The problem with modern stealth games is that the Stealth approach is usually more of an option rather than the rule. With mechanics allowing the player to disregard the stealth approach entirely and storm through levels in a flurry of sword swings or a blaze of bullets with little consequence to the player other than their Stealth rating taking a hit at the end of the level. Very few games offer an experience where stealth is the only approach and the consequences of making a miscalculated move fatal. Thankfully, Mimmi Productions is here with ‘Shadow Tactics’ to let us know that the pure stealth game hasn’t completely slipped away into the darkness.
With Shadow Tactics, stealth is the one and only correct option the player has. With many, seemingly impossible objectives ahead of you, within levels literally swarming with dogmatic enemy troops and weary civilians toiling away between you and your objectives. To even attempt a gun-ho approach will quickly see your characters dealt with swiftly and a kickback to your last checkpoint/save. Patience, observation, careful timing and collaboration between your characters are the key components to progressing through the game. It’s not a quick or easy game, but it’s one that rewards those who are willing to invest and embrace the stealth mechanics the game is built on.
The story to Shadow Tactics is actually quite reasonable. With the fragile peace, the current Shogun of Japan established, currently under threat from a mysterious warlord called ‘Kage-sama’ and his unknown allies. With you as the Shogun’s trusted agent, you are tasked to find out who this mysterious antagonist is and put an end to his plan. The plot has its expected twists and turns with some surprisingly brave attempts at injecting some meaningful moments into the story. It’s all padded out with a decent attempt at fleshing out the 5 characters the game puts you in control of by gradually revealing their backgrounds and reasons for getting involved via in-game conversations with each other at key points or through the in-game cut scenes between levels. All in, there is a decent story to be found here and one that is worth seeing through to the end.
Each of the 5 characters you will eventually have control over have their own set of strengths, weaknesses and unique skills you can employ to stealth your way through each of the games 13 scenarios. With Mugan the Samurai being your heavy lifter and main brawler, Hayto the Ninja with his one hit kill Shuriken, Takuma the aged old sniper, Aiko the spy who can disguise her way into enemy held locations and Yuki, the orphan who specialises in laying traps and luring enemies with her flute. Along with their unique skills, each character has their own advantages and disadvantages that you need to be aware of too. For example, while Yuki the Orphan is just as adept at slicing the throat of an enemy soldier as Hayto the ninja can, being the small child she is, her petite form hampers her ability to physically carry the bodies of her victims. Which you can see as she struggles to do by slowly dragging the bodies into cover, which in turn leaves her more vulnerable to being caught if doing so while surrounded by enemies. Whereas Hayto or Mugan can effortlessly carry the bodies of their victims into cover quickly, making them more suitable for quick hit and run encounters than Yuki could. Their limitations make sense and don’t feel arbitrary for the sake of limiting choices and establishing who’s more suited for which type of encounter will be instrumental in guaranteeing success through the game.
If you’ve ever played any of the Classic Pyro Studio’s ‘Commandos’ games on the PC, PS2 or Xbox, then you’ll instantly see how heavily influenced Shadow Tactics has been by that series. The game is a squad-based strategy/tactical affair, giving the player an almost bird’s eye view of the surrounding area, you have to guide your rag-tag group carefully through each area, avoiding or killing any and all who stand between you and your objectives utilising all the skills your characters have at their disposal. Each of the enemies or civilians you encounter in the game have a view cone which sweeps the area in front of them indicating the areas they can see. Intervening terrain obscures and even darkness can have an impact on far they can see. Careful manoeuvring between these cones and the surrounding terrain will be the main way to gain ground and traverse the map. A Fully rotating camera and the ability to zoom in and out helps you plan your attacks and moves, but regrettably, the camera controls are less than ideal and you will find yourself wrestling with them from time to time. Thankfully the character controls are well implemented and you never have to grapple with them also.
