The isometric stealth tactics genre has been dormant for a long time, and this is understandable. It’s niche, to say the least – there are only a handful of notable examples, even from the genre’s heyday of the early 2000s. Such games are also tricky to design well; to take the best parts of stealth, squad-based tactics, and real-time strategy and combine them into a cohesive whole is a big ask. Nonetheless, a well-made stealth tactics game is a joy to play, and that’s more apparent than ever with Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun.
At first glance, Shadow Tactics (and those other games that came before it) is very much like your typical first- or third-person stealth game. The aim is to sneak around, killing or avoiding enemies as necessary to achieve specific missions objectives without being spotted. You’ve got a variety of tools to help with this, like rocks that can be thrown as a distraction. If you do get spotted, you need to find a way to hide as soon as possible, because open combat is a quick way to get yourself killed.
One of the major differences between a game like this and a “typical” stealth game, though, is the isometric perspective. Shadow Tactics gives you a bigger-picture view of the map, allowing you to see where enemies, obstacles, cover, and hiding spots are that your character wouldn’t be able to see with their own eyes. Stealth games always favour patience and planning, but the perspective here means you can take a more tactical approach, planning further ahead and concocting elaborate schemes to deal with what’s before you.
Where a third-person stealth game might let you see a few guards patrolling the immediate area, in Shadow Tactics you can see those guards, as well as people just beyond a nearby gate who might hear you, and people looking on from a distant guard tower, and people doing long patrols of the full breadth of the map. You’re rarely dealing with just one or two enemies, but a long string of people in each other’s line of sight – Guard A can see Guard B, who can see Guard C, who can see Guard D, and so on. Figuring out how to deal with such situations is fundamental.
Assisting in such challenges is Shadow Tactics’ other major departure from stealth norms: you control a squad of agents, instead of just one person, and you can switch between them at the press of a button. Two guards who never leave one another’s vision cone would be impossible for a solo agent, but here you can use Takuma’s rifle to shoot one, immediately switch to Hayato who’s hiding in a bush nearby the other, and the kill the second guard before he can react. The five characters all bring their own abilities to the table, like Aiko’s flirtatious distractions or Yuki’s deadly traps, and using them all to their fullest is the key to success.
The pulled-back perspective gives you more information than a lot of stealth games do, and the squad-based gameplay gives you more options to deal with potential threats, but don’t be fooled into thinking this is an easy game. Those features enable a more tactical approach, and that’s something that Shadow Tactics doesn’t just encourage; it’s something the game demands. You can expect to spend upwards of an hour per level, methodically plotting your approach (and hastily reloading when things inevitably go awry). Shadow Tactics isn’t any harder than the games that inspired it, but it’s a game that demands patience and strategic thinking. If you’re new to the genre – as a lot of people will be, I suspect – it can be a daunting experience, even on the easiest difficulty setting.
At the same time, that challenge is a big part of the appeal of the game. If you can get over that initial hurdle (or if you already did so a decade ago with Commandos or Robin Hood), there’s a wealth of excitement to be found in concocting the elaborate schemes necessary to get through the harder difficulties or to complete optional objectives, like no death runs or speed runs.
To aid all this, Shadow Tactics has a very generous save system. You can quick save at almost any time at the press of a button, and reloading – be it from a game over or a manual reload – is quick. As long as you save often, there’s little risk to experimenting with different approaches, which is a nice touch. This game isn’t about harshly punishing failure so much preventing you from moving forward until you prove you’re up to the task. Progress comes in inches and moments, not in a perfect sprint from start to finish.
Even with this liberal save system, Shadow Tactics can get frustrating, especially if you’re someone like me, who’s more interested in the stealth aspect than the tactics. The Beginner difficulty could stand to be a lot easier; even with enemies who are slower to react, figuring out workable strategies to get past the game’s challenges is a big ask, and enemy AI is aggressive enough that being spotted almost always leads to a game over.
The setting for all this is a beautiful rendition of Edo-period Japan. Following the bloodshed of the Sengoku era, the country’s been unified under one Shogun, but the peace is threatened by an insurgent known as Kage-sama. The Shogun tasks the samurai Mugen with dealing with the threat, so Mugen assembles a band of spies and assassins to travel the country, investigate, and stop the insurgency. It’s not the most original or captivating tale, but it’s a perfect setup for a game like this.
Even though Shadow Tactics tells a fictitious story, there’s a commitment to history in its visual design and the like that’s rare to see, especially from a non-Japanese developer. Everything from the architecture to the clothing to the geography is meticulous in its accuracy and detail, and it makes the whole game feel authentic and alive. Western developers often go for Japanese “flavour” without really understanding what’s happening underneath all that, but it’s apparent in every little detail how much effort the folks at Mimimi Productions went to in creating a believable historical Japan setting.
Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun is a welcome revival of the stealth tactics genre, with unrivalled tactical depth and a wealth of solutions for every problem. It’s a challenging game, and even on the Beginner difficulty newcomers will probably find it overwhelming, but it rewards patience and perseverance in a way that few games do.
Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shoguns is developed by Mimimi Productions and published by Daedalic Entertainment. It’s available now for PlayStation 4 (reviewed), Xbox One, and PC.
A press copy was supplied by the publisher for this review.