Why I love Shadow Tactics

Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun is not just one of my favorite game of 2016, but my favorite game of 2016, period. It’s already worthy of being called a classic in my mind, which is a very big statement. Because although I’m a fan of this gameplay style, all it would have only taken is a few little problems to turn all my enthusiasm sour and make me wax nostalgic about the games I loved instead. It takes a lot of perfectly tuned features for a real-time tactics game to even work, let alone shine, so my expectations weren’t high. Well, I’ll tell you why it won me over in spades.

You navigate lovely, thoughtfully crafted levels filled with unsuspecting guards, civilians, and the occasional blessed shrubbery, dashing out from behind cover and striking at your enemies in opportune moments. You throw shuriken, slice with swords, distract with sake drinks, and of course lug around corpses so they don’t attract attention. In Shadow Tactics, like in any good real-time tactics game, the wisdom of the duck should be applied: calm on the surface, business underneath. Alarms are not good. Unoccupied buildings that you can duck into for safety are good. You’re always looking for openings, paths, and tricks. Sometimes you’ll feel incredibly dumb as you take ten minutes to squeeze between cones of vision just to move a couple of feet without getting slaughtered, and other times you’ll feel like a genius for pressing one button and watching a whole team of assassins spring into action. That’s the Shadow Mode, where you can command your team to take actions without actually taking them — yet. They execute your genius plan when you tell them to, without having to manually switch between them in hectic moments, allowing you to tie your brain in knots coordinating stuff if you want.

Let’s talk about design challenges with a game like this. Levels have to be designed with a high degree of precision while still allowing for a breadth of options and cascading scenarios. Controls have to avoid the “cockpit syndrome” of throwing dozens of buttons on the screen to account for all the options, but they still have to allow for quick and accurate maneuvers between multiple characters sharing a living map. This means camera controls, movement options, map interaction, and character abilities all at your fingertips without getting in each other’s way. Shadow Tactics strikes a very healthy balance between these. As I play, I can’t help but wonder how much of the design of these games boils down to sheer necessity. Unlike the Metal Gear series, the focus on stealth here is more pure and concentrated. These are living Chess games, taking a relatively basic system and exploring its implications in as many ways as possible without bloating it. The emphasis on stealth is a logical consequence of being vulnerable in a map with limited resources while surrounded by enemies; if they see you, you’ll probably be swarmed and killed, so if you suck as much as I do, you’ll be loading a lot.

Real-time tactics are a unique breed that always needs to find a different sweet spot from their turn-based counterparts to get comfy. They require more attention, and they reward planning, instincts, and adaptability at the same time, except in different ways. The planner must have patience and a deep understanding, but is rewarded with a clear path to victory if they solve the puzzle. The instinctive player must be constantly vigilant because he hasn’t thought things through, but as a reward he is able to discover new options quicker and get messy fun. Good level design forces you to think differently on a regular basis. By simply by remixing the same factors, you get endless interesting situations without introducing new elements altogether; like Chess again. The VR missions in MGS games did the same, and were very popular because of it. I’m not the best at real-time tactics games, but I always appreciate how a well-designed system like this can generate so much dynamic fun for hours. Hitman (2016) did this as well, which is why I gave it such a positive review. We need a lot more sandbox, system-driven games in my opinion.

In Shadow Tactics dozens of enemies will be moving around the map constantly, ready to swarm to a location or sound the alarm. Their timings and movements shape your strategy. The radius of their vision is trackable, and so is the radius of noises from things like pistols or bombs. The GUI is polished to perfection, and information is presented using very clear and intuitive displays. Maps aren’t usually divided into linear sections with straightforward answers, so a lot of information is required to be able to make the correct decision in an open and emergent system. I don’t envy the developers trying to fill those shoes, because there’s a fine line between useful information and distracting clutter. Routines of enemies (and their underlying AI that most games don’t even have to bother with) must be designed in such a way that they are not easily exploited, but still have enough flaws to allow creative people to beat them in dozens of ways. I’ve replayed the levels of Shadow Tactics several times and found new ways of thinking about old problems again and again. Watching other people play stealth games is always fun for me because I realize how much expression of individuality they allow. They are games about not doing something (getting caught) in many ways rather than doing a specific thing (reducing an HP bar) in the optimal way. They use negative space beautifully. Imagine the daredevil player who picks one character and infiltrates as far as he can with him before painting himself in a corner and hiding until his teammates can catch up; or the methodical serial killer who’s only comfortable after he’s cleared an entire area of the map and claimed it as his own; or the multi-tasking wunderkind who can somehow juggle the actions of three or four characters like StarCraft units. The replay value is through the roof for games like this, and Shadow Tactics proves it. I don’t know about you, but I consider that to be value for my dollar.

 

Is it better than Commandos?

