Ninja: Survive

Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun hearkens back to the days of an old PC game that I used to love, a game called Commandos. Rather than being set in World War 2 though, Blades of the Shogun is set in the turbulent period of Japanese history known as Edo, or otherwise known as the Tokugawa. The game's historical backdrop is the perfect time period for an isometric tactical stealth assassination game where careful planning and not panicked action is the key to victory.

A mysterious person who is causing trouble for the Shogun, a man known as Kage-Sama is the focus for the story that weaves and turns throughout the 25+ hours of beautiful hardcore stealth gameplay.

You take control of 5 distinct and very individual characters throughout the game in order to serve the Shogun, take down Kage-Sama and discover the truth behind the whole conspiracy.

The story is told in beautifully drawn cut-scenes and uses the in-game engine for the rest, so you get a very Diablo-esque storytelling in the game engine. It fits and anything else would be distracting.

Shadow Players

Hayato: The team's ninja killer, an assassin for hire who has access to a deadly shuriken to one-shot certain enemies quietly. Hayato also has a hook-shot which can allow him access to rooftops. He has a ninja sword for up close and personal work.

Mugen: The enigmatic and honourable Samurai Mugen is the team's practised warrior. Mugen has a bottle of sake he can use to lure low-ranking enemies to their doom, or into traps and ambushes. He also comes with Sword Wind, a skill that can eliminate 3 enemies in a spherical radius. Mugen's samurai sword is lethal against his fellow Samurai. He'a strong too, he can pick up rocks for throwing on enemies from above and pick up 2 bodies to carry whilst running - everyone else must move slowly.

Yuki: This young girl appears to be a wannabe-Shinobi and whilst a little impulsive, somewhat wild and free, she has access to a deadly clockwork trap to place in the path of enemies. Yuki also has a whistle and can lure unsuspecting enemies into the vicinity of her trap. Happy Little Accidents! Yuki has a small blade to dispatch foes when she needs to assassinate them. She also acquires a hook-shot that allows her access to rooftops.

Aiko: A Kunoichi of elegant skill and deadly beauty - Aiko can don disguises to allow her deeper access into enemy compounds and areas, though her disguise won't fool eagle-eyed samurai who can see through her facade easily. She can distract enemies with small talk and allow the others to sneak past, for personal close work she uses the deadly hairpin to relieve her foes of their lives. When not in disguise she's comparable to Hayato in terms of movement and skill. She also has sneezing powder which lets her reduce an enemies vision cone for a short while.

Takuma: A wise, kindly and extremely deadly old man. Takuma is the finest marksman in the team, with his sniper rifle he can pin-point bad guys from a long way off and take them down to allow the squad to move unhindered through a location. He can also lob grenades, and has a pet Tanuki which he can use to distract enemies or lure them into ambushes/Yuki's traps.

Note: You don't have to go lethal with the guards at all, you can actually switch from kill to KO in the ability selection radial. KO'd characters will wake up though, and if you're not careful they'll go warn the guards that something odd happened.

You take control of one or more of these characters throughout the missions and must combine their skill-sets to achieve numerous objectives, these range from spying on enemies, stealing their documents or outright assassination of a troublesome foe integral to the story.

How you do it? That's up to you.

The Toybox Level/Mission Design

I'm fond of the idea of sandbox level design, because as much as I love open world games, the concept of a sandbox level is a little different. It goes back to the days of something like Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory (possibly my favourite since Blacklist) and presents you with a big zone to play in, but not so big as you become overwhelmed. That appears to be the philosophy behind Blades of the Shogun here - enjoy the toybox and play in the sand.

Each mission is a hand-crafted affair that often has multiple objectives and pathways to achieve your goal.

It's here that the game really shines and shows off the meticulously designed levels for the sandboxes they are. You might have to infiltrate a heavily guarded compound as Aiko to steal a disguise to allow her to further enter a guarded area, where she can open the door for the samurai Mugen, a big guy who really can't climb.

Watchful Guards

There are guards with multiple sight lines and vision cones, they have patrol routes and things they like to do. With you is Hayato the ninja. So Aiko, Hayato and Mugen need to combine their skills to achieve the ultimate goal and exit the map. The enemy AI isn't dumb, you can see their vision cones and sight lines using the viewer tool (left on the d-pad) which allows you to examine where they're looking. Or you can hold the tool to bring up a cursor that lets you focus on various guards, their sight lines and see if you can plan a strategy,

Day/Night comes into it as well. Since sight is vastly reduced at night, but increased around light sources (which create their own sight radii) it pays to pay close attention to how the game handles sight. Enemies have a bright quarter where they will always see you even if you crouch, and a dark area where they won't see you if you crouch. These vision cones can be blocked by objects and walls in the game - taking advantage of this allows you to plan your approach carefully and move through zones undetected.

You can surf a vision cone for a short while, it'll trigger the enemies awareness meter (the cone will fill with yellow until you get spotted, or the enemy loses sight of the anomaly (you)). If the cone turns red, you're in deep trouble and will need to hide or kill the bad guys.

Enemies will also spot dead bodies and other things that enter their vision cones.

The viewer also lets you place a marker in the level that will show a sight line as enemies watch that area. You can use this to work out where guards are looking without needing a vision cone.

Regardless, you're going to have to KO or kill guards. You can hide bodies in various places around the level, in bushes, down wells, throw them off cliffs and into deep water. Guards who have a regular chat with a friend will investigate their buddies' disappearance and become wary if they're gone from that route.

