It’s always been a bit of a struggle for me to really get into real time tactics games. During middle school I became obsessed with strategy games, buying up Command & Conquer games and Halo Wars for Xbox 360, but I was never any good at them. Controlling huge armies in real time and keeping track of so many groups and areas and decisions instantly overwhelmed me. Even though I got similarly overwhelmed by a lot of Shadow Tactics, it’s smaller more tactical focus was much easier for me to wrap my head around.
A stealth-based game in Edo period Japan, the setting for Shadow Tactics is hardly groundbreaking – I even reviewed a similar game just a couple months ago. What makes it stand out is that it isn’t a first or third person action game, but rather a real time tactics game where you’re sneaking past or silently assassinating any enemies that stand in your way.
You don’t just control one stealthy character, though. There are 5 different characters that you’ll be manipulating in real time throughout the lengthy campaign. Each has their own strengths and weaknesses, and it’s important to use their skills in tandem with each other to make it through each level. Thankfully, the game doesn’t throw you in at the deep end and make you control 5 distinct characters at once from the start. You’re slowly introduced to the cast of characters throughout the first few missions, giving you time to get acclimated with how each of them operates.
Honestly, with just the initial silent ninja character, I already thought the game presented an engaging challenge. Avoiding enemy lines of sight, hiding bodies and taking advantage of the vertical level design with rooftops and cliff faces to scale was fun and engaging. Once a second character had been introduced, the learning curve ramped up a bit.
You’re very quickly expected to pull off near simultaneous actions to progress through the level. There are some great gameplay mechanics in place to help you out with that, such as a Shadow mode that lets you store multiple character commands and then have them performed at the same time with one button press. For the times when you need to experiment with your approach, there’s a smooth quick save system, and a timer even pops up now and then informing you of the last time you’ve saved.
You’ll be saving so, so damn often. Even with such tools, Shadow Tactics is a complex game, and it takes a lot of thinking and a lot of experimentation just to make it past one set of enemies. By the time a third character was introduced to me near the end of the first mission, I could smell the smoke coming out of my ears as my brain struggled to keep up with what I had to do next. Still, the game never feels truly overwhelming or out of control; it’s very easy to get your characters into hiding spots that let you take a breather and formulate your next move. So while the game is constantly moving like any other RTS, being able to take a moment to plan your next steps and study enemy movements helps even someone like me manage to conquer each challenge I was presented with.
Still, all of those moments of strategizing and experimentation add up. The levels in Shadow Tactics are not short by any means and I generally found myself taking well over an hour or two for each mission, yet I constantly felt the need to take a break every 20 or so minutes. On top of that, you can zoom your view out at any time and see all of the areas you still need to traverse to beat the level. In that sense, the game can certainly get a bit overwhelming. It feels like the game might have been improved from having slightly shorter missions, or breaking them down into smaller sections.
Thankfully, levels never get old or repetitive. Each mission takes you to a distinct new environment, and poses new types of challenges and goals. Snowy mountains and lush forests are all rendered in a sharp, inky style, and while character models were pretty standard fare, the environments they inhabited were always filled with rich colours and sharp details.
The story that ties each of these missions and environments together is just as rich. The game poses a unique war drama involving a mysterious figure hellbent on raising an army to overthrow the shogun, and each of your characters happen upon each other through various coincidences and end up getting roped into putting an end to this conspiracy. Not only is the way each character is introduced engaging, but the amount of characterization they get is wonderful. These people who start out as strangers quickly get to know each other and earn each other’s trust, engaging in a bunch of quippy banter along the way. Cute character moments like those helped keep me invested in the mission I was undertaking.
There aren’t many games like Shadow Tactics, and thankfully, it sets the bar high for any would-be challengers. The blend of RTS controls with stealth-oriented gameplay and level design create incredibly satisfying, almost puzzle-like encounters. It takes a lot of time and patience to be able to discover the solutions to these puzzles, however, and the hours long missions often left me feeling fatigued before I was even halfway through with them. Shadow Tactics is a unique exploration of the stealth genre with a great amount of polish, but if you’re going to dive in, be prepared for just how deep the water is.
Version tested: PC