Shadow Tactics: Aiko's Choice is shaping into a small, but sublime slice of ninja fun
Shinobody does it better
In true Shadow Tactics fashion, here’s an expansion no one saw coming. Aiko’s Choice is a miniature campaign extension to 2016’s real-time tactics wonder. A standalone title, but one that slots into the original game’s main story. It feels like a DLC package that should have been released closer to the original, but I’m not going to drag developers Mimimi for tardiness - after all, this is a game where it takes me upwards of three hours to creep around a single map. Nothing about Shadow Tactics is rushed.
Aiko’s Choice adds three new missions and three playable ‘interludes’, which are shorter narrative skits that hinge a single character’s abilities and help set the scene for the larger levels. In my demo, this involves freeing wizened sharpshooter Takuma from a ship’s brig by relying on his pet tanuki, Kuma, to distract guards while he hobbles along. It’s a small, but welcome spotlight on a hero who was often consigned to a sniper’s perch in the original campaign (and will be again, in about four paragraphs’ time). And I'm not going to argue with more Kuma, a critter so adorable even hardened shogunate soldiers stand transfixed. Is it wrong to shank an animal lover? I hope not.
If you played Desperados 3, made between Shadow Tactics and this, you’ll recognise the vibe of the interludes from the flashbacks to young John Cooper. I also detect a hint of the garrulous cowboys in the looser lips of our returning ninja cast; as the squad of five embark on a larger mission they banter in a way that suggests Mimimi are a bit more comfortable around drama than they were in 2016. Or maybe they’re just enjoying hanging with the cast during happier times - Aiko’s Choice occurs in the timeline before shock seppuku casts a pall on Shadow Tactics’ final straight.
This more interactive storytelling is the only Desperados 3 influence I detect in Aiko’s Choice, a world that is, mechanically, exactly as I left it in 2016. The obvious downside is that you lose the superior planning mode of the cowboy adventure. In that, you could freeze time to cue up moves and synchronise takedowns; in Shadow Tactics, time still progresses, which can make the process more imprecise and panicked. The change was a key factor in why I prefer Desperados 3 over Mimimi's origial ninja outing, so here’s hoping diligent modders add the full tactical pause they eventually added to Shadow Tactics proper.
That quibble aside, Shadow Tactics was a great game before Desperados and remains a great game after it. Mimimi understand that you can make a stealth challenge as tangled as you want, as long as players have the ability to parse it. I adore the way this team builds on the sweeping green view cones of Commandos and Desperados of old, adding attack sightlines, ranges and audio radius with colourful and clear UI elements. This exactness lets you chain abilities into grand plans, safe in the knowledge that moves will behave just so. And if your thinking proves to be dud? The quick load key is right there, inviting you to cook up a fresh scheme. (It remains my great gaming hope that one day Mimimi will get the Mission Impossible licence. Man, that would rule.)
And given that Aiko’s Choice is aimed at those familiar with the original, it also gives Mimimi permission to jump in the deep end. For starters, you get all five characters to play with - something that only happened once in the original game. Well, I say you get all five: the stage I play is set on an archipelago which naturally limits the movement of water-averse Mugen, while Takuma is trapped in a ship’s crowsnest that only grants him sniper coverage of closer islands. This creates a range of exciting spaces for the three ninjas who can swim. On the mainland they benefit from Mugen’s ability to kill entire squads with a whirlwind of blades, but swim the soggy trio closer to Takuma and they can synchronize four-man takedowns. In between the two are islands where the sea lets you approach and attack from any angle. It’s a level made of micro levels, and gets me excited to see the two other new missions.
A self-contained island is a perfect showcase for what Shadow Tactics is about. You swim around the outside, submerged but for a bamboo snorkel, getting a read on sightlines and confirming that, yes, every guard falls under the watchful eye of another. And so begins the vital first step: the first kill that weakens the surveillance network. Perhaps you find a secluded beach and use Yuki’s flute to lure a guard to a pressure-activated dart trap. Maybe you fling a vial of Aiko’s blinding perfume at a sniper and shank a nearby guard while his view cone recovers. Or do you program all three to leap from the ocean and stab the guards in the neck at the press of a key, ending all three cries of alarm at once? Experimenting, and seeing how each new island layout negates the previous’ winning strategies, is all part of the fun.
The concern, and the risk of releasing this kind of expansion so long after the original, is that it might get you into the zone for an experience that is over too soon. I know that after playing this demo I’m already feeling a bit sad that I’m a third through it. Of course, to say that this is ‘only’ three levels does a great disservice to Mimimi’s eye for replayability. As in their last two games, main missions come with a huge range of bonus criteria, ranging from speed runs (it takes me almost three hours to finish a level with a target of 15 minutes) to tests of playstyle, such as clearing out an entire island with just Takuma’s sniper shots, or destroying another island’s objective without touching a guard. These are ideas designed to lure you into stealth systems and ability combos that are far deeper than they first seem. I’m sure returning fans will lap it up.
While I’m convinced that this would have made more sense as a digestif served after the original release, I’m also not so churlish to sniff at more of one of my favourite games of the last decade. And if it offers more financial stability for Mimimi to focus on its next big original game - the bafflingly named Codename Süßkartoffel - I’m all for it. When Aiko's Choice releases on Steam in December this should fill a couple of those long winter nights nicely.