Wot I Think – Shadow Tactics: Blades Of The Shogun

In a frozen courtyard in Kansai two guards patrol while a heavily armoured samurai stands sentinel before an icicle-fringed gateway. The gaze of the stationary warrior pans from side to side like a broom sweeping snow from a path. It takes in the patroller on the eastern side of the courtyard before shifting to the patroller on the wes… Strange, the other sentry is nowhere to be seen! More annoyed than concerned, the samurai contemplates leaving his post to investigate, but decides against it. It’s only when he resumes his routine and notices that the eastern guard has also vanished that he’s spurred into action. Matchlock pistol raised, he advances warily. Spotting then following a trail of footprints that leads to the courtyard’s only shrubbery, the searcher is seconds away from discovering the shinobi crouching in the undergrowth when a musket ball knocks him off his feet and a small but deadly dagger is thrust upwards through the base of his skull.

Aiko incognito

Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun [official site] awakens a genre that has been in deep hibernation for more than a decade. Its foe-festooned levels navigated and depopulated with the help of a cadre of five stealthy, player-controlled death-dealers, might be set in Edo period Japan, but the wonderful memories they stir are pure Old West and WW2. It’s blindingly obvious that the developers Mimimi have played an awful lot of Commandos 2: Men of Courage and Desperados: Wanted Dead or Alive.

Commandos 2

For those who’ve never used a musical pocket watch to distract a deputy, or a tame bull terrier to detect land mines, Pyro Studios’ and Spellbound’s best-known creations were turnless tactical puzzle games in which clandestine teamwork was encouraged, and problems could be approached in countless different ways. The satisfaction came from the slow, thoughtful dismantling of enemy defences… Sentry A is diverted by Character X while Character Y slips past Sentry B to slay Sentry C and, with Character Z’s assistance, conceal the body… You pondered, experimented, and quicksaved/quickloaded like it was going out of fashion, until the secret document was in your possession, the prisoner was freed or the evil bigwig was no more.

High drama

Shadow Tactics recreates the pace and play patterns of its predecessors with touching loyalty. In the few areas where it does alter the formula, it does so with care and cleverness. For example, the shift from handsome pre-rendered fixed perspective (or perspectives in the case of the quadriview C2) environments to true 3D ones is executed with minimal loss of charm and ambience. The game’s palaces, villages, monasteries and military camps might not be textured quite as exquisitely as C2’s ice-gripped destroyer, Buddhist temple, or Indochinese port, but imaginative set-dressing, moody lighting, and the practical advantages of being able to rotate the camera to any position more than make amends.

On the wagon

The decision to abstract interiors outside of cutscenes, and make do with simplified five-slot character inventories shouldn’t ruffle the feathers of too many Commandos fans either. Equipment Tetris was hardly a C2 highlight, and ST’s ‘red-cupboard-green-cupboard’ approach to building use (Certain buildings contain enemies and are out-of-bounds. Send a character into a safe ‘green’ structure or conveyance and their icon will appear above it until they are ordered to exit) is both elegant and logical.

Now what?

Alongside the sage streamlining is plenty of judicious enrichment. Pyro and Spellbound were far better at creating interesting levels than interesting characters. The accomplished Mimimi can do both places and people. The consequence of colourful, sharp dialogue delivered by top-drawer voice talent, is five genuinely likeable player characters. I’m not sure who I’ve warmed to most over the past week, spirited child-thief Yuki, loyalty-split samurai Mugen, savvy ex-courtesan Aiko, ancient peg-legged sniper Takuma, or not-nearly-as-materialistic-as-he-makes-out professional ninja Hayato. All I know is that there have been numerous occasions when a humorous remark, a quirky exchange, or a candid revelation has dragged me further into ST’s vivid world of damaged lives and tested friendships.

