Game review: Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun

Let’s just get one thing out of the way first: I don’t really care much for stealth games. As a mechanic added to other games, it’s…mostly fine, though still quite badly implemented. Pick any example you like: Fallout, Skyrim, Far Cry, Horizon: Zero Dawn; they’re all the same. You shoot one dude in a camp, and all his buddies jump up to start searching for the killer…for 30 seconds. Then they all say something dumb like “Guess it was just the wind.” Yes, it was just the wind that put an arrow in your buddy’s skull.

Pure stealth takes away all other options and tells players, “No, you do it my way or you’ll die horribly over and over.” But it still falls back on the thirty second search and forget formula, so all it takes to win is buttloads of patience and save scrubbing.

But as I’ve mentioned before, our connection is slow due to technical difficulties and keeping me from the games I want to play and review. I saw Epic Games Store had a summer sale going on, and I figured why not get something out of my comfort zone? It had controller support, and a tactical stealth game certainly seemed like it had potential.

Enter this week’s hit piece, Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun, or as I prefer to call it, Bobble-head Assassins: Scrub Savers of the Shogun. Before I really get into the negativity, I will point out the things I thought were nice. Just know that it’s a real short list of likes before I dive right into a full-on hate rant.

So, first, this game manages to do something that few others even bother with, character development. The protagonists often talk to each other during their missions, getting a feel for each other in ways that feel natural and well written. Since I’m down on so much of this game, I need to pinpoint why this is so different. Take as an example Diablo Immortal, a game I’ve praised for having that lovely “one more quest” feeling. But every character interaction is the same pattern. “Hi, person I just met. We’re friends now.” And five minutes later? “No, person I barely know! Your death is so tragic to me because we were such close friends.” Feh. So when in a much later mission, a character says, “I’ll do it because he’s my friend,” I can believe it because the writers did the work to show me their relationship growing. That’s damned impressive in video game writing, y’all.

The graphics are nice, with the game played in an isometric presentation that makes it relatively easy to sort out who are bad guys, heroes, and hostile or friendly civilians. The music, while not really period specific, is pleasant and helps make each level feel distinctive.

It’s a shame then, that everything else going on with this hot mess ruins the good things it had going for it. I’d say I don’t know where to start, but I do. Because the game was made with Unity, it has a tendency to crash VERY frequently. Most of the time, a crash leads to an empty error box that just says “Oops!” But just this once, I got the very illuminating error message: “The game has crashed. The Game.” Yes, that explains everything, thank you.

I think the game’s constant prompting to quick save (a prompt I turned off shortly into the first mission because I don’t care to have a flashing timer keep reminding me to save scrub. I’ll do it in my own time, game.) is partly a workaround to save people too many headaches from crashes. For me, it was always at the worst time, like finally getting a guard to go along with my intricate plan to kill him, only to stare in horror as the lag spike began, followed by another crash or hard lock. So, no save for me, and it’s back to the grind for another ten to twenty attempts to get the finicky guard to die in the exact moment I need him to before his comrade can turn around and spot his gurgling, crumpling body.

Okay, let me stop there and establish the plot. It’s the Edo period, and the Shogun has won the big war, bringing peace to the land. But a secret rebel group wants to go back to war because “War…it’s FANTASTIC!” Okay, it’s more like, “We are men of war, and we have nothing else to do now that we’re at peace.” Which sounds dumb, but given the period, I can go along with it without even so much as minor lamentation. Plus, the rest of the story helps to hold this premise up in an admirable way.

The game starts at the final battle, where the player takes control of Hayato, a Shinobi working for the Shogun behind enemy lines. The tutorial moves along at a mostly decent pace before Hayato meets Mugen, the Shogun’s most loyal Samurai. They team up and there’s more tutorial about coordinating attacks and timing before they meet Takuma, an elderly sniper who is quite conveniently placed to aid in solving the level’s trickiest puzzles.

On the controller, lining up these coordinated kills is made possible with Shadow Mode. After pressing up on the D-pad, each character can be moved around and given one other action. This can also be tricky, because after say killing three guards, the characters have to be controlled separately to pick up and hide the bodies. Given the very short patrol routes of the guards, even using Shadow Mode can require timing so exact as to be measured in quarter seconds.

From the tutorial collecting the crew together, you might think the game planned to build up to using all five of the characters shown on the starting screen, but no, that’s not what this game wants to do. In the next mission, Hayato wanders off on his own to spy on rebels shipping guns in secret, where he meets a little thief girl named Yuki. Together, they have to wipe out a lot of rebels before Mugen can show up. (And in the end, I felt really bad for Yuki having to kill so many dudes in a time period where PTSD therapy hadn’t been invented yet.)

In the mission after that, Mugen meets up with Aiko, and as close as I can get to describing her profession is courtesan. Her disguises allow her to slip through some secure areas, but because she always has to find a kimono from the area instead of just bringing a disguise along, she is frequently more of a hindrance until the game starts offering three persons squads. After that, it’s Yuki and Takuma on a mission together, and so on and so forth until you’re finally allowed to play with a three person squad.

