Five years ago, Mimimi Games breathed welcome new life into the tactical stealth genre with the excellent Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun. Following in the footsteps of games like Commandos and Desperados, it reminded the world how captivating a finely-tuned blend of squad-based tactics and stealth can be, especially in a meticulously-crafted rendition of Edo-era Japan. A standalone expansion to that game, Shadow Tactics: Aiko’s Choice isn’t just more of what made Blades of the Shogun so good to begin with—it’s also a surprisingly good introduction to a “harcore” genre that’s known for a steep learning curve.
I say this despite—or indeed, because of—the fact that I spent most of my time playing it thinking, “Nope, this time it’s actually impossible. There’s no conceivable way to actually get through this section.” Stealth games are inherently puzzle games, and tactical stealth especially: the old “lure guards away one by one and quietly eliminate them” rarely works here, with enemy layouts specifically designed around the fact that you’ve got a whole squad of espionage experts to work with. When you’ve got a half-dozen guards all working together, always in line of sight of at least a few of the others, many too committed to their duty to be lured away from their posts, taking them all down quietly requires elaborate planning.
Every encounter seems impossible at first glance. “I’ve only got three people in my squad right now, how am I supposed to clear out a courtyard with seven guards who never take eyes off one another? Or even just sneak past?” But with some experimentation and liberal use of quicksave and quickload, you slowly piece together a solution: using Aiko’s disguise and Mugen’s ability to lure weaker-willed soldiers away with a sake bottle, you can leave just big enough of a gap between the other soldiers’ sight cones for a well-timed stealth kill from Hayato. One down, a whole lot more to go, but the impossible just became a little bit more possible.
And that’s what makes Shadow Tactics, and the genre at large, work so well. Each mission is a collection of these intriguing little puzzles, each one leaving plenty of room for a creative approach while also demanding that you think outside the box and dare to try new things. Sure, it can be frustrating at first, especially for an inexperienced player, but the rush of a brilliant plan executed flawlessly—when all the pieces of a puzzle that seemed impossible click into place—is something else. String those puzzles together on a broad, intricate map that offers multiple paths to victory and plenty of room for experimentation, and you’ve got the makings of something engrossing.
All this is true of Aiko’s Choice, too, and made particularly apparent through the (relatively) short-form nature of the game. Spanning three main levels and a couple of brief interludes, this expansion is a densely-packed puzzle box, building on what came before in intriguing ways—like navigating a map made up of a bunch of small islands with a party who can’t all swim. Despite the standalone nature of the expansion and some basic tutorials, it’s very much a follow-up to Blades of the Shogun, and the complexity of its levels follows suit. It can feel a bit like you’ve been thrown in the deep end if you haven’t touched Shadow Tactics since Blades first came out (guilty!), but it also means the maps in Aiko’s Choice, though few in number, are wonderfully intricate and full of opportunity for inventive strategies.
And that’s also, oddly enough, what makes Aiko’s Choice a fantastic introduction to the genre. While more detailed tutorials for absolute beginners wouldn’t go amiss, the maps themselves are instructive, in their very complexity and finesse. It doesn’t take long to learn, out of necessity, about the sheer power of the quicksave: hit F5, do something, anything, reload at the press of a button when it all inevitably goes wrong, and then use your new knowledge of how and why it all went wrong to better understand the game and the challenge. That is, by design, a fundamental part of the Shadow Tactics game flow.
From then on, the details of every new encounter are a chance to learn—again, out of necessity—about some aspect of the game, or the nuances of a particular character or ability. I played extremely conservatively at first, never daring to cross a sight cone for even a split-second, until I ran into a group of enemies where there was no possible way for that to work. With every other option exhausted, I “gave up” and just sent my fastest ninja sprinting across a guard’s direct line of sight to a nearby hiding spot. In the process, I gained a very valuable lesson in enemies’ reaction times that completely changed how I played the test of the game. The level design in Aiko’s Choice is full of these kinds of situations, where you’re given freedom to experiment but also deliberate constraints that force you to try new approaches instead of just finding one strategy that works and riding that all the way through. What can feel like a trial by fire gives way to an ongoing process of learning the ebbs and flows of the game
That process also means that the first playthrough is almost like an extended tutorial, which makes the brevity of Aiko’s Choice inviting, too. The first run is fun in its own right, but that’s nothing compared to when you come back armed with knowledge and experience, ready to tackle the game’s many optional challenges and truly put your lessons into practice. With its three main missions, Aiko’s Choice gets you there quicker, without overstaying its welcome or getting newcomers burnt out halfway through. It’s the full depth of what makes a tactical stealth game enjoyable, but in a more contained, more manageable package.
Like Blades of the Shogun before it, the settings of Aiko’s Choice are impressive: authentic renditions of an era of Japanese history that’s seen frequently in pop culture, but often gets reduced to a generic “medieval Japan” stand-in. Across the three main levels, you’ll visit Edo-period Nagoya, the island-dotted coast of Toba, and a secluded settlement in the forests of what is now Okayama Prefecture, attention to detail bringing each of them to life. The story, taking place partway through the events of Blades of the Shogun, is a little uninspired and predictable, taking the safest route a story about a conflicted kunoichi with a checkered past could take. But it still builds to an emotive conclusion, and the self-contained nature of it makes it a nice introduction to the world of Shadow Tactics.
Shadow Tactics: Aiko’s Choice manages to be both a welcome expansion for old fans and a surprisingly good place for a new player to jump in. It builds upon Blades of the Shogun in intriguing ways, and even though its challenge and complexity mirrors the later stages of that game, brevity and instructive level design make Aiko’s Choice uniquely placed to showcase what makes tactical stealth games as engrossing as they can be. For a niche genre that’s not exactly known to be welcoming to newcomers, that’s an impressive feat.
Shadow Tactics: Aiko’s Choice
Developer: Mimimi Games
Publisher: Daedalic Entertainment
Genre: Tactical stealth, strategy
Platforms: PC (reviewed)
Release date: 7 December 2021
A review copy was provided to Shindig by the publisher.