First Impressions: Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun

It’s not very often that when I play a videogame these days, I am blown away. But that’s what happened as I started to play Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun.

I first saw this on Steam, a while ago. Wow it looked good. But I don’t have a PC and my Mac isn’t really up to playing games, so when I heard it was coming out on console, I was excited. Three levels in now, and not only was I not disappointed (which so often happens when my hopes are raised higher than they should be) but it’s excelled my expectations.

Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun is an isometric/top-down strategic stealth game. Think Diablo meets Metal Gear Solid with a dash of Mark of the Ninja. Or, perhaps more think of Commandos. For those not ‘in the know’, Commandos is a similar styled game with a storied history on PC and a cult-fanbase. Suited to mouse and keyboard, it did have an appearance on home consoles and sadly I must confess that I played it briefly, before confessing that it was just too hard. Shame on me.

Shadow Tactics heard these woes and has no pity on me. It’s hard. Really hard. But, it’s always down to you to beat it. It’s not because it’s unfair, or because you can’t hit the buttons quick enough, the ability to succeed in Shadow Tactics is a part of your lateral thought and planning as much as joypad co-ordination. Helped by the fact you move the characters in real time (rather than point-and-click) you move your tiny figures around this world, killing folks and hiding bodies as you go.

This is the first thing I really loved. I say ‘tiny figures’ and I mention it because Shadow Tactics feels like you’re controlling characters in a real-life (but digital) diorama. The levels are so intricately put together, bustling with detail and colour, and only get better as you zoom in, out and around the levels. Black lines surround scenery and objects, giving it almost a cartoon-ish feel but really making the colours pop brightly. It’s smooth too, on PS Pro you can opt for unlocked frame rate at the expense of v-sync (not recommended) or 60 frames per second which frankly, just helps it look lovely. Non Pro owners are stuck with 30 frames per second, but honestly it isn’t a bit deal in a game of this ilk.

There’s an interesting story which plays along, and unfolds as you play a number of different characters at once (selecting between them at will). One, a ninja can throw stones to distract enemies, and kill them with a shuriken. A neat twist is that you need to collect this each time you kill someone with it. A Shogun warrior is the brute force element, able to take out groups at once, and other characters include a sniper, and a trainee ninja blessed with the ability to place traps and distract guards. I love the different abilities each has, and it really allows you to tackle levels in different ways. My favourite approach so far is using the ninja to kill everyone silently. Not sure what that says about me.

There are a few devices which help – the major one being the ability to see enemies cones of vision (and if they can see you, or only see you at distance if you’re standing). You can only select one enemy at a time, so need to learn routes and patrols to navigate the world successfully. Another significant nod to the Metal Gear approach to stealth. This also allows you (if you wish) to try and complete each level without killing anyone, although given how tough it is, this is probably only one for the experts.

Bearing in mind I’m only three levels in, an early gameplay mechanic introduced is snow. You see, in snow you leave footprints. This is bad for enemies being able to track you, but by turning this into a tactical advantage you can leave tracks which lure your foes into another one of your characters for a bitter end.

The combination of gameplay, story, visuals, sound (you can have Japanese dialogue!) and just being so different to most games these days (certainly on console) have me completely hooked. So much so that I am actually finding myself not playing it. Instead I’m savouring it. Picking some time for a dedicated hour or two to play – which works well given the levels are huge and I haven’t done any in under an hour yet. Lots of quick saving and quick loading helps maintain momentum and curb any potential frustration you have, but also encourages you to trial different things and approaches.

Helpfully, you don’t just have to take my word for it. There is a free demo out now for all formats that should give a good idea on how this plays. This isn’t a review so I can’t score it (plus it wouldn’t be fair after only three levels) but I can say this – if it carries on how it’s started, this may be Game of the Year.

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