With a trio of assassins, I prepare to breach the outer gates. I make one of my assassins toss out a tasty flask of sake to distract a guard, while another slit the throats of two unwary henchmen nearby. The third, a sniper, perches in a high tower and finishes off the remaining enemies. A few moments later, we’re ready for the shogun–our real target.
Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun is an elegant answer to a simple question: How do you make sneaking unnoticed from Point A to Point B compelling? Many games have built themselves around that concept, but few stealth-focused games manage to make sneaking as interesting as Gears of War makes shooting or Portal makes puzzle-solving.t
That’s because the language of games, for better or worse, is usually conflict. But stealth games call for a subtler hand. Often you’ll have to wait for enemies to be in the right place at the right time to make your move, and if you step out of turn and accidentally blow your cover, you may have to say goodbye to your progress and start from scratch.
Shadow Tactics can be challenging, but isn’t as punishing as most stealth games. From the very beginning, you’re taught to save–constantly. If you go more than a minute without saving, a timer appears onscreen to remind you, growing more intense with each passing minute. Once saving becomes a habit–executed with a single keystroke–you grow more comfortable trying out creative strategies without fear of risking hard-fought progress.
Shadow Tactics frontloads almost all of the training you’ll need for the remainder of the campaign. You have five different assassins under your control, each with their own specific skills. Some can target two or three enemies in a single turn, while others can vault up onto rooftops to gain the upper hand. By the end of the first level, you’ll have working knowledge of every major tactic and ability at your disposal. After that, it’s just a matter of which specific combination of abilities you’ll be able to bring to any one level.
From a serene, wind-swept snowscape to the towering castles of Japan’s Edo period, Blades of the Shogun’s cel shaded environments are all beautifully rendered, and each one introduces a distinct mechanic that alters the rules of stealth. Guards will track footsteps through snow on one map, for example, ratcheting up tension and forcing you to be more rigorous in your approach. With its rules in flux, Blades of the Shogun is consistently tense and challenging, forcing you to plan and react in new ways as you pursue one target after another.
At times, the complexity of any given level–with potentially dozens of guards and obstacles–can seem overwhelming. But no matter how dire things appear, there are systems in place to give you a fighting chance. You’ll never be surprised, for example, by a guard’s sudden attention. Their cones of vision gradually fill with color–they confirm your location when it’s full and sound an alarm to summon reinforcements. In the brief amount of time it takes for an enemy to take action, you have a chance to get out of trouble, either by throwing a shuriken or quickly ducking out of sight.
If you do trigger an alarm, however, a swarm of new enemies appear and stick around for the rest of the scenario. This presents a series of interesting choices for you to make. You can, if you so choose, take the spike in challenge in exchange for removing one or two particularly pernicious henchmen. They may be replaced, but the newbies won’t pick up the exact patrol pattern or position, so, in some cases, it’s still worth it.
No matter how dire things appear, there are systems in place to give you a fighting chance.
Sudden turns also help develop the relationships between Shadow Tactics’ five main characters. They’ll trade barbs and anecdotes as they tell one another about how they came to this line of work and why they chose to fight. Party members range from the sturdy samurai, Mugen, to the lithe master of disguise Aiko. Hayato is the de facto leader, a dyed-in-the-wool ninja and master of stealth. The thief, Yuki, is faster and lighter, relying on traps and tricks to take down most foes. Last is Takuma, a wise old man and a patient sniper.
Each of their abilities can be chained into the skills of other characters, requiring extremely tight coordination. Over the 20-hour-plus adventure, they grow and learn together as they face mounting challenges and an uncertain future. The story isn’t groundbreaking by any means, but the repartee is relatable and earnest, providing sufficient context for the adventure.
Across thirteen dense, beautiful areas that can each take a couple of hours to work through, you’ll pick and probe, chopping through complex patterns against what seem like impossible odds. If there’s one complaint, it’s that while each of its parts work together seamlessly, it can often feel like there’s only one correct solution–like you’re trying to find the solution to a puzzle instead of working within a living, breathing world. However, those frustrations are blunted somewhat by ever-present tension, as you’ll often face unexpected twists that prevent you from feeling too comfortable.
Shadow mode, as the game calls it, leads to glorious moments where you get to see all of your hard work, your observation, and attention to detail pay off. It tests your ability to keep track of all the moving pieces in a level and put a plan in motion. You can have a samurai kill off a small band of guards with his special ability, then snipe an officer as he moves in to investigate. Then you can have your other characters stash the bodies to avoid detection–all before the next set of troops rounds the corner. When a plan comes together, it’s a thing of beauty–a symphony of action.
Shadow Tactics understands what makes stealth games so special. It pushes you to organize your own plans such that you’re never seen at all, living up to Thief’s thesis that masterful warriors are ghosts that wreak havoc on the unsuspecting. And it takes this concept step further, giving you enough options to ensure you’re never trapped or stuck without recourse. Shadow Tactics’ basic ideas are masterfully executed, making it one of the best stealth games in recent memory.