Back’s Benlog: Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun

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Today’s Title: Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun

(As it was with Hellblade, any story spoilers aren’t intentional but may come about due to how elements of plot effect the mechanics of the game. Read on at your own risk.)

There are very few “tactical” games that I’ve gotten into in my life. Whether it was real-time or turn-based, there was just always some sort of barrier for me with these types of games that never made me feel comfortable. It doesn’t help that I’m very impatient, so what often bails me out of most video game predicaments are my reflexes rather than any decent planning. There also seems to be some layer of management in these games that I find stressful and can’t seem to break through. It’s just a tough genre for me.

These games tend to have you constantly organizing and customizing your party, which can practically become a full army for some titles. Maybe they also want you to manage a base and its resources, thus complicating missions because you need to collect things to further that portion of the game. It’s not that any of these mechanics are negatives, mind you. It’s just a matter of scope, and the scope of some of these titles take my stress to a whole new level.

I always remember the games that were good enough to surpass my caution and anxiety towards this style of gameplay, but there really isn’t much of a rhyme or reason as to what games click with me. I obsessively played Final Fantasy Tactics Advance, but could not get into the beloved original to save my life despite multiple attempts. I consider XCOM: Enemy Unknown to be my game of the year for 2012, but XCOM 2 was one of my major 2016 disappointments for how quickly I lost interest.

So, one thing I really have to give credit to Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun for is how this game made me reflect on what I’m specifically looking for out of a tactics game, and giving it to me.

The immediate appeal for me with Shadow Tactics was how it focused on a stealth approach in the spirit of games like the Commandos series. This allows the game to takes elements and tools from the types of games I’m much more comfortable with. It might seem somewhat at odds with what I said earlier about patience, but I actually love good stealth games. There’s a feeling of power from being able to navigate and manipulate a level’s environment to your advantage so that you’re either invisible or unstoppable for the guards who would try to get in your way. I find that type of gameplay really satisfying, and Shadow Tactic‘s transition to a more tactical version of that never muddies up the fantastic level design that I go to a stealth game for.

If anything, Shadow Tactics uses the same ideas of the stealth games I’ve played and expands on them in ways that come really naturally to any stealth fan. Instead of simply getting through a level using the environment to get to an ideal position, you’re doing that same thing with multiple unique characters and coordinating their abilities to be at their most effective. For instance, you may have a guard investigate a whistle from a nearby bush only to walk into well-placed spike trap, while two guards following him have no time to react as your two rooftop assassins get the drop on top of them and clear the immediate area before any alarm can be raised.

Now that example scenario is just a really basic way to deal with an obstacle. In short time, Shadow Tactics will get the most out of its player. There are five unique characters in your squad, and each mission will have a different lineup of them. Sometimes you only have two of the five, sometimes you’ll have a full team to work with, but the game will make you appreciate the strengths and weaknesses of each one of them. At its core, though, you’re still doing the same things in Shadow Tactics that a stealth game is all about. Hiding, maneuvering around fields of vision, and acting on the most advantageous approach. This game just happens to gradually give you a massively expanded range of options as the levels themselves get more complex.

That’s actually the type of complexity I want from a tactical game, because it really boils it all down to a series of puzzles. Shadow Tactics doesn’t have you managing or juggling a bunch of different mechanics in and out of every mission, because the game’s focus is on making each mission a puzzle. You always have the tools you need to solve the puzzle, and there’s much more than one solution. Yet the game is consistently challenge you by adding to the basic structure it taught you to navigate from the beginning.

I should note that the game has a pretty generous quicksave system that I abused the hell out of in my initial playthrough. It’s up to the player’s discretion as to how much they choose to use it, but I actually think it’s vital to both learning the basics of the game and experimenting with what you can do in it. Shadow Tactics is at its best when you set up the most complicated of plans, maybe adjust a couple things after a few failures, and then getting all the dominoes to fall perfectly. There’s plenty of optional challenges with every mission and you may hit a point when you decide you want to try your hand not abusing this system, but I would recommend making every level your assassin’s playground for awhile because getting those insane plans to work are where you’ll find Shadow Tactic‘s best moments.

As far as other aspects of the game go, the game is solid enough all-around even if the story is kind of a by-the-book samurai war story. It’s not the most ambitious tale ever told, but it does go places that affect the gameplay in some very interesting ways. I also appreciated how the narrative could dictate your limitations in sensible ways (lost your weapon, or a party member is missing), but not just locking the player down because a mission demanded a certain approach mechanically. So in some missions where you don’t necessarily want to kill but might not know another way, your party will express that same frustration without the game constantly failing you for taking a more ruthless approach.

The presentation is also pretty good. The music is very well done, and the look of the game is a decent cell-shaded style. The colors can be a little bland depending on the environment of a level, but there’s also some areas that play with the lighting and the color palette in some really impressive ways. And the game offers some useful highlighting to recognize all the details of a level that you’ll need to pay attention to, as the environment is just as important to keep track of as the enemies in it.

However, Shadow Tactics‘ true strength is its gameplay. Rather than feeling stressed out at the thought of playing it, I’m chomping at the bit for more like it. I want more levels because that means more puzzles to solve, where the failure is only dictated by what I do in the mission and not some outside mechanic I may have ignorantly mismanaged. Turns out I can enjoy strategy in a game as much as the next person, but I prefer it focused and fleshed out in one area rather than spread to multiple elements.

After a few days to really think about it, I feel pretty confident saying that not only is Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun my favorite tactical game, but also my favorite stealth game to this point. It keeps things simple in structure, but adds satisfying depth and complexity in the level design and abilities which are the things that really matter to me when I’m playing a stealth game.

Shadow Tactics is fantastic. I would at least recommend everybody give its demo a shot. It’s certainly worth it.

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