The stealth real time strategy genre is one you don’t really hear about anymore as it kind of died in the early 00s and was mostly known through only one game series; Commandos. Shadow Tactics is an attempt by developers “Mimimi” to maybe bring it back to life, but whether or not the game is good enough to do that is questionable.
First off, the setting and time period results in a visually pleasing game with the always interesting backdrop of Edo Japan – both the beauty and horrible violence of what the country was at the time is depicted very well. When it comes to graphics and locales they did a great job and you get to go through very diverse regions and locations through the course of the story, from an actual battlefield where you are helping siege a castle town to an onsen in the heart of a bustling town.
The story reflects that too, with a theme that really reflects the time period (basically a samurai is nothing without duty, but the only duty for a samurai is war, so the antagonists want to end the peace), a lot of double crossing, sad backstories, and plenty of brutality and even scenes of gory yet meaningful seppuku after defeat or failure which are done more accurately than almost any I’ve seen in fiction even down to the death poems. The characters you control are also great and uses the time period to the fullest – in fact the story couldn’t exist without them being in that time period and being who they are in that time. I think they nailed the setting, cast, and story perfectly for this type of game and without making it inaccessible to people who don’t know anything about Japan.
However the game is held back substantially by a few things that really damage it in meaningful ways.
First up, the controls. They’re complete shit – you can reassign them but for some reason half the time it won’t actually work and even when it does it’s not JUST the controls that are bad, it’s the game’s ability to take your inputs and execute them properly. My absolute biggest issue with the game has to be the inaccuracy or rather the demanded pinpoint pixel-perfect accuracy of things in a game with a very shitty camera and awful controls. I tried playing with a gamepad and I can’t even get across how trash that was, it even made the camera fly all the fuck around any time you moved. Awful. This plays like a PC game made in the 90s where none of the controls make sense while demanding you to be extremely exact about everything at the same time.
Click to go up a ladder, they go sit next to it. Click to go in a house, they stand at the front door. Click to walk, they run. Push 1 because usually that would be picking your first ability/weapon, then realize too late it just changed your character to someone else and they’re now walking around in full view trying to go across the entire map. Worst of all thanks to the camera, click a thing and nothing happens OR the complete wrong thing happens because – especially on layered maps with elevation in play – the game is too stupid to grasp that you’re clicking in the foreground rather than the fucking opposite side of the map BECAUSE a ladder or climbable vines or a door happens to be right where you’re clicking all the way over there and so it thinks you’re trying to use it.
The multi-level maps with varied terrain cause more problems than just that last thing though. The camera insists on moving up and down near randomly which makes half your inputs not go how you want and also is just fucking obnoxious even if you’re just trying to get a better view. It ends up feeling like you’re trying to snipe in a Metal Gear Solid game because the camera just fucking flies all over the fucking place as it’s not programmed well enough to understand how to deal with terrain that isn’t mostly level similarly to it’s issue with inputs on these levels.
It’s just so frustrating every step of the way and while the game is definitely a LEGITIMATELY challenging game, I found the majority of my failed plans (quick load situations) and/or deaths resulted from control and camera issues. Hell, you can’t even move everyone without them being retarded and squishing together to get on the same pixel which results half the time in someone being pushed out of a hiding spot because their models jiggle all over the place until they separate unless you manually tell each one to move yourself.
Then there’s the shadow mode which has similar problems though I’m sure with time and practice you could make it useful. For me it ended up as nothing but a surefire way to get myself caught and have to quick load again. I tried everything, I accounted for all things like how long it would take each person to execute their action or walk/run to where they needed to be. Didn’t matter. Nothing ever worked right because all the characters seemed to trigger at different times instead of all at the same time which is the whole point of shadow mode, or they’d trigger properly but would do the wrong fucking thing. So I basically never used it and just manually did things very quickly…and that actually had better results even if it was a clusterfuck and incredibly tense every time.