Team effort

Identifying the most useful operative is tricky too. Post-mission stats screens like the one above usually show a fairly even distribution of labour. Though some of the fifteen party pieces (three per character) are not dissimilar, there are enough nuances to encourage careful character selection. Yes, I could use Yuki’s flute to attract that guard by the well, but the tune would also attract that geezer by the pond. It might be wiser to move Mugen into that hedge and let him do the luring with his saké flask… …Getting Aiko across the street and up into the watchtower won’t be easy. A stone thrown by Hayato would distract the two goons in the doorway but for how long? I think I’ll get Takuma’s pet racoon dog, Kuma, to stage a diversion instead…

Marked men

Sentry patrol routes and fields-of-view often overlap in fiendish chrysanthemum petal fashion and regularly you find yourself combining character skills in elaborate ways. Progress in some situations is close to impossible without use of Shadow Mode, an action coordination tool similar to Desperados’ Quick Action function. The satisfaction that comes from pulling off a fancy Shadow Mode coup can be immense. One dab of the Return key and, after a brief patter of feet and a whirl of blades and fists, a bustling street or glade is suddenly free of foes.

Saké saps

One of my most gratifying synchronised takedowns required meticulous planning, split-second timing, and, if I’m honest, a good dozen quickloads. The habits of two tower-ensconsed ‘straw hats’ meant I only had a tiny 2-3 second kill window in which to eliminate a pair of eagle-eyed gatekeepers. The pair were lured into two low bushes simultaneously, and slain with a dart trap (Yuki) and shuriken (Hayato) while the straw hats were looking elsewhere. The corpse-concealing shrubs were still rustling when the vision cones of the tower twosome flicked back to them.

Handy things, hatpins

The yin to the yang of delicately engineered extinctions are emergent opportunities exploited with alacrity. However carefully you plan, there are always occasions when events take an unexpected turn. Fast-fading footprints in the snow are spotted and investigated! A clumsily hidden corpse alarms a passing civilian! The clucking of disturbed hens detours a patrol! React quickly and intelligently in these situations and a potential disaster can be transformed into something positive.

Back to the drawing board

The least flattering Commandos 2 screenshots feature gormless guards hurrying towards mountainous corpse heaps surveyed by sly firearm-clutching player characters. Such scenes aren’t impossible in Shadow Tactics but they are highly unlikely. The game’s sentries are far too sensible to be drawn into obvious ambushes, the game’s guns far too noisy to be practical options in most situations. Slaying a foe in clear sight of another, or leaving a corpse where it can be caressed by a hostile view cone, instantly triggers uproar. Additional guards pour from those out-of-bounds red doors mentioned earlier, and wary men with itchy trigger-fingers begin investigating the locus delicti.

Sniping straw hats

Ladders in the vicinity may be climbed, bushes probed, and doors opened. The message is clear. While Commandos 2 could be fairly ambivalent to stealth at default difficulty level, Mimimi’s rather splendid spiritual successor is keen you keep things covert. When an area has been stripped of most of its guards there might be an opportunity for a good old-fashioned firefight or a bloody ‘sword wind’ slaughter (Mugen can kill an unlimited number of nearby attackers with his most powerful combat trick). Until then it pays to sneak, stab, and entice.

Suspicious samurai

Several different enemy types help ensure defence defusing never becomes routine. Bareheaded henchmen are the least intimidating. Their discipline is weak. They can be lured away from posts and patrol routes with a variety of tricks. So-called straw hats are tougher customers. Their devotion to duty means, more often than not, they must be killed or KOed where they stand. At the top of the food chain are the mighty samurai. Not only can these blighters see through Aiko’s invaluable geisha disguise at thirty paces, they are immune to most of the team’s attacks. To kill a samurai using anyone but Mugen, you must first stun them with a rifle or pistol shot then deliver the coup de grâce at close range with a blade.

Earwigging

A couple of paragraphs ago I claimed that spotted corpses always provoked pandemonium. Thinking about it, that’s not strictly true. The thirteen large and lovingly landscaped levels that make up the campaign, are dotted with natural hazards that can be used to arrange ‘accidents’. When a loose boulder or a carelessly chocked cart crushes a guard, the colleagues of the unfortunate crushee tend to be stoical. I struggled for ages to penetrate one particularly busy chokepoint until I noticed that one of the watchers eyeing my route was standing dangerously close to the back end of a tetchy bull. A tossed stone later, I had the foothold I needed to plan another elimination.