The AI is not stupid in the game, but you can lure them into traps/ambushes/situations by exploiting their curiosity. Just make sure that a friend with a rifle isn't looking into that area when you KO or kill them.

Once the alarm is sounded you're going to have a tough time of it. Even tougher if there's a bunch of samurai (their heavy armour protects against all sorts of things) bearing down on you. You'll need to hide and crouch in the bushes (not always guaranteed to save you) to avoid their scrutiny and wait until they calm down. They will be more wary now though.

Fortunately the game lets you quick save into 3 slots with the tap of a button, and hard save as many times as you like so you can experiment with strategy. It does track your stats though, so if you want to earn those badges (and gamerscore) you best be mindful.

There's 3 difficulty levels you can play on, Normal is the one that I recommend since it's a balanced game for first timers. Easy is, well, Easy and Hardcore is ... lets move on shall we!

The Art of Shadow War

OK, so how does it play? Good question. You control the character with the left stick, traditional Diablo-style action movement. Pressing B lets you stand or crouch, affecting your character's movement obviously as well as their detection from guards. You can interact with various objects in the environment with A (doors, traps, torches at night and so forth) and the game has a lot of hints that pop up as you're playing with a decent GUI. Right stick can be used to move around the map and look at areas that you haven't entered yet. You can swap or choose abilities with the left bumper, and change or choose characters with the right bumper.

Left trigger lets you AIM and perform your various aimed skills (like shooting as Takuma), Right trigger lets you move the camera and reposition it to see different angles and so on.

Rather than go through every control though, the game does a good job in the first map(tutorial) at imparting all the skills you'll need to enjoy playing it.

You'll soon be able to navigate through the map and dispatch guards like a badass Shinobi.

Tip: Hold x when you murder someone and you'll automatically pick up their body, a few seconds saved here could mean the difference between detection and escaping with your hide intact.

Shadow Tactics

The game also features Shadow Mode. A way to tie together various character's moves and movements in a simple plan. It doesn't allow complex waypoints or the addition of multiple actions beyond a move/do-thing kind of concept - however the fact that this mode exists is the icing on a beautiful tactical stealth-cake of delicious quality. In other words, it's bloody awesome.

Two guards patrol the area, one stops for a time and observes a third, a rifleman who has watchful eyes on both guys down below. If you kill the rifleman - the guard at the bottom will eventually see his body and if you kill both those guys the rifleman will spot their corpses.

But wait there's a ledge above the guards and a clear sight line for Takuma to open fire.

But the timing window is so small that you'd need someone else playing to be able to kill all three without alerting someone.

There are ways you could handle this with Yuki and her distraction, but there's the risk that the whistle will summon both guards to the site of her trap.

So you opt to use Shadow Mode.

Taking control of Hayato and Yuki (both selected at the same time) you move them above the guards and they're out of the line of sight of the rifleman - they're crouched in the dark zone of his vision cone.

Then you hit Shadow Mode and order Yuki to air-drop kill the left guy. Switch to Hayato and do the same for the right guy.

Now both ninjas will murder their opponents when you give the go order. Not yet though...

You now switch to the old sniper and tell Takuma to open fire on the rifleman in the tower.

Plan ready, you press Y to execute and watch as the rifleman gets shot and at the same time the two ninjas leap from above and perform their deadly work.

Now you need to move two bodies quickly into the bushes before the peasant who often stops by on his way to the washtub sees his two buddies are missing.

Shadow Mode again and this time you order the ninja to grab their two corpses and shuffle them off into the nearest bush together. You could have done this by taking control of one character at a time but the timing window is such that there's a risk of detection if you take too long.

So that's Shadow Mode in a nutshell. Again, it's optional and you don't have to use it to succeed. It's fun to try and do things without it and as long as you save before you try you'll be OK to play around to your hearts content.

A Beautiful Recreation of Japan

The game is gorgeous, there's really no other word for it. There's superb levels of detail everywhere you look and the maps are so well crafted it's a joy to play if you just love the recreation of Japan the developers have done. The animation is really good and the aesthetics are spot on.

The Sound of Waterfalls

The sound work is subtle and many environments have a layer of lovely spot sound that brings them to life. One of my favourites is a waterfall area in a mountain range, there's something serene about it that's almost Zen.

A Word, if you will

The characters are exceptionally well voiced and the script/dialogue comes out as top-notch. There's a real layer of professionalism through the whole thing that's wonderful to see. The characters also have some great dialogue that triggers as you enter certain areas, or fulfil certain things. Deploying Yuki's trap with Takuma in the group activates a nice exchange about the trap and how he's impressed by the fact she made it herself for example.

Music to my Ears

The game has era-themed appropriate music and authentic instruments that provide a beautiful backdrop to the gorgeous graphics and slick animation.

A Slick Package

You might be put off by the price, since it's not a AAA-billed 'OMG' First Person shooter game. What I can tell you from my time with it, is that it doesn't need to be a massive AAA title to have this kind of polish and don't be put off by thinking: Oh it's an Indie game trying to play in the water with the big boys and girls. This package is slick in every way and it brings me back to Commandos without a shadow of a doubt.

I would love to see these developers take on other era-themed games or even do a sequel to Shadow Tactics. The game is brilliant and it's such a breath of fresh air in an RPG and shooter dominated market that you deserve to give it a look if you're a fan of this kind of sadly underused genre.

Now I'm off to try out a new tactic on a heavily guarded Lord's compound!

Stay Shadowy!