Kids these days fancy referencing the difficulty of modern challenging games as “Souls-like.” They can keep off my grass, because they are likely too young to remember games like Commandos: Behind Enemy Lines, a cult-classic real-time tactics game set during World War II. Notorious for its difficulty, while bereft of checkpoints or quicksaves, the levels of the original Commandos required tremendous endurance to complete; one mistake meant forty-five minutes to an hour plus of real-life time down the drain; YouTube speedruns did not exist in the 90’s.
Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun is a game that is almost two years old. Since its release, Mimimi Productions co-founders Dominik Abé and Johannes Roth wrote a well-circulated “postmortem piece” on what went wrong and what went right in their pursuit of creating a Commandos-like game with ninjas. I am regretfully late to the party, yet I could not resist giving this game the attention and credit that it deserves.
The primary content concern in Shadow Tactics is certainly that of violence. Players will control a team of assassins. Four out of five members of the group can use non-lethal means to disable prey temporarily; the game’s difficulty is reduced significantly should they instead inflict lethal stab wounds. All members eventually gain a crude wrist-mounted single-shot flintlock, but only one specializes in the usage of a long-range (sniper) rifle. One character can cut down multiple foes simultaneously, and another can set a trap that, when sprung, impales its victim right through the soft tissue under the chin and above the neck.
As Shadow Tactics is set in the Edo Period of Japan, the code of Bushido reigns. This is not only a warrior code but also a virtue akin to a religion. Honor is everything, and when one experiences enough shame, they may commit seppuku, or suicide, in an effort to restore their standing. After all lethal acts of violence, a small stain of blood is left on the ground to mark where the death takes place. In addition to Bushido, players will infiltrate temples where monks will wonder and pray. While Mimimi Productions does not explicitly state what faith NPCs are practicing, it is likely Buddhism, Shintoism, and Confucianism.
Lastly, while sex is not addressed directly, it is possible to hear an adversary refer to one member of the team as another’s bed-wench. Additionally, it may be necessary to commandeer an NPC’s clothes, stripping them down to their undergarment. Because of how images are rendered from a distance, little can be seen in detail when this happens.
One character can use a bottle of sake to lure unsuspecting foes into danger. No one actually drinks from the bottle.
The story of Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun is rooted in historical fiction. Taking place during the Tokugawa Shogunate, also known as the Edo period of Japan, an underground warlord known as Kage-sama has emerged, posing a threat to the peace that had been established in Nihon. In order to quell this rebellion, the Shogun hires a ninja named Hayate to infiltrate a fort and sabotage it from within. The Shogun hedges his bets by also enlisting the services of a samurai named Mugen to appropriate the fort. During this mission, Mugen tries a front-door assault approach and is pinned down by gunfire. Demonstrating that he is an assassin with a heart, Hayato saves the samurai, who pays back the debt with gratitude. After succeeding in breaching the fort’s gate, the two men go their separate ways…
…only to be reunited after stumbling upon and sabotaging an illegal drug smuggling operation. From this point forward, Mugen continues to report his findings to the Shogun while undertaking covert operations against Kage-sama with his own hand-chosen team. This consists of Takuma, an elderly sharpshooter who was thought dead after being blown off a roof during his first mission cameo; Yuki, a thief orphaned by the casualties of Japanese warfare, who Hayato randomly encounters during an unrelated mission; and finally, a kunoichi named Aiko, who also happens to be Mugen’s lover.
To the uninitiated, Commandos and its sequels entail a small squad of elite soldiers who conduct a series of Missions Impossible: collect this intel; sabotage that strategic landmark; disable those weapons; assassinate a commander; and perhaps most importantly, always escape as a team. Ironically, Metal Gear Solid and Commandos (and Rainbow Six and Tenchu) were released in 1998, making it a fantastic year for the emergence of stealth games as a genre, and they both included the core mechanic of being able to see the vision of patrolling soldiers in a cone-shape, though the latter game executes this via two shades of green; light green indicates where players could order their troops to crawl while remaining unseen, while dark green represents the threatening area where if seen within, the team’s mission could be compromised, for not only do hostile troops shoot to kill, but an alarm is raised, sending reinforcements where the commando was last seen. This mechanic carries over into Shadow Tactics, and staying out of enemies’ line of sight (LOS) remains a principal gameplay element. One key, merciful change though is that when sight or sound arouses enemy suspicion, players have until the LOS meter fills before investigation or alert modes become activate.
Besides considering enemy placement and patrol routes in Commandos, one must manage the talents of the individual soldiers. Likewise, Shadow Tactics requires scrupulous usage of Mugen’s teammates and friends. Each character here is streamlined such that I never felt a time when any of them were useless until a special instance on specific maps, such as the Driver’s limited role in Commandos. Furthermore, no character is incapable of defending themselves like the Sapper. The dynamism of Mugen’s crew thus innately encourages experimentation with near limitless ways to accomplish any given mission.
Takuma is the Sniper in Shadow Tactics, a role that strikes me as notably anachronistic. Nevertheless, while his ammunition is limited like his Commandos incarnation, I would often feel that I had used too few shots rather than too many. For those who manage to find ways to use Takuma more than I, it is possible to discover additional rounds in levels where he appears. Perhaps most importantly, Takuma owns a pet tanooki who can be ordered to run around and make noise as a mobile decoy. This skill is borderline imba!
In addition to the standard kit that every “ninja” gets, which includes being able to swim and hide underwater, vertically scale structures via grappling hooks and vines, and tightroping across two buildings, Hayato can toss a rock to make noise so that nearby guards (briefly) look in another direction before returning their gaze. Commandos fans may recall Tiny the Green Beret’s decoy, and that misdirection is a powerful tool. Hayato also has one of my favorite weapons, the iconic shuriken, which allows him to slay foes from a midrange distance—much like the Diver’s speargun, in Commandos. The catch, however, is that the shuriken must be manually recovered.
