Throughout my life I’ve been an obsessive player of isometric top-down real-time tactics games. The sort pioneered by Commandos and jacked by Desperados and Robin Hood. For an all-too-brief while they were the new hotness, and then they faded into obscurity. So it was no small amount of glee I spotted Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun lurking on the Steam store.
Revamped for a new decade, Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun sheds the usual pre-rendered backgrounds for proper 3D environments, but the fundamentals remain very much the same. You are tasked with executing a mission across sprawling maps using a tight knit crew of soldiers, each with unique skills and abilities that must all be utilised in order to succeed.
In true real time tactics fashion, the quick save and quick load buttons will swiftly become your best friends. In fact, a handy timer even pops up at the top of the screen constantly reminding of you of how long it’s been since you quick saved. I was jabbing F5 like it was going out of business.
It’s because everything in Shadow Tactics comes down to exquisite timing and one tiny cock up can land you in a world of hurt. Before long with Blades of Shogun you’ll be settling into the flow of thinking up ideas, testing them out, reloading, tweaking them, and trying again. You’ll have to poke through every unique item and skill in some cases, attempting to find the perfect tools and tactics which can get you through an encounter unscathed. It’s both free form in its approach and yet so punishing that it feels as if there can be only one possible, workable solution. It sounds frustrating but it’s anything but.
Each bite-sized section of the map is a puzzle which must be opened up and tinkered with, seeing what moves what and how everything in it works. Just making it down a single road unscathed can be a hugely difficult task, only matched by the satisfaction when you finally get it right.
For those unfamiliar with real time stealth tactics games such as Commandos, Shadow Tactics features 13 unique maps. Each is viewed top-down like a real-time strategy game and filled with a number of enemies and interactable items such as pulleys, ladders, and explosives. The core gameplay can be boiled down to a strategy game where you only have a maximum of five units, and they must survive. To do this you must outwit each of the AI opponents in order to complete your objectives. Enemies are on predictable patrol patterns, so Shadow Tactics quickly becomes a game about learning when and where the enemy is going to be, devising tactics to take them down. Each of your characters has unique skills, such as one which can perform a spinning blade attack to kill a large group of enemies, while another can drop a bottle of Sake which can be used as a distraction. Using these abilities the aim is to pull enemies out of their routines and stealthily kill them before they can alert their buddies. Neat level design means it never feels like you’re doing the same thing twice, while your party of characters is constantly chopping and changing, giving you different tools to work with and ensuring you can rely on the same set of tricks in perpetuity. Occasionally you also get some curve balls thrown your way such as snow levels, where all your characters’ footprints are visible to patrolling soldiers, forcing a tactical rethink.
With the click of button you can see enemy sightlines, outlining exactly where you can and can’t go. From here it becomes a process of nimbly moving behind cover in an effort to get the drop on enemies. Where things get trick is when you have numerous foes with overlapping sightlines. It’s here where Shadow Mode comes in handy. Using this you can assign individual commands to your entire team. With the push of a button you can then execute these commands at the same time. For example a character may throw a rock to pull the attention of a group of soldiers, while a samurai sneaks up behind and performs a spinning blade attack. While this is taking place a sniper could take out an enemy that has a vantage point overlooking where the attack is taking place. Getting the timing down in these situations can be really frustrating, but it’s oh so satisfying when it all clicks together.
The only real let down I could level at Shadow Tactics is the story. It’s just sort of… there. There’s a few brief cut-scenes between missions explaining why you’re there, and a little bit of chit-chat between your ninjas, but I certainly didn’t feel a crushing need to see its conclusion. Pure gameplay is what drove me through, and on that front Shadow Tactics does not disappoint.
Even by Commandos own lofty standards, Shadow Tactics is a masterclass. It layers in just enough additional nuance to elevate it to the next level. The skills are more elaborate. The level design consistently excellent. The manner in which you’re often required to go back to the drawing board is genius.
For fans of real-time tactics and stealth games, Shadow Tactics is very nearly without compare. It’s that same classic Commandos gameplay wrapped up in an exquisite new shell; still punishing yet not cruel.