Everyone has their preferred genres, don’t they? And while the strategy genre isn’t a favourite of mine, I can occasionally be tempted to play a squad-based tactics game without the tedious resource-gathering and base-building of games like StarCraft et al. Like other strategy games, they come in two main varieties, turn-based and real-time.
I like both kinds, personally, but I recently acquired a stealth-focused squad-based tactics game of the real-time variety called Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun, which I was compelled to buy after trying the demo on PSN. It’s been on PC since December last year, but it just arrived on PS4 and got my attention. You may have guessed from the title that it’s set some time in Japan’s past – in this case, the beginning of the Edo Period when Japan was finally unified under Tokugawa and a long period of peace and stability was at hand.
Or was it?
In the tutorial/intro stage, players are put in control of a ninja named Hayato, who has been hired by the Tokugawa forces to infiltrate an enemy stronghold and open the gates from the inside, allowing the Tokugawa forces to enter and win the final battle that will usher in the Edo era of peace. While on this mission, Hayato meets and teams up with a samurai named Mugen and an elderly sniper named Takuma, who help him complete his mission. During later missions, two more allies are added to the crew: a street urchin girl named Yuki who’s handy with traps, and a female ninja named Aiko who specialises in disguises and distractions. As this crew of unlikely allies investigates suspicious activity, they learn that some nobles are planning to undermine their newly-acquired peace and plunge the country in war once more – unless they can stop it.
In game terms, this translates into a linear string of missions, each preceded by a talky story bit. Each mission has a goal, or several goals, from sabotaging enemy transports to killing important officials to pickpocketing documents. For each mission, you’re given control of some of the characters, like Hayato and Mugen; or Hayato, Takuma and Yuki; but rarely all of them at once.
Each character has their own tools and abilities. Hayato can kill a single enemy with a shuriken, which he must retrieve before he can use it again. Okay? Just bring more than one dude, they’re not heavy. He can also climb and distract enemies with rocks. Mugen is slow moving, but can kill multiple enemies at once and carry heavy loads. Takuma can snipe enemies from extremely long range and command his trained pet tanuki to create diversions, but he can’t melee kill enemies or carry corpses. Yuki can place a reusable, lethal trap and use her whistle to lure enemies into it. And lastly, Aiko can don disguises and chat to enemy guards to distract them. She can also throw a sneezing powder bomb that temporarily blinds enemies. It doesn’t last long, but it might give an ally enough time to slip by.
The gameplay is most similar to Commandos or Desperados. You control your squad of characters from a bird’s eye view, switching between them to avoid, distract or kill enemies as you please on your way to your final goal. If you’re spotted, enemies will call reinforcements and attack. You might be able to escape and hide, but the reinforcements don’t leave, making your job harder. For those occasions when you need a bit more coordination from your squad, you can use game’s main innovation, Shadow Mode, which allows you to “record” a future action for each character – for example, you could record the shadow of Hayato killing a guard at range and record Mugen killing another guard up close, then you press the “execute plan” button and both characters will carry out their orders. It’s simple but powerful and allows you to achieve things you would never be able to controlling one character at a time – but it can also go disastrously, hilariously wrong if you don’t carefully calculate the ramifications of your harebrained scheme.
Unfortunately I don’t have anywhere near the word count I would need to describe the game’s intricacies to you in a way that would do them justice, so just take my word for it that it’s damn good. If you’re one of those jaded gamers who’s tired of all the mainstream samey-ness and the deceptive, money-grubbing, unfinished indie-ness, Shadow Tactics might just give you a reason to postpone committing seppuku for a while.