Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun initially launched last year on PC, and received wide spread acclaim as a result. Now, several months later, console players get to dive into the Edo period of Japan and work for the Shogun to fight back hordes of criminals that aim to overthrow all sense of peace. You do this by taking on the role of one of five characters, each of which have unique skills to help you through the experience at hand. I was pleasantly surprised by how accessible and easy to digest the game is, it’s not at all complicated to understand thanks to the well crafted tutorial that equips you with all the basic fields of play. That’s not to say that the game itself is easy, far from it, in fact this is one of the most challenging games I’ve played in recent times, but it’s also one that constantly enticed me for that one more go.
The game offers up a bulky story that’s well told through several cutscenes at the conclusion of each level, and further compacted through character conversations during missions. I wont go so far as to say that the plot is one that will keep you on the edge of your seat, but it is indeed a worthwhile series of events that will hold your attention right up until the end game. Each mission plays out via an isometric viewpoint, giving you the ability to rotate, zoom, and pan the camera however you like. Your first port of call sees you in the middle of a raid on the Osaka Castle in which you’re tasked with bypassing the troops that heavily patrol the environment. This is the aforementioned tutorial level, and it gives you all the much needed intel you need to see the stage through.
One thing that immediately stood out for me was how clever the enemies were. Each foe will have their vision perception, but unlike the recently released Serial Cleaner, in which you toy with the AI by damn near tap dancing just beyond the reach of their view, Shadow Tactics has you working hard to stay incognito. You absolutely can not (and should not) take their lack of awareness for granted, nor can you constantly question their intellect by simply hiding behind the nearest object that obstructs their field of view. Don’t get me wrong, the game does well at giving you the tools you need to remain in the shadows or even evade your opponents, but that’s not to say that you’re guaranteed a free-pass whenever you do. Several times did I fall to the mercy of my enemy due to being overly cocky, but it’s surprisingly refreshing to find so much challenge in a game of this type.
Shadow Tactics may seem like an experience that’s heavily stealth-based, but the missions can indeed be tackled in any which way you please, so long as you get the job done. You can sneak by many of the enemies and do your best to outwit them, or you can go all-out Chuck Norris and forcefully conclude your objectives. The choices within are quite literally only exhausted by your imagination, but regardless as to how you make your way through, the game remains pretty tough either way. This is further bolstered by the characters you can utilise along with their unique skills. Irrespective as to who you’re playing with (characters cannot be selected, they’re pre-set for each mission) there are several different ways to overcome each task, each leading to the same end-point. It’s down to you to find the best formula to see you through, which alone adds a great deal of replay value.
I can’t say that I found any issues at all with the characters on offer. Mugen can kill several enemies that are banded together with his heavy hitting force, as well as lure enemies away. Hayato can throw shurikens from afar as well as chuck stones to distract enemies. Takuma can kill from a much greater distance than Hayato, which would essentially make this character your marksman. Aiko on the other hand is much more up close and personal, and houses the ability to disguise herself as town-folk to inevitably blind enemies with powder. Finally that leaves us with Yuki, a character that can set traps for unsuspecting guards to stumble upon. These unique abilities can be used in a wide range of different ways, from blowing up explosive items with a long-shot, to manipulating your surroundings to gain the upper-hand. It works wonders, but it even further comes together when you use Shadow Mode.
Shadow Mode as a function is much like Sync-Shot from Ubisoft’s Wildlands, only more in-depth. Using Shadow Mode you can chain together a sequence of events using all of the characters, and then execute your plan whilst you sit back and enjoy the commotion. This is where the game teases your capacity to be strategic and tactical, and believe me, it pays off to closely observe the movement and habits of your enemies. Very rarely was I able to predict the outcome of a scenario I worked hard to put together, which is high praise for a game that’s already so rich in both design and presentation. Mercifully there’s a quick save system to lean on, and as aforementioned, when a single level can take north of two hours to complete, it’s nice to have this comfort in place.
Each level typically offers up a wide open space for you to investigate and get the proverbial lay of the land. It has to be said that this is without a shadow of a doubt (see what I did there?) one of the most stunning isometric games I’ve ever played. The care and attention to detail is second to none, gifting players with some truly lush level design to soak up. The swaying trees to the running rivers, the grand temples to the rocky terrain, the harsh waterfalls to the lantern lit villages and everything in between, is all brought to life by town-folk and guards going about their daily routine. It sounds and looks so well realised that you cant help but feel totally captivated and immersed by every inch of what fills the screen.
What really throws a spanner in the works is that enemies tend to be resistant to certain aspects of play. Some may be immune to being lured, whereas others are immune to everything with the exception of the wrong end of a weapon. I found it quite useful to blend together both stealth and assault play-styles in an attempt to find some middle ground. Some groups of enemies are just not worth the hassle of undoing your progress since your last save, which is where I chose to deploy stealth over brawn. Climbing buildings, swimming, hiding underwater, jumping in bushes, and so on and so forth. These are but just a few of the tools you can take advantage of to bypass an alternate (more fierce) route. With that being said, guards do have awareness of not only vision, but sound too. So no matter what you do, the game has that difficult edge over you at all times.
Another layer of replay value can be found via the challenges within each mission. These are served via badges that you can collect when completing some, quite frankly, tough parameters. These challenges are of course optional, but they do tend to take you out of your comfort zone, such as pushing you to complete a mission within a set time, or running a mission with no kills. Following several hours of play, I’ve yet to earn but a handful of badges. Though with how well crafted and welcoming Shadow Tactics is, I fully intend to revisit the adventure and sink several more hours into the experience. Sadly not everything is perfect with the game, which made apparent by the drops in frame-rate when manipulating the camera. Granted, these drops aren’t overly noticeable, but I would be remiss if I didn’t at least point it out.
Shadow Tactics is quite simply a must-have game for those that enjoy the style, theme, and genre. Despite some minor issues with drops in frame-rate when manipulating the camera, this is a well rounded experience that wont just entice you, but immerse you almost completely with its lush visuals and solid diverse gameplay. There’s great deal of replay value to soak up via optional challenges, which comes on top of the core 15 – 20 hours of gameplay. When you take the fair price tag into account, it’s a more than worthy exchange.
This game was tested and reviewed on Xbox One. All of the opinions and insights here are subject to that version.