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RPG Codex Review: Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun
Review - posted by Infinitron on Wed 4 January 2017, 23:40:51Tags: Daedalic Entertainment; Mimimi Productions; Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun
[Review by Ludo Lense]
The loss of the ability to be surprised is one of the saddest losses that fans or experts of a medium suffer from. That doesn’t mean you develop an immunity to the ever-looming hype train, of course. Indeed, the craving for a meaningful experience can be quite blinding. But that usually means developing expectations for something you know (you think) will be good. Being totally blindsided by a game is much rarer. People forget that a 1% chance or 99% chance of something happening doesn't make it impossible or certain, and the recently released Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun proves that. A game I will henceforth abbreviate as ST.
The biggest reason why this game proved to be a surprise is the obscurity of its developer. Munich-based Mimimi Productions had previously only developed a handful of mobile titles and an underwhelming 3D platformer in the vein of Jak and Daxter. Yet lo and behold, they decided to take a stab at a multi-platform Commandos/Desperados-style tactical game with bells and whistles to match. There wasn't even a Kickstarter campaign or any of the other signs that usually mark genre revival projects. The game's publishers are Daedalic Entertainment, who were responsible for the excellent Blackguards, so there is a good link with tactics-focused games there. Then again, Daedalic also made the decidedly less-than-excellent Blackguards 2.
Regardless of how it came to be, ST’s ancestors are often referred to as some of the best tactics games around by old school gamers, so it has some big britches to fill.
Theme has always had a strange role in these sorts of games. “Hollywood-styled setting real-time squad tactics” is a bit of a mouthful, but accurate: Commandos is set in WW2, Desperados in the Wild West, the lesser-known Robin Hood is self explanatory and ST takes place in Edo Japan. I wouldn’t call any of these games historically accurate, but more like the Chinatown experience. Not quite realistic but not quite ignorant. That being said, ST has a certain degree of non-descriptiveness about it that doesn’t really serve the game well. It takes place during the end of the extremely bloody Sengoku period and the start of the rigidly peaceful Edo period, but the narrative will probably make those who know anything about that era groan. The titular Shogun cannot be anybody other than Ieyasu Tokugawa, but the game never calls him that and the general flow of events is incompatible with how history went down after the fall of Osaka Castle, which is where the plot starts. Obviously the game isn’t meant to be a historical learning experience, but I can’t help but think that this sort of uchronia is harmful. Things like having a mission to retrieve an Enigma machine in Commandos added to the experience of that game. Imagine if every one of its characters was generically described as a member of the “Allied Forces” rather than specifying their exact origin. That is how playing ST feels. Still, that only applies to those who know about the period and even then you can ignore the “mistakes” and enjoy the setting. A setting which is otherwise pretty well-realized. There are some weird outfits here and there but for the most part it looks how it should, especially with regards to architecture. Mimimi nailed the feeling of the rice villages and towering castles which dotted the Land of the Rising Sun. Plus, it is a game about ninja and samurai performing amazing feats of assassination and subterfuge. That makes it pretty easy to go with the flow and immerse oneself with childlike glee.
Which doesn’t mean the plot is childish, I should note. It isn’t anything mindblowing and clichés are plenty, but it does feature a lot of civilian slaughter which you can partake in, and quite a few characters decide to exit the story via seppuku. The game's voice acting will play a huge role in how you interpret this grimness. The developers managed to snag some Japanese voice actors for a Japanese dub that comes packaged with the game, and there is a world of difference stylistically between it and the English one. I would describe the English dub as stereotypical, with every actor having a tinge of Asian accent while Bruce Lee-ing it up with lines such as “Move like watah”. The Japanese voices are much more subdued and even borderline historically accurate, which is pretty weird given how fast and loose the rest of the game plays with this notion. The two dubs are so different that the choice between them even determines characters' personalities. Mugen the samurai has a very serious “Sensei” voice in the English dub - it wouldn’t be out of place to hear him say “Shamefur Dispray” - but the Japanese dub has him as a much more loutish brawler-type fellow, which is indicative of his peasant origins. Obviously some people will enjoy the cheese, but personally I consider the Japanese dub to be the superior one and definitely how the game should be experienced.