Then, probably my last issue, the infinitely spawning enemies. If you are perfect at the game, never get seen at all, never have anyone seen murdered, and never have anyone see a body? Not a problem. For literally everyone else though any of those things will trigger about 4-5 NEW soldiers, sometimes more and sometimes even a samurai (a much harder to handle enemy for various reasons). There’s no limit either and each time it can start being more than just 4-5 enemies, so for a longer mission if you keep getting even just “maybe someone is there” type of not fully caught they will just continue to spawn more each time who then take up different patrol routes or guard positions.
I wanted to show what I mean so when I got caught this one time instead of loading, I went out of my way to kill the guy who saw me. Then someone noticed – then I threw my only grenade onto the group that spawned to check it out – then came two more newly spawned groups to replace them. Almost 20 new enemies came from just 2 events of them seeing a body.
I understand punishing the player for not being stealth, the entire point of the game is to be a shadow, but this is too severe and makes a lot of the fun of figuring out your own solutions moot even on normal and completely undo-able on late-game missions or on the harder difficulty. All experimenting gets you is frustration, annoyance, and abuse of quicksaves because the moment you move someone anywhere the game has the character walking loudly through the fucking puddles of water instead of going around them, not going into hiding spots like you told them to, or touching a civilian and so you end up inundated with 300 new enemies to deal with. So you reload and you try the same thing slightly differently over and over and it just becomes a career path instead of an enjoyable experience.
At some point you just learn to abuse Yuki’s Little Trap (that’s the official name, don’t blame me) and the old guy’s raccoon. The two combined, when they are on a mission together, are pretty much unstoppable. The raccoon can pull all normal guards and if you just keep moving him a little and having him make noise over and over? They will follow it absolutely anywhere as long as the old guy is SOMEWHAT nearby (pretty big range though) and any distance. So you just set down a trap and have it pull enemies from wherever into it and they die. You can use Yuki’s bird call to do the same but it takes a long time to do in comparison and if she gets seen you’re fucked – and she gets seen a lot. The raccoon isn’t an enemy to your enemies, it’s just an animal. Even in harder areas if you have at LEAST Yuki the game is that much easier because you can slowly kill every single normal enemy one by one. Is that really fun though?
I’m not saying it’s ALL the game’s fault – I’m not great at it, I don’t mind admitting that, but it really felt overly punishing to a level that is just fucking stupid. These types of games are meant to be treated essentially as puzzle games, but when you consider the controls and camera as half the fucking battle it makes the difficulty and amount of infinite baddies for the slightest misstep kind of a shitty situation. Plus, like I said already, it completely destroys the most fun part of a non-linear puzzle – figuring out your own way of tackling it. Here? They present it as if it’s non-linear, as if you can solve it in many ways…but you really can’t after the first half of the game or so.
To make things worse, even if you execute everything perfectly it really ends up coming down to luck way more often than it should. I’ve even tested situations on purpose just to see if it would always consistently have the same result – and it didn’t. For example, one time I set a shadow mode sequence for taking down 2 guards with 2 of my characters. I then saved. I loaded the save, pushed enter to make the shadow sequence take place, and it went fine. I tried a few more times, went fine. I tried again, suddenly caught. Tried again, suddenly caught. Tried again, suddenly it’s fine again. There’s no input to change, and the situation was identical as well as the timing. The game requires pixels to be absolute, so the only thing that I can assume changed is one of my character’s sprites moved just a pixel or two over and so now they were in view.
Sometimes the game will also just do, well, nothing. You’ll click to kill someone and instead your character will just walk up and sit next to them. You’ll click again. Nothing. You’ll move the camera, click again. Nothing. Then they inevitably get spotted and beaten to death – or if they were already spotted they often just get beaten to death then too, though more often just fucking shot.
