PS2 Stealth classic Commandos 2: Men Of Courage was a unique title that's never really been matched on consoles since. The game had you take control of an elite squad of soldiers in World War II as they tackled clandestine missions behind enemy lines. It was a deeply satisfying and stripped down experience, far removed from the base building and resource management strategy fans might have been used to.
Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun takes the format of the Commandos series, throws in some stealth mechanics from recent years, and translates it to Edo period Japan. The result is one of the best stealth-action games on PS4.
Kicking off with an explosive raid on Osaka Castle, the fortress is ripped to pieces by cannon fire during a decisive assault. Soldiers patrol the interior and line the ramparts. It’s a bloody siege and as a lone ninja, you stalk through bushes and move towards the main entrance, avoiding the gaze of armed guards and panicky civilians alike. It’s a nerve-shredding experience that throws you right into the thick of the action, feeding you tutorial tips on the fly.
Missions take place in large open areas, teeming with life and incident. Environmental design is top notch; cherry blossoms sway in the wind as you slice someone open with your katana, lavish jade temples and roaring waterfalls set the scene for a tense prison break. The isometric viewpoint makes everything look like an intricate diorama.
The aforementioned opening is a highlight, but each mission presents a distinct visual style and thematic approach. Overall the game looks and sounds fantastic, with only some minor frame rate drops when moving the camera at speed.
Bolstered by the look and design, the atmosphere is the game’s strongest aspect. Guards are everywhere in the mission areas and villagers go about their daily business, sometimes stopping to have a chat with men that would shoot you in the face as soon as they spotted you. The relationship between civilians and soldiers adds a murky moral quandary to proceedings; do you take out that kindly old farmer, because his friendliness is diverting a guard route? Luckily, non-lethal is always an option.
Your choice of approach doesn’t end at 'kill or pacify', however. There are multiple ways to tackle every obstacle, a playground of options for both sneaking and head-on approaches. The rag-tag bunch of warriors hired to investigate the corrupt corners of the shogunate have a varied set of skills to cater for every situation.
Hayato is the all-rounder, with a good balance of attributes shared across his squadmates. Mugen is the burly samurai muscle, able to take on the larger enemy units one-on-one, but lacks agility and speed. Yuki is a precocious samurai-in-training, with a bird whistle lure and ground traps. Aiko can disguise as friendly NPCs and distract guards, or reduce their range of vision with her sneezing powder. Finally -- and perhaps best of all -- is Takuma, the crotchety old sniper, who has his trusty Tanuki Kuma for a furry distraction. It’s a diverse team and the interplay between them often breaks the tension of missions. Dialogue is presented in both English and the original Japanese and both are outstanding.
You’ll need to combine the strength and tools of each character to reach the end of a mission. The effectiveness of each ability is situational and most of the fun comes from combining strengths to overcome each scenario. Some enemies are resistant to lures, while others have no weaknesses other than the blade.
’Shadow Mode’ allows you to set multiple actions in motion at once -- it’s a great mechanic that will have you coordinating your squad in synchronised attacks. There's a giddy thrill to be had when you clear watchtowers across the map in one fell swoop or have Hayato and Yuki work together to take down a samurai in the absence of Mugen.
Planning out your strategies can often result in failure, however, and the presence of a smooth and intuitive autosave system is welcome. A timer is displayed at the top of the screen (which can be disabled in the options) that ticks off the seconds since your last save, offering a little graphical flourish as each minute passes. This is essential in a game in which mission success requires thinking ten steps ahead. Often you’ll find that a silly mistake like footprints in the snow or wasting precious sniper ammo will result in losing a lot of progress, and as such, the save system carries its own strategic considerations.
The game is tough, with each mission introducing new ways to die. Guards have large detection cones -- split into vision and hearing -- and patrol routes that change organically, usually based on your actions. Each mission carries with it a collection of masochistic challenges in the form of badges. These range from classic 'no kills', to time-based runs and mission specific challenges.
There's a lot of replay value here, whether it's to complete all badges or approach an objective in a way you never thought of before. Each mission can take a couple of hours on an initial run and there are 13 in total. The sandbox nature of the maps adds depth to how you navigate them and you'll find yourself returning to them even after the main campaign is cleared.
A welcome return to a type of stealth-strategy that hasn’t been seen on PlayStation for many a moon. The period setting forms a great backdrop for the action, missions are steeped in atmosphere, and the central characters are just plain cool. Lack of co-op is a missed opportunity, but the addictive challenge badges will keep you coming back for more. Shadow Tactics: Blade of the Shogun is a serious tactical treat.