Everything I mentioned up until now is surface detail that while important, does not make or break ST. These types of real-time squad tactics games have always lived and died on the merits of their gameplay, and particularly of their level design. The whole idea behind the gameplay is to have different overlapping locked systems, represented by enemies with long vision cones and other such obstacles. The player controls a number of characters that possess different abilities which can be considered the keys to the locked systems. The main gameplay loop relies on long moments of low activity where the player crafts a plan, and then short bursts of high activity where the plan is put in motion. Obviously this formula is spiced up by level design and scripted moments, but that's been the general flow of these games, from Commandos back in 1998 all the way up to the present. What makes them so endearing is the sheer amount of ways that they can be broken, rewarding creativity and boosting replayability. Fully lethal, non-lethal, no alarm triggered, etc. Those are the kinds of runs these games inspire. With that in mind, let us see how ST handles the formula.
Possibly the best way to describe the game is “Desperados-style characters with large Commandos-style maps”. The player controls a squad of Japanese period stereotypes as they go about their daily lives by ending lives with various sharp implements and high velocity projectiles. Indeed, ST is very heavy on the murder aspect. This is mainly because death is the only way to permanently neutralize guards. Of course, you can sneak about, but patrol paths are rather long so wouldn’t it be more convenient to just shank a few fellows, even if they are innocent civilians? ST makes no moral judgement on your kill count (unlike Desperados where killing civilians immediately fails the mission) but simply accepts it as another path, the easiest path.
Indeed, a big part of what makes the game tick is the badge system. The game comes with three difficulty settings and nine achievements per map called badges. These badges more or less contextualize different playstyles. Most maps have badges like no civilian kills or no kills at all. When trying to acquire them, you can see how the game's levels have this very thoughtful multilayered design which takes into account wildly different ways to play through them. My only objection is the existence of the Easy difficulty setting. It is basically a Story Mode and this type of experience doesn’t really work with such an approach. This might sound condescending, but the game is designed for you to struggle at times. There are many tools and techniques at the player’s disposal to get past different situations, and you are bound to find the proper “key” to progress forward if you try. Only the other two difficulty settings, Normal and Hard, allow for badges to be acquired, so the game does discourage the use of Easy difficulty.
The biggest innovation that ST brings to the table is verticality. A large part of the cast are basically Olympic-level gymnasts. This involves being able to jump from rooftop to rooftop and use their hookshot at predetermined locations to scale different levels of buildings. There is no mission where you don’t have an agile character, so the developers clearly knew this was an important part of the game that makes it unique among its peers. Indeed, the missions lacking in verticality are by far the weakest of the bunch. Two in particular show just how dependent the game is on this integral element. One takes place on what is arguably the game's smallest map, a tiny village with almost no hiding spots which is an exercise in tedium, and the other requires carrying a body through a war camp. Obviously it is challenging, but stripped of different levels of elevation the whole experience becomes much weaker. It is not “hard fun” as it were. On the other hand there is a mission where you have to break into a keep behind enemy lines which I personally found to be by far the best due to how height connected the map.
Complementing this vertical element are environmental modifiers that are progressively introduced to the player. Snowy areas where guards will follow your footsteps, night maps where torches can be put out but are relit by guards, puddles formed by rainfall that make a great amount of noise when stepped in, etc. There are enough such variations and scripted moments to keep feeding the player's interest at a steady pace. The game has around a dozen maps. Two thirds of the way through, it stops introducing new gameplay elements but enters into a kind of graduation mode, where the difficulty amps up and you'll need to exhibit some degree of system mastery to survive.