My quickload shame

That Mimimi’s level designers have laboured long and hard over map layouts and sentry placements is obvious from the number of potential paths through each environment. Though intermediate goals, of which there is often a choice of two (Drug the saké barrel or stowaway on the wagon. Gather intel at the tavern or the stables…) provide general guidance, potentially profitable routes and tactics are rarely telegraphed. Want to take your time… avoid civilian deaths… any deaths? The war-torn castles, misty gorges, blizzard-buffeted mountain tops, and torch-lit villages (nocturnal missions have a very different feel thanks to shrunken vision cones and extinguishable flames) were designed with you in mind.

A pocket is picked

Atmospheric and impossible to rush, Shadow Tactics is a fabulous game – a game I think I prefer to both Commandos 2 and Desperados. I can see myself replaying it regularly. The makers suggest most players will spend about 25 hours on their initial playthrough. That feels about right to me – I’m currently savouring the final mission after seven or so evenings of engrossing cloak and tantō killing.

Death from above

The nearest thing to a design flaw or bug I’ve encountered is the odd jittering foe and trifling realism issue. Should gymnastic assassins that can spring onto rooftops in seconds, tightrope walk, and shin up ivy be able to climb trees, leap wagon shafts, and clamber over heaps of boxes? Yes, of course they should, but as I’m prepared to turn a blind-eye to regular F8-facilitated resurrections I guess I shouldn’t harp on about trivial illusion eroders like unscaleable crates.

It's now or never

Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun slips from the shadows on December 6, price $40. You could pass the time until it is released by playing the demo.

* * *

This way to the foxer

(The Flare Path will return next Friday)

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50 Comments

  1. LexW1 says:

    I hadn’t heard of this game two months ago – now it’s pretty much top of my “must-buy” list! Great review, too!

    (Presuming the price isn’t bonkers – but that seems a reasonable presumption – it is a little odd that it’s out in four days and not announced though!)

    • Mokinokaro says:

      According to the Steam forums, the price is 39.99 USD. No idea about how Daedelic will convert it.

  2. DarkFenix says:

    Didn’t even know I wanted another game in that genre until just now, looks pretty great.

  3. Premium User Badge

    Oakreef says:

    Well I’m buying it

  4. mashkeyboardgetusername says:

    Excellent, enjoyed the demo (a demo, what an idea!) a lot so good to hear the rest of it is good too. Just hope the price doesn’t end up being silly, bit odd they’re keeping that under their hat.

    • quotidian says:

      Seriously, what ever happened to demos? I was on the fence on this one. I love tactical and stealth games, but more the turn based variety. After getting thoroughly sucked into the demo I might even pay full price for this game at launch. I’ve heard $40 as well, from the developers on the steam forums.

  5. slerbal says:

    It is a great looking game, and the demo is fab, but it is weird they haven’t announced the price yet… fills me with a sense of foreboding. Also – I know we all hate pre-orders – but it is strange that given this review has come out I can’t buy it now. Timing can be everything in buying a game. Hopefully my memory isn’t goldfish-like and I will remember to check it out in 4 days (a Monday release??)

  6. Agnosticus says:

    Excellent!

    The demo gave me the greatest nostalgia flashback I had in years. I was a big fan of Commandos 1+2(+3) back in the day and Shadow Tactics seems to be even more polished.

    Eventhough 40€ seems a bit steep, I’ll probably make an exception for this one. It’ll be perfect for those dark and icy winter evenings!

  7. lglethal says:

    Sorry for whats probably a dumb question but is this turn based, real time, or real time with pause? I havent played Commandos or Deperados, but this looks very interesting!

    If real time, how does it work with the multiple characters? I found I could only play Satellite Reign by playing with 1 or 2 characters on each Mission, if I tried to take the whole Team along, there just wasnt enough time to control everyone, and I inevitably failed. How is it done here?

    (still at work, so I cant Access any Videos or Steam to get more details)

    • jellydonut says:

      Real time, and you can pause to set simultaneous actions.

      The demo is also a lot better and more engaging than Satellite Reign, which I found unsatisfying (as someone who grew up with Syndicate).

      • Landiss says:

        How do you pause it? I just tried demo, haven’t seen any way to pause the game. The shadow mode lets you assign orders (as far as I can see, just one per character) and then execute them at the same time, but it doesn’t pause the game.

