My first impressions of Shadow Tactics weren’t exactly emphatic. Following a no-nonsense tutorial, the game throws players right in at the deep end, navigating a fortress overrun with guards. While it doesn’t take long to pick up the controls, learning how stealth works in Blades of the Shogun takes time and bucket loads of patience. This isn’t some frenzied, top-down action game; Shadow Tactics is strategic, methodical, and refreshingly hardcore.
If you haven’t guessed already, the game takes place during Japan’s Edo period, a time of samurai, ninjas, and epic clan wars. Despite achieving unification and years of peace, the shogun senses a looming threat, enlisting an unlikely team of misfits and burdening them with the fate of Japan.
Led by the honour-bound Mugen, Shadow Tactics has you controlling a warrior, spy, shinobi, thief, and sharpshooter as they infiltrate and assassinate using a medley of unique skills. As the player, you will control them one at a time, sneaking past patrols, taking out targets, and completing a variety of objectives.
This is all done in real time, albeit from a top-down perspective, and although Shadow Tactics can be likened to other stealth action games, it comes out as something rather unique. You’ve got hints of Metal Gear Solid and Hitman in there, infused with a bit of Tenchu and more than a little of the venerable Commandos series.
As mentioned, Shadow Tactics isn’t the kind of game you simply slide into. It’s very easy to get spotted by patrols and dig yourself into a hole. Although guards ascribe to certain patterns and behaviours, there’s still that hidden layer of unpredictability that can easily quash even the most carefully planned strategies.
In the first mission alone I must have spent several minutes attempting to take out a single enemy, hiding their body, and repositioning myself without being seen. Shadow Tactics would be an infuriating experience if not for its generous quick save system, allowing players to set and load checkpoints in a couple of button presses.
That’s not to say the game is a completely stress-free experience. PC players and fans of real-time strategy games may be used to high angles and finicky camera controls – we reviewed the PC release here -but those using a gamepad will occasionally struggle as characters, enemies, and other points of interest are lost behind the terrain. Like the core gameplay itself, once you get used to these things, Shadow Tactics will start to grow on you.
The game is at its best when combining character abilities to lure, distract, and take down guards without being seen. It can definitely feel a bit trial and error at times though this does little to diminish that sense of reward when a plan is executed perfectly. For those wanting to demonstrate some added flare, they can use Shadow Mode to assign orders to several party members, triggering multiple queued actions with a single button press.
While a fun and interesting take on the genre, Shadow Tactics will prove a little too demanding for some. Although self-contained, levels are surprisingly big, each crammed with an array of moving clockwork pieces. With some stretching past the half-hour mark, it can be an overwhelming and sometimes exhausting game to play. Still, you’d be hard pressed to find a stealth game as satisfying or rewarding.
Version tested: PlayStation 4 Pro