Back when I was about 7 years old I can distinctly remember begging my parents to buy me a pack of cinnamon grahams. Little did they know, I wasn’t after the sugary cereal inside but one of the three demo discs they were offering. While it might seem somewhat questionable that in this day and age they were offering Desperados; a game rated 15+ alongside the likes of Asterix and Action Man, the smaller version of myself was thrilled. Very similar to that of Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun, Desperados: Wanted Dead or Alive is an isometric stealth action game. The scenarios it offered were difficult, but never frustrating due to the sandbox nature of the game. Nothing for me has scratched an itch like it since, at least until Shadow Tactics came along.
Your journey follows the story of 5 characters, Hayato the relaxed mercenary, Yuki the young orphaned girl, Mugen the strong Samurai, Aiko the beautiful assassin and Takuma the sniper. Each character has a method of distraction, and a few methods of dispatching enemies. Each of the character’s skillsets complement each other brilliantly, while remaining incredibly potent in their own right. For instance Aiko can start a conversation with a guard while she’s in disguise, luring their gaze away from a key location for another character to take advantage of. You can also use Shadow Mode which allows you to execute multiple maneuvers at the same time, perfect for when two guards are in each other’s view cones.
Shadow Tactics doesn’t mess around, the tutorials are compact and easy to digest, information from scrolls on the floor explain the mechanics of the game. Fortunately the player’s intelligence is never insulted, even the first level which essentially acts as a large tutorial isn’t easy in the slightest. Shadow Tactics is advertised as a “hardcore tactical stealth game” and it certainly sticks to that promise. The recommended difficulty will have you quick saving every 30 seconds, and quick loading even more frequently each time you make a mistake. It’s not for the impatient, many recent stealth games such as Dishonoured and Deus Ex allow you to play like an action game on the recommended difficulty setting, this does not. Alerting the guards will spawn even more enemies, who will happily patrol areas that were previously left untouched. Some levels had me reloading over one hundred times (I know this because of the statistics you are presented with at the end of each level), and sometimes it had me frustrated. It’s definitely not for everyone, this is the nature of a hardcore stealth game.
There is definitely a bit of a difficulty curve to climb. The third level in the game took me longer than 2 hours of in-game time to complete. However Mimimi Productions clearly understand the frustrations of the genre. A timer at the top of the screen will appear if you haven’t saved the game in the past minute of play time. Entering the pause menu it will clearly show you your past three quicksaves too. After loading, the game pauses until you press the continue button, allowing you to ready yourself before you continue. These features sound simple enough, but they are groundbreaking. I can’t understand why I haven’t seen them in stealth games before. They add a huge amount of quality of life to the experience and they help you get over that difficulty curve. It’s worth persevering though, once I got over that initial hill I was in stealth heaven.
Each situation can be tackled from a number of different angles, all of which have their own advantages and disadvantages. It’s almost like constructing a jigsaw puzzle, or playing sudoku. A tightly positioned patrol of guards can seem almost impossible to deal with. Once you find a weakness and eliminate a few enemies the other guards become more exposed. Dropping one by one until you’ve successfully cleared an area. The true moments of satisfaction come when your plans go horribly wrong, but you manage to adapt, quickly scrambling a body into a bush before it’s too late.
Despite the initial difficulty, Shadow Tactics isn’t quick to reveal it’s hand. Every level presents you with a different challenge and a few new game mechanics. Just when you think you’ve seen it all, something new presents itself; be that footprints in the snow, new nighttime mechanics or different abilities. Additionally every level has a very distinctive graphical style to it varying from a number of locations in southern Japan. On top of that each level has 9 badges to be acquired, stretching from simple to mind-numbingly difficult. Half of you will want to replay the level, while the other half can’t wait to see what challenge will be next. Every aspect of the game has taken a huge amount of love and care to it, nothing feels like filler content.
I haven’t even had a chance to talk about overall presentation of the game. The sound, music, voice acting and the art-style are triple-A standard. To think a small team of just under 20 people made this game is mind-boggling. Their depiction of Edo Japan is beautiful and with the choice of Japanese dialogue very respectful. Load times were a bit of an issue, often taking me 2-6 minutes to load a level for the first time. Not to mention once you have loaded, a single level will often take you just over an hour to complete so it’s well worth the wait.
Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun is so intelligently deliberate in its design. It’s clear Mimimi Productions were very fond of similar games that have come before it, Desperados and Commandos. Any innate setbacks of the genre are addressed to make them as smooth as possible. Mimimi Productions haven’t just stumbled into a winning formula, they knew exactly what they were doing, every aspect has been extensively and meticulously conceived. Not many developers take this much pride in their work, and it’s utterly commendable.
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary PC code was provided to Brash Games for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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