Another item that must be retrieved after being deployed is Yuki’s trap. Combined with her bird whistle, Yuki can lure her victims right into it as she hides nearby in the bushes. Indeed, for convenience, Yuki’s kit combines the Sapper’s bear trap and the Green Beret’s decoy into one character, making her puerile mannerisms misleading in light of how lethal she can be. Her biggest flaw is that she cannot quickly carry a body, but has to slowly drag them out of sight so that they remain undiscovered.
Aiko also must drag corpses, though she should be rarely used for this purpose, as she is the game’s Spy. She packs a “sneezing powder” that will briefly reduce a guard’s field of vision, allowing a small window for allies to commit all sorts of deeds. After acquiring a change of clothes, Aiko can walk or run around stages unimpeded while disguised, and infiltrate backlines to wreak havoc; she can also use this costume to make small talk to distract unfriendlies. Only enemy samurai can see through her costume, rendering her vulnerable if she crosses their line of sight.
Mugen is the “heavy” in Shadow Tactics, the only character who can assassinate a samurai in one-on-one combat. Though I use the word “assassinate,” the animation that takes place is more akin to a duel than a brief execution. He is also able to carry two dead bodies at once, and move and throw heavy objects such as barrels or builders. His AOE sword wind ability can kill multiple non-samurai enemies simultaneously. Lastly, he can chuck a bottle of sake on the ground to lure thirsty soldiers—think in terms of magazines in MGS, but without the smut.
Commanding a team more buff than the Commandos lineup does not mean that Shadow Tactics is easy. In fact, the difficulty remains challenging, requiring tightly coordinated timings to carry out certain phases of a map. An example of a sequence of events is as follows: Yuki whistles at a watchman, who now proceeds toward her. As he exits one of his ally’s LOS, Mugen simultaneously crosses the field this soldier was guarding to slice up a patrol comprised of three men. Hayato kills a different guard with a shuriken at the same time Yuki whistles, and Aiko throws the sneezing powder on a sentry so that he will not see his friend step on Yuki’s trap after being attracted by her commotion. But this is merely one of several possible solutions. Trial and error is sometimes necessary; while trying to discover these various methods that yield success, players will frequent the quicksave and reload functions
This is because Shadow Tactics adds advanced hazards to the Commandos formula. These come in several forms. A dying enemy makes more noise depending on the method used to dispatch them; enemies tend to suffer more loudly while dying by shuriken as opposed to a close-range sword stabbing, and gunshots are absolutely clamorous. Takuma attracts attention to himself by merely running. Civilian NPCs—who can be killed without penalty, except for their deaths weighing on the player’s guilty conscious—can detect Mugen’s gang and are quick with snitching their positions to the enemy. Soldiers wearing straw hats never leave their posts for any reason and are resistant to distractions. Lastly, samurai can only be eliminated by means more creative than right clicks when Mugen is absent.
In this Shadow Mode attack, Aiko shoots the soldier farthest in the bunch. This gives the other two pause, allowing Hayato and Yuki time to pounce upon them. Note the vibrating circles around all three ninja, which vary in size depending upon the noise generated through their contribution to this ambush.
Of course, it would be nigh-impossible to execute simultaneously the multiple inputs necessary to achieve victory. Here is where Shadow Mode comes into play. When activated, one queues actions that, on the player’s command, can be executed synchronously—a quality-of-life feature that might have saved me hours when playing the OG Commandos games. When a sequence of queued actions (finally) click, it is a beautiful thing to watch. Still, the limitations of the AI are beyond my ability to suspend disbelief; if two soldiers have been patrolling a route around each other for thirty minutes, and then one of them suddenly goes missing indefinitely without a superior officer giving the order, would the remaining soldier not grow suspicious? This happens a few times during the course of the game, and some soldiers will break off from their routines to search. However, they do not permanently remain suspicious, nor does this occur frequently enough.
This is one of the tougher patrols to quell. Hayato tosses a shuriken for style points, as he could have instead ran with Aiko to stab the trooper on the left. Before the Samurai can react, Mugen exits from an adjacent building and wins his duel.
Much of the music in Shadow Tactics revolves around the melody of “Main Theme,” which is a powerful song by itself, and could be inserted into well-known movies such as 13 Samurai or Revenge of the Ninja without effort. However, the soundtrack in general captures the mood of the game as strategic and methodical, so there are few tracks that I feel I can add to my playlists without being lulled to sleep. “Trouble on the Nakasendō“ is one such track that would not endanger my life while driving, as it is upbeat and Tenchu-like. “Preparing to Die,” the “high alert” track, is worth mentioning not because of its harmony, but because of its heart-throbbing intensity.
Shadow Tactics is a beautiful game not only regarding its art direction, but as a total package. Graphically inspired by the pre-rendered scenes from the Commandos days, Shadow Tactics features beautiful landscapes including snow-sprinkled temples, bustling night markets, tranquil bathhouses, and besieged castles. Sounds and animations provide the tactile feedback necessary to make one feel like an actual ninja. The panning camera from Commandos 2 “returns” here, allowing players to properly scout for critical information.
I tried my best, but I fear that 2000+ words are still inadequate for explaining how much I love Shadow Tactics. Its only major flaw is that it makes me feel ashamed that I took two years to play it—a fault that is completely my own. Shadow Tactics is a title that has vaulted itself right up there on my personal list of greatest games ever. Play it, yesterday!
The Bottom Line
Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun is a game that hits me right square in the nostalgia, almost completely disarming of my faculties as a critic. As a love letter to the fans of Commandos, it is a dream come true.