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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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...
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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(The Flare Path will return next Friday)