During the early years of Japan’s Edo period, a group of unlikely heroes is tasked by the shogun to find out the identity of the mysterious warlord Kage-sama who threatens the peace of the country.
Not made but set in Japan
Games taking place in feudal Japan aren’t very common, probably because people’s names can be rather difficult and storytelling is often confusing. This is partly the case here, too, and it doesn’t help that the cut-scenes between levels are often too long with their expository dialogues. However, the story is suspenseful and full of intriguing twists. Despite all the drama and long briefings, there are enough funny and touching moments in between to make the characters believable and likable.
They’re all memorable and one cares for everyone of them: mercenary ninja Hayato who is more a loner, samurai Mugen for whom honor is everything, thief Yuki who wants to lead a more meaningful life like Mugen, assassin Aiko who might be cold from the outside but only because of the way she grew up, and finally sharpshooter Takuma who is always good for a wise saying and wisecracking in equal measure.
A tale of justified violence and bloodshed
One should be aware of the violence and brutality on display, as some characters commit seppuku, i.e. ramming a sword into their stomach and someone else cutting their head off. Outside of these scenes, the game doesn’t shy away from showing lots of blood with each kill the silent assassins perform. This isn’t gratuitous violence, though, as it simply adds to the mature atmosphere of classic or modern samurai and ninja movies that aren’t watered down for a PG rating.
Familiar but different character abilities
Anyone who has played the Commandos series will immediately see the gameplay inspirations, and if one has played the developer’s later title Desperados III, the comparisons are even more obvious. But using feudal Japan as a setting is probably the best that could have happened to a genre which relies more on stealth than action. Hiding in the shadows (or bushes), jumping from rooftop to rooftop and silently taking out enemies has never felt this satisfying and realistic at the same time.
Each character has unique abilities and plays very differently, but they all fit nicely into the martial arts theme: Ninja Hayato throws shurikens; samurai Mugen brings down multiple enemies with his Sword Wind attack; assassin Aiko uses her womanly charms (in the disguise of a geisha, not unlike Kate O’Hara in the aforementioned Wild West strategy game) and then her hairpins to dispose of enemies; thief Yuki lures enemies with her flute and then makes them fall into traps she sets; old man Takuma doesn’t only use his sniper rifle for quick kills, but has tamed tanuki Kuma for distraction purposes as well. However, the most rewarding moments are those when they have to work together to overcome a current problem.
United in the shadows
The best coordinated attacks can be done with the Shadow Mode in which one can give characters orders that are then performed simultaneously at the press of a button. However, unlike Desperados III, the game isn’t paused, so one has to prepare in advance and bring everyone in position to be successful, preventing the feature to become as much fun as it could be.
The levels are varied, never too long and with a good overview at the start one always knows where to go or what to do. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t some surprises, as objectives can change during missions. One hasn’t to completely rethink strategies or is left with an unfair situation (as it happened in Desperados: Wanted Dead or Alive), so these changes rather add to tension and requires the player to learn about each character’s usefulness. This can be seen in one level where the heroes have to escape their prison cages without using their weapons, resulting in an almost adventure game-like puzzle.
Despite clear goals, one can often choose different routes, e.g. hiding inside a wagon and passing by enemies or discovering secret paths instead of taking the main road. In one level one has to assassinate a lord, which can be achieved by either poisoning his tea or climbing a tower and using a sniper rifle. In another mission one has to capture a lord’s son by distracting his samurai guards. This is either done by disposing of his masseur or overheating the water that is used for his bath. In the first case he sends them away to investigate, in the second one, he jumps out of his bath and runs off, which is obviously the most humorous way to catch him.
Dangerous environments and new challenges
In addition to the different character abilities and alternative routes, one can often use the environment to dispose of enemies, e.g. throwing rocks on them or shooting at icicles to fall down on unsuspecting victims. One always has to be on one’s toes, because using the same character or strategy doesn’t work every time. This can be seen with enemies wearing straw hats that can’t be distracted or powerful samurai that can only be killed by Mugen or with the combined effort of two other characters.
More replayability is guaranteed with various bonus objectives that result in more badges that can be earned. These are only displayed after one has completed a level and don’t unlock anything new, so they’re aimed more at completionists or those who want to have an even bigger challenge.
Despite various difficulties to choose from, the game can become very frustrating with its high number of enemies, especially in the almost unfair last level. Being true to the original Commandos or Desperados games, the title is reward and punishing in equal measures, making slow progress with many trial-and-error moments a necessity in some levels.
A visual and audio feat
The graphics feature an outstanding cel-shaded art style that is complemented by detailed backgrounds and convincing weather effects. The interplay between lights and shadows works very well, too, and adds to the atmosphere. Fluid character animations are impressive during play, but in long conversations, their movements become repetitive. Fortunately, there are enough cool or rather bloody action set-pieces shown in slow-motion. The cinematic CGI cutscenes are a pleasant surprise as well, because they give the impression of watching a water color painting or shadow play come to life.
The voice acting is excellent throughout, which is essential, considering how dramatic some of the story segments are. The music is just as great, delivering some soothing as well as thrilling pieces that are mostly played with classic Japanese instruments. The sound design adds much to the atmosphere, too, as can be heard with the rustling of leaves, birds chirping, water flowing, rain and thunder.
A familiar and unique experience
Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun obviously sets itself apart from the Commandos or Desperados games with its martial arts themes and does so with plenty of style, be it the appropriately violent presentation, orchestral soundtrack, or very Japanese characters and storytelling.
The gameplay shines with dynamic levels offering different ways of completing them due to the unique character abilities. So the rather high difficulty is probably the only thing that prevents a broader audience from experiencing the best of what the RTS genre has to offer.
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