’t have to go through it all again.

The quicksave prompt. A godsend for people who keep messing up and having to reload. The quicksave prompt. A godsend for people who keep messing up and having to reload.

My failures always felt like my fault as well. That’s important in a game like this, where one mistake often means game over. If anybody in your party dies, you lose the mission, and being spotted almost always means being killed. If one guard has time to alert the rest, there’s basically nowhere to hide, and there’s no fighting your way out of the situation. Mistakes are almost always deadly, but at the same time, they’re almost always avoidable if you have the patience to plan properly and know what you’re doing.

A major tool in the game is ‘Shadow Mode’, a form of command queuing that allows you to plan and implement bigger, more complex strategies. Ordinarily, you can only control one party member at a time, but that’s not always enough to get the job done. Shadow mode lets you give a single command to each party member, which they’ll carry out simultaneously at your command. Say you want to take out two guards at once without giving either a chance to react; shadow command two characters to attack, then watch them work in concert to perfectly execute the plan. With 5 characters, each with their own special abilities, your plans can become incredibly elaborate, and with huge payoffs.

Of course, the characters themselves and their unique abilities are a core part of the tactical gameplay. Every character is good at different tasks, and not every character is available for every mission.

Shadow Mode. When Hayato takes out the first guard with his shuriken, Mugen will immediately rush in to clear the rest. Shadow Mode. When Hayato takes out the first guard with his shuriken, Mugen will immediately rush in to clear the rest.

Hayato is a ninja, and the first character you meet. He can climb up onto roofs, and can throw rocks to distract guards. He also has a throwing star, which can kill a single guard at range, but has to be collected before it can be used again. Hayato is great at taking out single targets, or avoiding guards completely, but struggles to deal with multiple enemies simultaneously.

The second character, Mugen, is a heavily armored Samurai, capable of taking out multiple guards in a single attack. Due to his armor, however, Mugen can’t scale walls, so he has to stick to the better-guarded ground paths to get around. Already you can see that these two characters play off each others’ strengths and weaknesses.

It’s not just about using each character’s powers to get through a mission, it’s often about how they co-operate to compensate for their weaknesses. In the first mission, you quickly find that Hayato’s abilities let him get way ahead of Mugen, avoiding most of the guards along the way. But Mugen can’t just avoid them, so you need Hayato to take them out. Moving Mugen up is also vital because Hayato eventually reaches a point where he can’t possibly deal with all the guards by himself.

Co-operation. Together, Hayato and Mugen can succeed where individually they would fail. Co-operation. Together, Hayato and Mugen can succeed where individually they would fail.

The missions are scripted, with specifically designed maps and story points, but there are plenty of different ways to progress through each. Even when I only had 2 characters, there were multiple solutions to many problems, especially thanks to shadow mode, so even during the tutorial I didn’t feel like the game was hand-holding me towards a particular solution.

Leaving missions open enough to let the player figure their own way through is vital for a tactical stealth game like this. It’s easy to script problems that require specific solutions, but then what’s the point of playing? Everything that happened during the game felt like it was in my control, whether that meant that I made a mistake and failed, found a weird and inefficient solution, or went with the obvious option that was probably ‘best’. Meanwhile, thanks to the autosave prompt and relatively quick load times, my failures felt more funny than punishing.

As for replayability, much like Invisible Inc and many other stealth games, I think this will have enough for at least a second or third playthrough. Although the missions may not be randomized, there are plenty of mission-specific challenges. There are traditional ones of course, like only using nonviolent takedowns, or never being spotted, and some checklist ones like “Distract 3 guards simultaneously with a thrown rock”. For people who want to play quickly, there are also timed achievements. The first level can be completed in 11 minutes apparently; I took about 40 and I’m assuming that doesn’t count all the reloads.

Badges for the first level. Badges for the first level.

Shadow Tactics impressed me. The failure state is fair even while being unforgiving, and the level design is open enough to leave the player with plenty of options. On the flavor side, a more realistic depiction of Edo period Japan is refreshing,but the game is still just goofy enough to be fun. I look forward to putting a lot more time into this game and perhaps even pushing to complete some of the challenges. If you liked Invisible Inc then I definitely recommend this.

Verdict: Yes