Regardless, it still ends up being very addictive and for the most part pretty fun, just very annoying and frustrating at times in ways it’s clearly NOT meant to be, and that frustration definitely drains your drive to continue. However, if you do continue the story has some really fantastic moments and overall is a surprisingly accurate depiction of samurai and shinobi traditions and the sometimes fucked up nature of Japan’s history. They even have a a rarely done yet classic moment of “pulling the trigger yourself” during a story cutscene that then waits for you to click to make an already genuinely heartfelt and sad moment be even more personal. It earns that moment, and it executes it really well because of that dedication to accuracy and the developments leading up to it.
The rest of the story is pretty good too albeit somewhat easy to figure out the majority of the twists and such early on. The characters do help it shine as well – that mentioned moment as well as the rest of the story just wouldn’t matter had the development of these people not been so simple yet well done. It also adds a bit through flavor text while you play, developing the cast, their bonds, and making sure the characters aren’t only alive during cutscenes.
As I said, the cast is pretty by the book, but they’re done well enough that they’re still very likable while, due to how typical they are, also being easy to end up caring about.
You have your extremely loyal and honorable samurai who can lift boulders to use as weapons (that the enemy will think were an accident) as well as a dual-blade attack that has him killing anything in an AOE (aside samurai enemies) and he’s the only character who can fight samurai characters – the rest will die immediately unless they shoot first and then attack, even then typically losing health unless you flank them. I couldn’t get a good picture of him doing shit so I tried suiciding while doing his AOE attack, it didn’t end up looking cool though, usually it does.
You’ve got your slutty kunoichi with a history that you’ll learn about with the samurai. Her special ability is to disguise herself, you have to find the disguise in the mission and collect it but once you have it only samurai can detect her – the rest think she’s totally normal and she can even distract guards by talking to them. She also has sneeze powder to lower the range of vision of enemies.
A ninja. I mean there’s not much to say, he’s the least developed character in the game. He’s just a ninja and sometimes for no reason he’s an asshole. His special ability is like fucking none he’s basically a default character. I didn’t care for him. His shuriken even fucks you over instead of ever being useful because for some reason enemies hit by it are noticed MORE OFTEN THAN ONES YOU SHOOT WITH A LOUD ASS PISTOL NEXT TO OTHER ENEMIES. Oh. He can throw rocks. Yup.
Yuki, the little girl, has the typical backstory of her town being attacked during war and being raped a bunch and her family murdered – then growing up on her own and learning to kill to survive. Her special ability is one I talked about already and is EXTREMELY useful, she’s able to set a trap (reusable, just has to pick it back up) and can also do a noise to attract enemies directly to it. I know her name because I use her the most because everyone else kind of sucks.
Old dude is an old dude, in his case he can be either very useful or COMPLETELY UTTERLY USELESS. He’s got a sniper rifle but it’s out of range or has shit in the way of it 90% of the time even if you’re on a huge tower because the game just doesn’t want him to be overpowered. He also has very limited ammo – 2 or 3 bullets typically. His raccoon friend is another overpowered thing I spoke about already which can be used to lure enemies all around or distract them.
They’re all very basic and have exactly the type of skillsets you’d expect, but when you actually interact with them and see them through the story they really do turn out to be a good cast that you get attached to with lots of personality. Especially everyone except the ninja guy. The chemistry between everyone except the ninja guy is really well done, especially when it comes to the samurai – everyone’s connection to him is so meaningful to them, especially Yuki who views him as a new father figure, and the shinobi who is intimate with him. The main story actually kind of revolves around him entirely as well, and the climax of that aspect was fantastically handled.
All that being said, Shadow Tactics really pisses me off mostly because I want to love this game but I just can’t. It’s got too many issues and all of them are gameplay related – something you can’t just look past to enjoy the rest because it’s the main component you have to go through to experience the rest. I’m not advocating for retarded shit like the progressives pretending they ever cared about games and are now demanding options to skip bosses or for “story mode” difficulty settings – I’m fine with the difficulty, but not when the real challenge is fighting the game’s flaws at every turn rather than the enemies in it.
*Edit: Images won’t let me click to full size them anymore, it must be a wordpress thing, sorry if it does it for everyone. Hope not.