    • shde2e says:

      Another question: As someone who played Sherwood to death, does this game include similar levels like the siege levels? Where you’re basically given a broad objective (like “win the siege”), a large map, and given numerous sub-objectives or methods to achieve it?

      And does it have some kind of overlaying aspect across the missions (like character leveling, or Sherwoods late-game War system)? Or are they all basically standalone (like Men of War and such)?

      • Tim Stone says:

        The story is the only thing binding the missions together. There’s no character levelling or inter-mission strategic choices. One of the toughest and most exciting missions involves a castle assault. You’ve a particular job to do but are free to tackle secondary objectives and assist friendlies if you wish.

  8. gruia says:

    must buy.
    this niche needs to explode.
    and this is perfect for a begining . much much more than DOS . considering DOS for me was a failure ) it at least drove the industry in a better direction

  9. Gothnak says:

    I’m a huge strategy nut and remember trying out Commandos back in the day. There is something about trying to do this all real time with a number of characters at the same time, that my usually tactical brain rebelled against, was rubbish at and ultimately hated.

    Since then i have avoided stealth mechanics in pretty much every game.

    I love tactics, strategy, combat, thinking etc, but for some reason there is a huge amount of repetition/death and experimentation/death in this specific genre of game that doesn’t gel with me.

    • Zenicetus says:

      I feel the same way with most games, but it looks like this one has enough hiding spots to bring your agents into position one at a time, and then coordinate attacks with sequential commands. There is also that pause thing where you program moves and let it run. That sounds interesting. I’ll at least try the demo.

    • kelmorg says:

      yup same. i remember Commandos as an awful experience and i also tend to stay away from stealth type games. It’s great they have a demo. Might take a look.

  10. matnym says:

    Depserados is one of my favorite games so this is awesome news for this rather niche genre. Definitely getting this one.

  11. Tigris says:

    oh wow first a positive review from 4players and then here.
    I really liked the demo so I expected and hoped for a good game, still a relief.

  12. jellydonut says:

    This is a must buy for me.

  13. Sauch says:

    I love how RPS recommended an awesome game that totally went under my radar. It feels like Christmas.

  14. Clarksworth says:

    Thanks for highlighting this. With that awful name, I never would have taken a second look. Now it’s on my must buy list.

    Seriously though, how can such a beautiful game end up with such a mess of a title?

  15. Premium User Badge

    subdog says:

    Save Count 82, Load Count 86… for a single level?

    O_o

    I see Satellite Reign comparisons, does this also have a co-op mode?

  16. froz says:

    Bought it after reading the review. I do this very rarely (it helped that it turned to be around 20€ here).

    Thanks for the review, very nicely written. I hope the game is indeed as good as you make it look like :).

  17. froz says:

    Oh and will we also see a regular flare path this weekend or was that it? Just asking, as the title doesn’t say flare path, so that got my hopes up. On the other hand, there is the foxer link at the end, so my hopes are prepared to be crushed.

  18. Pravin Lal's Nuclear Arsenal says:

    Ooooh, welcome back, Commandos! About damn time.
    Actually, I should play 2 and 3, I’ve owned them for at least a year and I only replayed the first one (which I loved as a kid too).
    A few of the things that Tim mentions in the review make me curious: squad selection, actual characterization, different paths. These are all welcome innovations. How many of them were in the Commandos/Desperados series as well? As much as I love the original Commandos, it was VERY prescriptive and that became a bit grating after a while.
    Speaking of prescriptiveness: outside of the “Shadow Mode” thingy, do you feel like the members of the team are equally valuable and useful? My biggest criticism of Commandos is that it was basically “The Adventures of Green Beret Squarejaw and his situationally essential, but mostly dead weight, friends. And a spy.”

    • Tim Stone says:

      Just to be clear, there’s no squad selection in ST. The scenario designers decide which of the five characters are present in a mission (It’s rare to have more than four at your disposal) and where those characters start on the map.

      >do you feel like the members of the team are equally valuable and useful?

      Basically, yes. Everyone has useful skills, and the way many of the maps are populated and arranged means it’s almost impossible to rely on a single character.

