Platforms: PlayStation 4 (Reviewed), Xbox One, PC
Developer: Mimimi Productions
Publisher: DAEDALIC ENTERTAINMENT
Stealth, as a mechanic, is certainly creeping its way into many games. While there are titles which exclusively use it as the main gameplay element like Metal Gear Solid, or the Thief series, there are also plenty games which offer it as a secondary path; an alternate path to a common goal. It's the games that rely on stealth as their main gameplay mechanic that receive the biggest scrutiny though since the gameplay built around that has to be incredibly strong for that game to work. For example, the Metal Gear Series has always been a hallmark in stealth gameplay, whereas many could argue that the latest Thief certainly wasn't a great game, despite having some good ideas based around stealth.
Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun falls into that same category. A stealth-focused game that tasks players to take on the role of multiple characters with various skill-sets, trying to get through expansive levels completely unseen. So does the stealth mechanic carry the game to greatness? And furthermore, does it work as a console game, when it's clearly better designed for mouse + keyboard.
Spoiler: F!#$ yes it does.
It's in the name guys!
Like its name implies, the game revolves completely around stealth but from an isometric point of view. Levels are usually pretty large and require tactical gameplay if you're expecting to get through them unseen. After all, once you're spotted, you can't take a whole lot of hits.
The beauty in Shadow Tactics stems from the characters and their diverse set of skills. Your main character Hayato has access to Shurikens that he can throw and silently pick off an enemy in the distance. Yuki, on the other hand, has access to her bird flute which can lure enemies to a certain location and set them up for a kill and build lethal traps. Mugen, while still stealthy, is a heavy armor clad Samurai with the ability to take down multiple enemies at once with his area attack, or lure enemies to a point by throwing his bottle of Sake. Aiko has the ability to disguise herself and pass through enemy territory to a certain degree. And lastly, Takuma has the ability to pick off enemies from afar with his rifle.
On their own, each character has the potential to take down enemies no problem, but combining skills together with other characters make this team an unstoppable force of stealth. For example, you can use Yuki's bird flute or Hayato's rock throw to lure enemies to a certain location, and then have Mugen rush in with his Sword Wind technique and cut them all down with one swift blow. And that's as basic as a skill combo can be. Many times you'll pull off incredible skill chains that will either leave your jaw dropped in disbelief that you just pulled that off, or with a wide grin that your hard work completely paid off.
But how do you pull these complicated tactics with multiple characters? Shadow Mode! Let me paint a scenario for you. You're by a closed gate that's guarded by two men on each side. Your lure can only attract one at a time and even if the other gets lured away, the other will see the kill and get alarmed. Upon activating Shadow Mode, you're able to chart out a character's path and actions, meaning I can control Hayato and have him come up behind one of the guards and assassinate him. After the action is recorded, I switch over to Mugen. Then, as soon as I give the command, Hayato will carry out his task that I pre-recorded in Shadow Mode, at which point I can come up behind the other guard with Mugen and assassinate him at the same time. It sounds more complicated than it is, but executing these choreographed actions is always an absolute joy when they're successful.
All of this information is smartly conveyed to the player through various ways. Enemies have cones in front of them signifying their vision, separated by two zones, a solid cone that signifies their direct vision, and a striped cone, which you can enter, but only crouched. If you've played early Metal Gear Solid games then this mechanic will be immediately familiar. You can also highlight environmental objects, some which you can hide in or others that can be used as offensive traps.
Stellar level design
Even though the stealth elements alone are absolutely fantastic, they wouldn't mean much if the level design was lacking. Thankfully, that's not the case. You'll move through environments such as the walls of Osaka Castle, a snow village, a forest filled with trade caravans, or even a bustling city. And while the main goal revolves around stealth elements, how you get to the main goal is entirely up to you as each level has a myriad of different paths and options.
You can always take the easy kill and wait for a guard to pass by a bush, pull him in and slash his throat, but there are also opportunities for some really sneaky environmental kills. In one of the earlier levels, you can wait until one of the patrolling guards talks to someone posted by a caravan that's on a hill suspended by cinder blocks. You can remove those blocks at the right time and watch them get helplessly run over. Sure, this can alarm other enemies around you, but since nobody ever saw you do it, they'll chalk it up to bad luck and move on. Another great/gruesome kill involved luring guards to a cliff that just so happened to have a large rock right above them, and, well, you know how this ends. I didn't have to kill them that way, but studying the level as you're playing through it, will help you discover more clever ways to dispatch your enemies with.
But on a console?
I will admit that I haven't played the game on PC when it originally came out, but immediately after playing it on PS4, I saw the advantages to playing with a mouse and keyboard. From my playthrough of it, it's clear it was designed with that control scheme in mind. With that said, it still controls admirably with a controller and far better than I expected it to, given the game's unique gameplay and perspective. Even elements that required an onscreen cursor to select enemies was never annoying.
I played on the PS4 Pro, and the game allowed me to select a smoother, 60fps option, or a higher-resolution 30fps option, which I'm going to assume is only available to players on a Pro. Originally, I didn't realize this option existed so I played through the first few levels with the game running at 30fps. I found it to be completely playable this way, and since it's not a game that relies on twitch reactions, it certainly doesn't detract from the experience. However, I did find the 60fps option better and played the rest of the game on that setting.
For lovers of stealth, I couldn't recommend this more
While I still believe the game would be best controlled with a keyboard and mouse, I still wholeheartedly recommend this for anyone who appreciates smart, stealth gameplay. It's one of the best examples of the stealth genre with a ton of replayability. It's also bursting with great characters and dialogue. It's also a gorgeous game that doesn't rely on flashy graphics.
It's one of my favorite games this year and one of my instant regrets of not playing this game sooner when it first launched on PC.