On top of this you have AI and enemy variety, which is where ST is tangibly weaker than its predecessors. The game has only three different enemy types, each with its own AI pattern. The devs did squeeze a lot of mileage out of them and I was surprised by how many different configurations they were able to create, but in the end I couldn’t help but feel that additional enemy types were necessary to mix things up. It is a matter of variety, not necessarily quality. The AI is the only part of the game where a random element is introduced. Enemies that are searching or alerted while looking for your characters shift their view cones haphazardly, which can make a world of difference when it comes to being spotted and starting a fight. For enemies, death is a binary affair with no numbers popping up. Your attacks kill or do not. The player characters are a bit different in that they have a set number of hit points, but they are wet paper towels except on Easy difficulty. Given that alarms spawn a large number of guards, all of whom have hitscan weapons, holding your ground isn’t really an option because ammo is quite limited. This is a clear step up from the infinite ammo in Desperados, where waiting around a corner and pumping your enemies full of lead was an all too effective tactic. Stealth is the name of the game in ST, which fits nicely with the ninjutsu theme it sells itself on.
All these elements together mean that quicksaving and quickloading are your best friends. The game heavily emphasizes this in its interface, with a pop-up appearing to warn the player if they haven’t saved for the last minute or so. For those that want to challenge themselves, do not worry, every one of the maps features a time trial badge (reloading doesn’t rewind the time spent). I’d say it is probably the hardest badge to obtain.
The interface has a lot more going for it than just helpful pop-ups. In fact, it could arguably be considered the best part of the game. It has a myriad of small visual details. For example, when you order a melee attack and press the pick up body key, the icon reflecting your action changes to show that the body will be automatically picked up. The quick action from Desperados returns in the form of Shadow mode, which allows you to give different orders to your crew and then simultaneously execute them. This can be a little janky at times, especially when it comes to multiple actions that need to be sequenced on the same target, but it does the job well enough. Keys are fully rebindable, but I found the defaults to be more than adequate. Using your abilities and issuing orders even during high-stress battles is a delight. The only wonky aspect is selecting objects at different elevations. The game's maps are 3D and can be rotated a full 360 degrees and zoomed in/out pretty far. This leads to moments where you'll try to target an order at a building but the game interprets it as the ground. Hookshot spots are particularly guilty of this with their big hitboxes. In areas where they are cluttered it can be somewhat difficult to move your characters around. But all of these are small blemishes on an otherwise outstanding interface, which is a godsend in this genre. While they are classics, Commandos and Desperados did require some interface wrangling which negatively affected the flow of those games.
Characterization plays a big role in shaping the experience of these games. ST has a cast of five characters, something which can't really be considered a spoiler since they are all shown in the game's main menu. To be honest, I have always viewed characterization in these games the same way as I view it in fighting games. A celebration of character divorced of plot and background. That doesn’t mean those elements don’t exist, but rather that they are not necessary in the slightest to understand the cast. One look at any of them and one line spoken will tell you all you need to know from start to finish. So with that being said, we have:
Super Shinobi Hayato who even shouts “Shurikenjustu” before poking someone’s eye out with a throwing star.
Bushido Bastard Mugen who can slice and dice like no other with his trusty katanas and sake jug.
Kooky Yuki who fulfills the child cuteness quota while having the most brutal stab animation.
Alluring Aiko who is the mistress of disguises and thus dressed to kill. Literally.
Venerable Veteran Takuma who has a sniper rifle, bombs and a trained tanuki. Consistent winner of best grandpa awards.
Each one of them has four abilities, which seems like a small number, especially when you consider that two of them are shared by everyone: a stabbing melee attack (except for Takuma, who has a sniper rifle attack instead) and a pistol shot. That leaves two unique abilities for each character. But note that the melee attack isn't the same for everyone. Each character's attack has a different range, duration and noise level, which are helpfully described in their tooltips. This can make a world of difference on higher difficulty settings where split second decisions are par for the course. I was a bit put off by the game's small array of abilities at first, but that changed when I saw their usage breakdown on the end mission screen. It made me realize that I was making use of all the characters and that they all felt well defined. The only exception is Aiko, who needs to retrieve her disguise on each map before she can use it. Her only other unique ability is a blinding powder attack with an underwhelmingly short duration. She feels the most like dead weight on the missions where all the characters are present, at least until she finds a disguise and her options open up.