      • Pravin Lal's Nuclear Arsenal says:

        My bad, I misunderstood this sentence: “Though some of the fifteen party pieces (three per character) are not dissimilar, there are enough nuances to encourage careful character selection”. It’s obvious, in retrospect, you were talking about performing tasks during the mission.

        Thanks for the answers! The news about the usefulness of the whole team are especially welcome.

        Edit: completely unrelated, I blame you for getting me to bash my head against Graviteam Tactics: Operation Star. My God that game has the power to make me feel stupid. It’s a magnificent, hostile beast of a wargame.

  19. Cronstintein says:

    Enjoyed the demo quite a bit so I’m glad to see it doesn’t fall apart in the later missions. Game on!

  20. Serenegoose says:

    Really top quality review. Nice stuff. Hadn’t heard of the game, now – in conjunction with the demo – I think it’s a sure fire purchase. Thanks! :)

  21. Banks says:

    I’m glad this turned out to be great, I was starving for a game like this!

  22. mgardner says:

    Tim Stone says it’s fab
    corpses scattered like Fall leaves
    I should buy this game

  23. KenTWOu says:

    Playing the demo right now and I’m blown away by the fact that the game allows you to directly control the characters using your gamepad.

  24. simontifik says:

    Set in the Edo period… character named Mugan…

    I really need to re watch Samurai Champloo

  25. Turkey says:

    This looks right up my alley. I’ve been waiting for another one of these for ages. Can’t wait to play this!

  26. Emeraude says:

    I think I prefer to both Commandos 2 and Desperados

    That’s high praise, and definitely puts the game on my radar.

  27. Premium User Badge

    heretic says:

    Wishlisted, great review!

  28. bonuswavepilot says:

    Hmm, definitely going to add this to my wishlist, although I generally would only make it a few levels into the Commandos titles – either they’re bastard-hard, or I’m just crap at this type of game… I think my favourite thing about the early ones was the way you could distract Nazis with the ‘spy’ character (I think it was) who was dressed as a German officer, by either calling them to attention if they ranked lower than his fake rake (“Achtung!”) or wander over and say hello and have a smoke with them if they were also an officer.

    Also, Tim – saucy alliteration in this bit of writing!

  29. Blackcompany says:

    Didn’t know I wanted a game like this. Played the demo.

    Now I can hardly wait for release…

    I’ve never seen a game like this before. Or even a genre. It’s really quite wonderful. Thanks for covering this, it’s a gem.

    • funkstar says:

      if you haven’t experienced this genre before it’s worth checking out some of the older examples mentioned in the review – commandos series and desperados – wanted dead or alive. Both fantastic examples which should be dirt cheap now :)

  30. BlueB says:

    I love Daedelic and glad to see this game is going to be a good one. Thanks for the heads-up! Added to my Steam wishlist :)

  31. Premium User Badge

    Ericusson says:

    What a good surprise.

  32. Scrofa says:

    Real-time and zero mistake tolerance inevitably lead to savescumming, and savescumming ultimately defeats the very purpose of the game. Just like it was with Commandos and Desperados. No thanks. Another great concept killed by crappy implementation based much more on Starcraft twitch reflexes rather than tactical planning.

    • Carnival.Corpse says:

      “Just like it was with Commandos and Desperados”

      Well, that was the goal actually. :3
      And thank god they didnt sway away from the concept!^^

    • Devocalypse says:

      Save scumming you say? That’s something entirely up to the player.
      Back in the win95 days I remember reaching mission 7 (of 20) on the first Commandos before I even realized you could save and load mid-mission. That’s a few hundred mission restarts and for that time it was an extremely gratifying feat of strength to make it through a map in one go – nowadays it would just seem frustrating. Stick to TRPGs if you are so bad at real-time.

  33. Carnival.Corpse says:

    So far what I’ve read in all the reviews & seen from playing the demo is that this game will be one hidden(!)gem of this year.
    Amidst the maddening popularity of fps, tps & rpg games, gotta give props to the devs for even daring to resurrect this lost genre.
    I never pre-order a game but on this particular occasion, I genuinely wished I could do it. It’s that good. :)
    In any case, i hope it sells well so that we can get to see the continuation of the series as the devs promised.