Strategy is one of those genres that has fluctuated in terms of notoriety throughout gaming history. Age of empires, Command and Conquer, Civilisation and others have been around for decades and some still argue the original versions of these franchises are timeless classics but when it came to the console’s birth into the market and more specifically around the mid 2000’s, the strategy genre kind of went dark. Some franchises kept going but in terms of overall market presence they were minor compared to shooter and action game sales. The big game companies said that strategy games would never make a huge difference anymore and no one needed it but when some games like Firaxis’ XCOM released to massive global success, people realised that they always wanted some sort of strategy game in their lives and so this resurgence of strategy has created some fantastic titles but is there one more game to add to that list?
A lot of strategy games that have appeared in recent years like XCOM and the Total war series have really fallen into one of two categories; They either are turn based skirmish games in the vein of older tabletop wargaming or grand strategy with massive armies clashing for control. Dawn of war 2 attempted to straddle that line by having hero units that are actively fighting other units but failed to really fit it’s setting and didn’t add much to the already massive library of strategy games. Shadow Tactics: Blades of the shogun (I’m a sucker for long, convoluted names) attempts to sneak around on the fence but does it under the eyes of a familiar master.
Shadow Tactics which is what it shall be known as for the rest of the piece for sanity’s sake is a hardcore stealth-based strategy game from Daedalic Entertainment and Mimimi productions. You as the player will control 5 specialists loyal to the new shogun during the Edo period of Japanese history. You’ll go from mission to mission leading the team against Kage-sama, a voice in the wind that is trying to start a rebellion against the Shogunate. The game isn’t a turned based affair but it’s not really a full action game either. You’ll be taking control of one of the available team at a time and using their individual skills to sneak, stab and trap your way through the missions and the gorgeous scenic locations. If anyone is familiar with the older Commandos games from the early 2000’s then you’ll get the idea. For those who haven’t then I’ll elaborate more.
Each mission you’ll be given a set of objectives but it’s up to you how you approach those objectives, taking into consideration what characters you have available and their skill sets gives you a lot of options but most available routes require you to use every character over just letting one person go on a killing spree. My first attempt during the first mission was to just use the ninja (Hayato) and complete all the objectives but then I realised, to get to a certain section in order to advance I would need to have the samurai (Mugen) come with me so both of them could take out the guards and carry a heavy object. You need to think in a more lateral way when it comes to tackling each part of the mission. You’ll be reloading saves quite frequently in order to get it right but it’s not dissuading you from doing it, the game encourages you to save frequently and load even more so. The pop-up that appears every minute will let you know when you last saved but you don’t have to if you haven’t really made much progress. I spent nearly 20 minutes in the same spot trying to plan out the best way of getting out of a really bad situation that I had caused but couldn’t load an old enough save to reverse it due to only having 3 save slots that cycle.
The game feels like a love letter to the previous generation of hardcore strategy games and even takes that old way of playing and makes it refreshing. I was never bored during my time with it and that is a rare thing to say considering you can spent a large amount of time sitting in a bush staring at the same guard thinking he might move away but never does. You’re always in motion in a sense because you’re planning your next three moves for every one you do. The how matters just as much as the when as well as the what will happen because of my actions. This kind of thinking will grip you from one mission to the next and put you on the edge of your seat without really doing much on screen. This kind of design is rare in my opinion. Each level designed to test you more than the last and then just because you’ve completed the level doesn’t mean you completed it in the best way. It keeps pulling you back in but not because it’s actively trying to but because you know for a fact that there were better ways of beating the level. Leading from this is that the design behind the levels adds to your calculated thought process like a small albino gorilla with a chainsaw. You are surprised when you first see it and now you know it’s there and could destroy everything at any moment. An example and something I feel is missing in games with “Stealth” sections. There is a level in which you have to infiltrate a manor house and steal a set of documents from a high-ranking officer. The trapper (Yuki) and Mugen are working together but you start off as the nimble Yuki first. The timeframe is winter and the town you’re in is covered in snow which would be fine in normal games but the level of detail in the design has made it so that the footprints you leave in any snowy areas can be seen by the guards and they will investigate. When you first discover this, it scares you into a state of panic in which you tip toe everywhere but then the lateral thinking kicks in and you have to think of how can I use this to my advantage and then the level opens up a bit more.
The level of detail in the design really makes this game shine. Having the choice between Japanese and English voices (I used Japanese for the more weeby experience). Not having to “level” characters but knowing they are the best they can be and can then learn how to master them. Having to mental think about every move and every possible thing that could get me caught or killed. It’s exhilarating for the inquisitive mind and that’s when it’s got you. It was very difficult to put down but after playing it for almost 6 hours straight at one-point time was my only enemy. The thing is that the game itself was released on steam months ago to heavy praise and I understand why after playing it myself but the difference here is that I was playing the console version. This game of lateral thinking and incredible design made the transition from PC to console and it works beautifully. The controls are slightly clunky and it’s very likely you’ll end up swapping characters or items when you don’t want to but it runs like a dream on PS4. There are some things that would be easier with a mouse like zooming and panning but the developers neatly tucked that into a practical place on the game pad.
It’s very difficult to come up with any true grievances with the game itself. This love letter will keep you enthralled in it’s deep and thought-provoking gameplay throughout its 25-30 hour story and you’ll keep wanting to go back to show yourself that you can be better. Sneak through the amazingly designed levels and use everything to your advantage and it’ll be very difficult not to keep coming back. Plus, it has a Tanuki in it so that just tops it off on my list. If you’re not into stealth then this might convince you to at least try it due to its strategy heart. If you are, prepare for a new favourite.