While the game can have a punishing difficulty, the ability to quicksave at any point in the level mitigates the difficulty somewhat, in some cases turning parts of the game into a series of trial and error attempts to progress through. Sometimes taking a few moments to survey the immediate area, taking note of patrol paths and where enemy view cones cover will reveal an obvious route or series of actions you will need to take to make progress. Other times your options are not as clear and you will find yourself trying seemingly reckless moves in the off chance that it works, safe in the knowledge that if you do fail, you can just quickly revert back to your last save point and either try again or try something else entirely. While you do appreciate the safety net the quick save provides, especially when sometimes a level can take upwards of an hour and a half or more to complete, you can’t help but feel it undermines the difficulty the game has as it basically allows you to brute force your way through each part of the game until something works with very little consequence on the player.
At the same time, coming up with clever ways to clear an area or find a pathway through a heavily populated area can be extremely satisfying. More so if you can do it without getting caught once or having to rely on the aforementioned quicksave/load. The range of abilities the characters brings to the fight allows for a lot of experimentation and various methods of attracting, distracting and ultimately maiming your enemies. Disappointingly though, the game isn’t smart enough to recognise when the player is using the same moves repeatedly and you can easily get into a comfortable groove with certain characters repeating the same moves over and over, slowly working your way through the map which some players could easily tire of. This isn’t always possible, thankfully, down to troop layouts and obstructions but it’s something the player can easily fall into on occasion.
Another ability you have at your disposal is the Shadow mode. The ability to pause time and stack up orders for each of your characters so that you can execute them at the same time allowing you to pull off coordinated moves. In theory, it should allow for some smart takedowns in situations that would be impossible for one character to handle. And, in the few situations where it’s obvious the developers wanted you to use this, it works great. The problem is, you can only stack one order per character. You can’t plan out a complex route through the scenery, or stack movement orders with subsequent attacks. Its one order per character and it severely limits the usefulness of this ability. Which is a damn shame, as the possibilities of a fully realised ‘shadow mode’ could open up some memorable gameplay moments.
One of the surprising things I found with Shadow Tactics was how, with some quick thinking and reactions, you can quickly turn a wrong move into a tactical advantage. Some games can be very punishing towards the player when they make a mistake and, while Shadow tactics can just as easily kill off a player character at the drop of a hat, not all hope is lost in these situations. Quite a few times during my playthrough where I was sure I had my timings nailed, or a perfect plan to play out, a soldier I hadn’t accounted for would inevitably spot my Ninja’s actions and would react and move to investigate the disturbance. More often than not it would result in a swift death for my character followed by a quick reload to the last checkpoint. However, if you were quick off the mark, you could use that mistake to quickly dispatch that solider. Some of the progress I made through the campaign was down to my ability to turn a potentially bad situation into a positive thanks to some quick reactionary moves followed by a swift sword to an enemy’s gullet. I was then able to learn from those mistakes and employ these riskier ‘diversionary tactics’ to lure enemies into more vulnerable positions in the more difficult parts of the latter half of the campaign. In fact, they became essential tools in my bag of infiltration tricks.
It’s a beautiful game too with an art style that seems to sit between looking like Cell shaded or hand drawn. Each level also has a distinctive style and palette, as we go from dusty mountainside trails to snow-covered towns or the lavish houses and well-kept gardens of well-off officials. Each level is full of small tiny details which sometimes you can fail to appreciate while zoomed out, but when zooming in for more finer placement of your characters you begin to appreciate the level of effort Mimmi’s art team put into creating these stunning looking levels.
For fans of the classic Commando’s series or those looking for a pure tactical stealth game, then Shadow Tactics is definitely for you. It mimics the best of the classic Commando’s series while improving the limitations those games once had. It’s not without its flaws, however, like the easily abused quick save or underdeveloped shadow mode, and even then these flaws don’t detract from the fun you can have. But these are all things that a sequel could easily iterate on and fully flesh out, which I fully hope Mimmi Productions’s get’s the opportunity to do. It’s the type of game you barely see these days, especially on console and I for one am happy we have it.