In only one level are all five characters used, and because the makers thought that big ass team was so unfair to their hundred enemy army, they stripped out most of the terrain that might give even slight advantages to the squad. The sniper is set up on a hill where trees and rocks will block 90 percent of the map, there’s no shrubs for the others to hide in, no disguises for Aiko, too much space between buildings and patrols for Yuki to lay her taps and bait them using her whistle, and too many mixed rifle men and samurai patrol squads for Mugen to be of any help. But right after this, the game gets rid of Mugen altogether, and it forces players to fight with no weapons and even tighter security than the previous level.

I’ve gotten ahead of myself again, but it’s because I wanted to cover the story and characters rather than jump right into the rest of the mess. So, now where do I begin? First of all, people don’t walk with their heads constantly swiveling left and right. It might be argued that an alerted guard might walk like that after he’s been spooked. But even old ladies doing their laundry walk around searching the environment like bobble heads set up in a car slaloming along an eternal obstacle course. It’s a terrible idea that I haven’t even seen in pure stealth games like Metal Gear.

For the vast majority of the game, villages don’t feel lived in. There might be one or two civilians tossed in to pay lip service to the idea of a village, but the rest are all guards and samurai. It isn’t until very late in the game that a village is presented with a more realistic balance of guards to villagers, and that level stands out precisely because it’s so different from the previous uninspired designs. I’d even go so far as to say I was having fun playing that one level. Too bad that couldn’t last.

Every level, the game has the characters talk out ideas about how to solve the puzzles to get to their targets, but the suggested solutions are often too finicky to be done without memorizing elaborate walking patterns for everyone. Some of you may like trying to remember the movements of ten or twenty people in an area of the map, but I can barely remember to get five items at the grocery store with a list in hand. So instead of going with whatever clever plan the game wanted me to do, I just poked at the defenses to find the “lynchpin guard” who would allow me to kill everyone else until I reached my goal. That’s a long, slow, tedious process, and sometimes ended with me killing everyone. No, like everyone, even the civilians.

The thing is, almost every level sets up a main goal, and then once that has been done, there’s a cut scene that goes, “Okay, that happened, so now we have to do another thing.” As an example, one mission had me tracking a rogue Daimyo, and the first goal was to get my whole crew up to a certain hiding spot. In my head, I had a aplan for the sniper to save his grenade because I was going to toss it at the Daimyo. But then the cut scene had the sniper climb some scaffolding and kick down the ladder, taking him out of range for bomb chucking. What I wanted to do and what the game wanted me to do were at odds, and this was quite often the case.

Oh, and a lot of the enemy units have dialogue to show they’re evil, which would be fine if it played once. Let me give you an example.

Drunk Guard: Hey! Get over here! Bring more sake!
Frazzled Tavern Worker: I’m sorry! We had to bring up another barrel.
Drunk Guard: Do I look like I care? When I call, you come running!

That shit loops every thirty seconds. So imagine having to sort out a tricky order of who to kill and when, and how, and this motherfucker is whining twice a fucking minute. Which is why I decided to turn down the voice volume and keep it off right up until the game’s ending scene. I have to ask, who play-tested this, listened to this drivel over and over and said, ”This is fine.” Because it was easily one of the main reasons the early levels were so horrible.

Lastly, there’s the ridiculous plot armor fitted around taking down the samurai. They can’t be trapped, or tricked by tossed rocks. Without Mugen to fight them, the standard method is having one character shoot them, and then having another move in for a melee attack. It’s bullshit. Samurai do not wear kevlar, and bullets should kill them just like anyone else. But it goes beyond that. Even in a crowd, samurai can spot Aiko in her disguise. HOW? Do they have perfect visual recall of every civilian in town? It’s all just layers of plot armor to make them harder mini-boss level nuisances.

In conclusion, I’ll tell you the answer to the question that both my husband and sister-in-law asked, “If you hated it that much, why play it?” There are two reasons. The first is that with all the online games I wanted to review being off the table, I desperately wanted to have something to post. I absolutely hated that stretch of time where I only made a post every two months or so, and I like making this a once a week habit. So I reviewed this game start to finish, for you. And you’re welcome.

But the other reason is, by the midway point, I wanted to finish so I could see how the story ended. The writing quality was so good that even as I suffered through level after level of slow grinding death, I stuck with it to find out who the real bad guy was, and if he got properly murdered.

And you know, there were some cute moments, like finding an illusory wall with a bonfire behind it that triggered an achievement called Praise the Shogun. (Cute Dark Souls reference.) There were moments when I used the games shadow mode to make a perfectly timed attack, raising my left hand to count down; four, three, two, one, before pressing Y to set off the plan. Once I confirmed I got away with it, I’d start shouting that one meme: “Perfect! perfect perfect perfect!” Then I’d get right back to wrestling with all the stuff that made those small drip-fed moments of fun so hard to remember.

And you know, I’m sure there’s a taget audience who thinks all the thing that annoyed me are their brand of fun. That’s totally fair, but to thos folks, I’d ask, “And the game crashing every hour or so? Is that also fun? Or how about glitches like Shadow Mode just stops working for a while, and not even a quit and restart can bring it back. Is is fun to be unable to use a game’s most important feature at random? How about enemies who can see and shoot through walls as another random glitch?”

None of that is fun, and it further detracts from what was already a slog for me. That’s why I’m giving Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun 2 stars, and I would only recommend it to die hard fans of the genre who are slightly masochistic enough to play through all the crashes and bugs.