I had never heard of the Munich-based developer of Shadow Tactics, Mimimi, before diving into Shadow Tactics. Similarly, I’ve never played any of the Commandos games which are the building blocks of Shadow Tactics’ DNA.
Shadow Tactics is a real-time strategy game. Sort of. Shadow tactics is a stealth game. Sort of. At its heart, though, Shadow Tactics is a puzzle game. It throws you into a series of sandbox levels, asks a task of you, and how the game plays out is up to your discretion. You control a troup of ninjas and samurai from an isometric perspective in a stock-standard representation of Feudal Japan, generally to murder somebody or other. Controls are similar to a traditional RTS or MOBA, click somewhere to move a character, hotkeys for abilities.
Each member of your cohort have a set of highly specific skills, exclusive to them, and very situationally applicable. Aiko can don a disguise, Yuki can set traps, Hayato has a shuriken, and so forth. Guards follow scripted routes – like most stealth games, but how those routes interact is what makes this game sing. Shadow Tactics is uniquely brilliant in it’s take of the “clockwork world” design paradigm.
Shadow Tactics is exceptionally difficult, like, really fucking hard.
There may be a split second between two guard’s patrol routes for you to snatch one up, but maybe that route is being watched by three others. Maybe, just maybe, you are able to find a window to take one guard out, but not with enough time to drag his body to the bushes. Either way, one guard whose patrol loop is over two minutes long and meanders across the map, happens to waltz into the scene as you were slicing a neck.
But then the clouds break and a plan of action reveals itself. By using the individual ability sets of your team in harmony (with a lot of lateral thinking) you’re able to crack the egg – now you just have to pull it off. Despite the often insurmountable challenge it presents, however, a play session of Shadow Tactics never falls prey to frustration because it fundamentally tweaks one core aspect of how we play video games:
Saving your progress in Shadow Tactics is core to its experience. Much like the early Resident Evil games, saving your game is a tactical measure. But where saving your progress in RE is a limited resource that contributes to its overarching theme of resource scarcity, Shadow Tactics embraces the idea of “save scumming.” In one of the most difficult levels of Shadow Tactics, I saved my game 138 times, and loaded it well over 300. Much like Dishonored 2, quick save is easily accessible. In this case, defaulting to F5 and F8 to save/load, respectively. The critical difference here is that Shadow Tactics saves and loads your progress in just several seconds. To hammer this home, Shadow Tactics displays a “last saved” message at the top of your UI if you haven’t saved for more than one minute. This is what colors Shadow Tactics as a puzzle game above all else.
This sounds like trial and error, and in some ways it is. But playing the game feels like a constant poking and prodding at the situations and systems you’re given. Failure doesn’t really feel like failure when you’re one keystroke away from resetting your tandem assault on a group of guards. This deceptively simple shift in mechanics doesn’t deny the game a sense of tension, though. If anything, it heightens it. Each time you don’t have to save your game after you pulled off a maneuver you thought impossible, elicits a feeling of triumph and strategic mastery.
Outside of mechanics, I’m drawn to games because of their world building – the feeling of bathing in their aesthetic and living on their terms. Shadow Tactics never compelled me in that fashion.
Nothing about this game’s representation of feudal Japan is vital or vibrant. As somebody with only a cursory knowledge of Edo period Japan, their representation of this setting seems rote, or at least as trope-filled as any other western interpretation I’ve experienced. If there’s an upside to this, it’s that the game’s systems could be easily transposed to any other setting without much change. This could bode well for a sequel, perhaps set in a different time or culture, but my enjoyment of the game could have been improved by a more creative representation of the setting.
It’s story is serviceable.
There is a traitorous lord to the Shogunate. He’s bad. You kill him. If anything, it feels a little weird, in 2017, to be on the side of the almighty empire, squelching rebellion, but it’s mostly just bland. That being said, I don’t boot up Shadow Tactics for a rich narrative experience.
I am so happy for Mimimi – after checking them out it seems that this is their first major release. They not only managed to create an engaging experience, but to solve some critical problems endemic to the real-time strategy genre. Nothing feels worse than slogging through a level in an RTS campaign to find out hours later that you need to start from scratch. Your verb set in Shadow Tactics is confined, but how you manage and exploit those verbs is far from it – it’s ultimately a playground for critical thinking, which makes this an incredibly refreshing experience.