It seems that modern stealth games are sacrificing more and more of the satisfaction that comes from never getting caught. They trade this away so that when your cover is blown, you can take down enemies in a flurry of bullets or blades. Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun is not interested in giving you a "go loud" fallback. It makes you earn everything.
Shadow Tactics is the only game I've played in the genre it is attempting to revive: real time tactical stealth. It controls like a MOBA, and has the same perspective, but you are moving multiple characters through each level. It may be winning extra points for freshness since it's a completely new-to-me genre, so I want to mention that first.
The game is laid out in traditional levels, with no choices to make in between. There is no RPG-style progression or loadouts to manage. Instead, you are given different combinations of the five characters to control in each mission. They might gain or lose a move depending on the context, but that's about it. I found this refreshing since I never doubted that I had the right tools for the job.
I appreciate something nice to look at when I'm bifurcating people.
The missions themselves are a series of connected puzzle rooms. Your objectives usually amount to getting somewhere on the map, doing something there, then getting out. When you spend long enough in one level, you start to see the solutions that the designers set up. But because you have control of multiple characters with their own items and abilities, it never seems like there is one true way to complete an objective. In most areas you have the option to take out enemies one by one, then simply waltz past the bodies. Or, you can create a series of distractions and slip from cover to cover. Both are satisfying thanks to the freedom and precision the game affords. The fact that all this plays out in real time heightens the tension without the game having to resort to stressful timers. You can observe patrol routes and make note of hiding places. Take all the time you want to plan your next move, but when it's time to execute, you must do so flawlessly.
Each character has a way to distract enemies plus some sort of special move. Different enemy types are explained well and you always know how they will react to what you do. Some are immune to certain weapons, while others won't react to your distractions. Almost every level introduces a twist like snow that reveals footprints or night missions with reduced enemy visibility. All this keeps you from falling into a rut of distract, sneak up, assassinate. Like the old saying goes: variety is the spice of murder.
What really sets Shadow Tactics apart is its UI. In a stealth game, there is nothing more frustrating than not knowing why your cover was blown. It's clear that the designers at Mimimi Productions agree. A huge amount of attention was paid to NPC vision, which is represented by a complex but highly readable cone. It's green when an NPC sees nothing of interest, filling with yellow if you cross into the cone. If the yellow reaches you the cone turns fully red, meaning you are seen and pursued. However, if you can remain crouching in the striped part of the cone, you stay invisible. When planning your next move, select any enemy in the level and see their field of vision. If all that's not enough, you can select any area on the map and a line will be drawn to all enemies watching that location.
In the sneaking stoplight, red means GO.
I'll let Mimimi Lead Designer Moritz Wagner tell you why all that UI stuff is so great:
"Shadow Tactics is a game of almost perfect information. There is no fog of war, enemies don’t randomly spawn and their behavior is always predictable (as long as they aren’t actively searching for the player). Players can analyze a situation completely if they take the time to do so."
Having this "perfect information" allows for a cool thing like Shadow Mode to exist. This is a system allowing you to queue up one move for multiple characters and execute all of them with a single key press. Using Shadow Mode made me feel like a tactical stealth mastermind in ways that other games don't even really attempt. I found myself seeking out scenarios where it would be all but required.
Of course, if the player knows everything then the game can be much tougher. Enemy vision and patrols are often calibrated so that you have to patiently observe and go through quite a bit of trial and error. This doesn't feel punishing because the quicksave and quick load live up to their names. I was never more than 5 seconds away from retrying a maneuver. I found myself experimenting much more than I would in a game where failure means a 30 second load to a checkpoint I reached 5 minutes ago.
Now, about that difficulty. It almost never felt like my skills weren't keeping up with what the game threw at me. I was failing just the right number of times before I had a breakthrough. However, at some point one of your assassins just straight up hands out guns to the rest of the team. At first this seems like a sort of Get Out of Jail Free card, especially since the guns have a limited number of shots. But then I encountered an area that was jam packed with enemies watching not only every route to the level exit but also each other. As hard as I tried, I could not find the right combination of stealthy maneuvers to take them out. So, I resorted to shooting one and hiding until the remaining bad guys stopped looking for us. I rinsed and repeated this until the herd was sufficiently thinned. It was a situation where I was glad to have the guns, but disappointed that I had to rely on them so much.
Playing Shadow Tactics is all about the feeling you get from a perfect execution. The developers know that, and they not only challenge you enough to make you earn that execution, they also give you the tools you need to get there. If you desire that feeling and don't mind quite a bit of experimenting, Shadow Tactics is a worthwhile endeavor.