I would like to add that ST does something that I wish most games in general would do. The lines that the characters voice in response to actions are tailored to the environment and story. The characters will comment on things such as the rain while moving, the fact that they have to make some regrettable kills, or their feelings regarding the plot. It is a very simple but effective method of characterization that doesn't require the use of exposition. If anything, I would have liked for there to have been even more unique responses.
Now, I know abstraction is par for the course in gaming, gameplay trumps realism and so on, but I have to say that ST takes some… let us say, harsh liberties. Some of them are minor, like pools of blood evaporating, but others not so much. Falling damage is nonexistent, which makes sense for your characters given that they're a ninja squad, but it is also possible to throw unconscious enemies 30 meters down to the ground and this miraculously doesn’t kill them. Things become especially fun when you throw explosive barrels right in front of guards, which distract them for a second before they resume their normal routine and then promptly get blown up. These things are amusing, but they can be infuriating too. Some characters drag bodies and others carry them, which affects the distance at which they are seen by enemies. This is obviously intended to differentiate the characters further, but I couldn’t help but feel that it was incredibly forced at times. I wanted to shout “Mate, just drag the body”, but everyone is dead set on their technique I guess. Your experience may vary, but I think everyone will find at least one aspect of the game to be immersion breaking.
Let us go quickly through the production side of things before wrapping up. The game never crashed for me, so that is a definite plus, and it runs rather smoothly, although the initial loading times for a mission are a bit long. The developers added a loading screen hint to explain that the game isn’t frozen, which amuses me to no end since console certification QA specifically says that you are not allowed to do this. This is why most games' loading screens have an animated element so the user knows things are chugging along. The options menus are par for the course and not really noteworthy except for the fact that the game offers Tobii eye tracking support, if that is your sort of thing. The game's music is what you would expect, but its sound design is excellent. From sword slashes to gun shots, the team really did an excellent job of making everything sound extremely satisfying. The game won’t blow you away with its graphical fidelity, but it is more than respectable. The artists went with this semi cel-shaded look that makes interactive elements on the map pop out. Functionality was a clear priority, so I applaud them for that.
I guess some people are expecting me to offer a direct comparison between ST and its forebears, possibly with some edgy statements. Allow me to disappoint. This game is good enough that you can actually have a conversation about whether it is better than Commandos, Desperados or Robin Hood. That alone speaks volumes about its quality. There is also the fact that making comparisons between games that were built to be broken can be somewhat difficult. On the one hand, you can list all the interesting interactions that Desperados permits and call it a better game by that measure, but on the other hand, you can laud ST for how much it achieves with so little and say it has tighter design. The only hill on which I am willing to die on is the game's user interface. It surpasses all of its predecessors and stands as one the best UIs in any tactics game ever. There are almost no situations where you have to fight against it, which is vital in a game about carefully laid plans that require split second reactions to pull off. If you disagree, then congratulations, you have earned the right to swing your cane at kids while telling them to git off yer lawn.
I tried and probably failed to be neutral in this review. Truth be told, this is one of my favorite games of 2016. I remember being both angry and overjoyed when a chicken started running around and triggered my carefully laid trap, which sent my plan tumbling down. These are the moments you hold on to. It is not for everyone, but that goes for the entire genre Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun belongs to. Even so, I wouldn't recommend it just to Desperados/Commandos fans. This game is a safe bet for anyone interested in tactics games or just straight up well-designed games in general. Spread the love around with your wallet by showing Mimimi Productions that their foray into real-time squad tactics games is well worth the price of admission.