December 6, 2016 9:38 AM | Thomas Faust
When Commandos was released in 1998, it successfully combined real-time tactics with a focus on stealth. While other companies tried to copy the game's winning formula - there were Wild West, Star Trek, and Robin Hood-themed Commandos clones - none of these games could ever live up to the original. Until now, that is. The new king of sneaky real-time tactics is called Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun, and it's out today.
The game is set in Japan's Edo period, and its story might actually be its weakest part, resorting to pulpy stereotypes. You've got your taciturn ninja, gruff samurai, an old geezer (who happens to own the most adorable pet tanuki), a young, talented street rat, and a versatile geisha. You know the kind. Together, they're up against the mysterious Kage-sama, who is pulling strings in the background, trying to overthrow the current Shogun. It's hardly inspired, but enjoyable nonetheless, and it also manages to tie all the missions together nicely.
Over the course of 13 varied and lengthy missions, you'll help these characters with their tasks, which mostly consist of causing mischief one way or another and not getting caught. The large maps let you experiment with different tactics, and there are always several ways to finish a level. Stealth is usually your only option, as even armor-clad Mugen is pretty squishy when facing a handful of guards, some of which are armed with muskets. Incidentally, I hope there's a special place in hell for these bastards. You're not always playing with the full team, which forces you to experiment and not rely on your favorite character's moves all the time.
Experimentation is not only key, it is also a ton of fun. Finding ever more ways to sneak about and kill silently just never gets old, and the developers were well aware of that and provided enough opportunities for creative approaches. Every character has their own set of skills, from being able to run on roofs to using traps, disguises, and diversions. They are all finely balanced and you need to use them all if you want to succeed. You can also use the environment to cause, uh, unfortunate accidents, which is both fun and particularly effective.
The trial and error gameplay is part of the experience. Be prepared to wear out your quicksave and quickload keys, as there are guards patrolling just about everywhere and each carefully planned maneuver can go south in seconds. However, you shouldn't hit the quickload too fast, as situations where things don't go according to plan can be utterly exhilarating. The sense of achievement is overwhelming when you manage to wriggle out of a tight spot. Running from a bunch of guards, desperately looking for a hiding spot, and then narrowly escaping had me actually laughing out loud in relief once or twice. But then, getting caught had me cursing as well. The point is that Shadow Tactics offers some genuine edge-of-your-seat moments.
There are a few subtle quality-of-life improvements which make the game a joy to play. Remember when a misplaced quicksave would literally destroy hours of progress in the original Commandos by putting you into a tight spot you couldn't get out of? Shadow Tactics keeps your last three quicksaves, so you can revert to an earlier moment where the proverbial excrement hasn't quite hit the fan yet.
There's also Shadow Mode, letting you set up your next moves for several characters and then executing them all at once with the press of a button. For instance, there are times when you have to simultaneously eliminate multiple guards to not raise an alarm. That would be pretty much impossible using the normal control scheme, but thanks to Shadow Mode, it's oh so satisfying to pull off stunts like that. Getting used to the various keyboard shortcuts won't take long, and there's even controller support, which feels strange at first but actually works quite well.
As if the lengthy campaign wasn't enough, Shadow Tactics offers an enormous amount of replayability by adding different badges for playing a certain way. Don't get caught, use these particular items, kill all guards - tasks like this make an already tricky game even more challenging. On the other hand, if the game proves too challenging, you can play on easy mode. You won't, however, be able to earn badges that way.
Thanks to its elegant level design as well as understanding and improving upon what made the Commandos series so compelling, Shadow Tactics is more than just a tribute. It's a super-polished real-time tactics gem in its own right, and developers Mimimi Productions truly deserve praise for pulling this off. Long live the new
king shogun of sneaky stabbing!
You can purchase the game from GOG and Steam for $39.95. There's also a demo version available. For more information on the developers Mimimi Productions, you can visit their website or follow them on Twitter.