I never thought I’d say this, but in many ways Shadow Tactics is superior to the Commandos games. Of course, the characters and motif of Commandos can probably never be topped, since British Special Forces behind enemy lines in World War II is just about the pinnacle of bravado and charm in a tense environment, but Shadow Tactics wisely claims another cherished setting, with ninja and samurai in feudal Japan. The story and characters are somewhat generic, but the same is true of Commandos. These are archetypes meant for dedicated roles within a group, not special snowflakes. They’re each likable, but you won’t find yourself wrapped up in their personal dramas. It’s the mission that matters. Each has a strong premise and theme. If you’ve experienced the full suite of options available in older real-time tactics games you might find yourself wishing there was a broader selection of tasks to do and moves to perform, but that’s always going to be the case I think. You can climb vines, hide in bushes, leap short distances between gaps, and not much else. The interiors of buildings are not fleshed out, meaning you can’t explore them, but you can duck into them and reappear from other exits. You can’t shimmy, crawl on your stomach, dig a hole and bury yourself alive, or hop into a truck and drive over Nazis, so those are points in favor of Commandos. Those games pushed the boundaries of interaction to new heights that still haven’t been surpassed in gaming. Hot air balloons, inflatable rafts, submarines, planes, army tanks… It’s a sandbox full of toys in the best possible sense. Shadow Tactics is serious and reserved by comparison, but this is clearly a choice they weighed: a smaller scope means more focus and polish.

Shadow Tactics has a vibrant palette of colors wherever you go, and the art team should be commended for making places that I’m happy to spend hours in without getting tired of the visuals or music. The enemies are less varied than Commandos as well, but that’s okay too, because they have been distilled into important categories for gameplay purposes. Soldiers and officers are normal, but there are behavioral differences between normal ranks and the “straw hat” captains who won’t fall for the basic trickery of the ninjas you command. Beyond that there are samurai warriors who see through even more of your shenanigans and can’t even be killed with gunfire or (most) melee assassination attacks. There are no enemy animals, but noisy chickens will flap around if you get close, drawing attention your way, and cows can be meddled with to kick unsuspecting guards who made the mistake of standing too close. These are still playful places, even if they doesn’t match the splendour and scale of Commandos games at their peak.

When I get honest with myself, the Commandos series had problems of bloat due to its commitment to simulation and player enabling. You could pick up enemy weapons and uniforms, making your ammo supply nearly endless, and health packs were scattered throughout the level. Abilities often didn’t have a meaningful cooldown, so you could abuse them in the right circumstances through sheer brutish frenzy. Check out the following speedrun and skip to the 1:10 mark to see a good example, with our sneaky commando stabbing something like 20 enemies in 8 seconds or something:

This kind of rampage is hilarious and fun, of course. Going nuts and abusing the systems is part of what makes any strategy game replayable if you get bored of doing things the proper way. But Shadow Tactics goes the opposite direction from Commandos in several important ways, stripping down everything to essentials and thus creating a deeper focus. Enemies all have guns, but you can’t pick them up from dead bodies. This doesn’t make any sense, of course, but I respect the direction they chose. Your team’s guns are weak, loud, and limited. You can’t even hoard ammunition, so you must be sparing. Using your characters’ distinct roles and strengths therefore becomes the real necessity, which is the true puzzle element.

Controls are tighter and more streamlined as a result of this focus. You could never enjoy Commandos with a controller (believe me, they tried) but I actually prefer to do it this way in Shadow Tactics. If you’re familiar with classic real-time tactics games this probably sounds impossible, but it’s true. While using a controller you move your character with the left analog stick, the camera with the right, and perform actions with the four face buttons. The triggers are reserved for toggling between items or characters, and also to set up modifiers for camera or abilities. The D-pad is used for utilitarian stuff like checking your objectives, placing markers to display viewcones, and so on. The game also has a handy reminder function that tells you if a full minute has passed since your last quicksave, which is surprisingly helpful in a game where every inch counts. But the controls are also not set in stone. You can customize your options and then — get this — save them to a profile so you can easily switch between them. This is the kind of polish you’d expect triple-A developers to patch into a game after months of complaints if you’re lucky, not a luxury you’d receive on day one from a small studio. In fact, just about everything in Shadow Tactics is polished to perfection. The developers aren’t Japanese, but they did include Japanese audio for those who’d like more authentic dialogue than English speaking people with accents. The cutscenes are informative and interesting, but you can skip them and they move along at a good pace.

 

Shining Example

What’s the best part of Shadow Tactics? The times when you think an area seems impossible. That’s when your brain starts to do calculations in a thousand different ways, peeling an onion layer by layer. You know it must be possible, so get creative! Then once you beat a level and pat yourself on the back for being a genius, you’ll quickly realize you could’ve done things much more efficiently yet, because you’ll see a list of special achievements. Look forward to finding out you could have done that impossible level twelve times faster if you were a pro, or completed it without using a whole suite of abilities that seemed absolutely crucial the first time around! Tackling the achievements is a real bragging point in this game. Commandos doesn’t offer this, and few games do. I want Shadow Tactics to evolve and continue as a franchise. Mimimi Productions isn’t well known yet, but I think they should be after this game. Nobody puts out products with this level of polish and shine on their initial release, and I’m assuming the publisher Daedalic Entertainment deserves a lot of credit for that as well. The developers must have been well supported. Bravo to everyone involved.

What do I want to see? Local cooperative mode, new levels and enemies, abilities, items, and environmental factors. Underwater sections, hang-gliding, gimmicks, African jungles, cannons, more traps, vehicles, destructibility… I want everything. This is a game that inspires creativity in so many ways that all I can ask for is more.

Although this isn’t a review per se, I will say that this game would receive a +3.6 within my rating system, which puts it way up in the Boss League of games.

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