Commandos was a very good video game. It’s also a kind of game that we haven’t seen much of since, so it’s nice to see Shadow Tactics step in and deliver us a similar kind of experience. Well, as similar as swapping World War Two for Japan’s Edo period can get, anyway.
History lesson: Commandos was a 1998 real-time tactics game where, instead of building armies and blowing up tanks, the focus was on controlling a small group of special forces on stealth missions. The entire game was built around the idea of enemies having cones of vision that moved around in real-time, forcing you to sneak, hide and stab your way past them.
Shadow Tactics is pretty much this. You control a team of sneaky Japanese warriors who are undertaking dangerous, stealthy missions like blowing things up and killing important people. Each warrior has their own strengths and weaknesses that make them more useful for certain situations, and the idea of staying hidden and out of sight of guards is just as central as it was in Commandos.
The fun comes not from sneaking individuals around, as though this were a top-down Metal Gear, but in getting everyone working together. Shadow Tactics has a command queue system called Shadow Mode, where you can pause, line each character up with a certain number of actions before pressing “play” and seeing them all executed in real-time.
Here’s a simple example from early on in the game:
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When you get all five characters going, some distracting, others diverting, others sniping, others stabbing, things get excellent.
Everything feels great, with animations and reactions nice and precise; I’ve never felt like I’m being cheated by a hiccup or a slowdown. You’ll want to get into the settings as soon as you can to change the key bindings, though; some of the default options for essential commands like moving the camera and picking stuff up are a bit weird, while the default key for shadow mode didn’t even work for me (you can remap everything though, so this is a hurdle to overcome, not a lasting fault with the game).
What keeps me poring over every map though, more than even the strategies and planning involved, is how pretty everything looks. There’s a wonderful toy-like quality to the game’s world, like it’s a giant diorama made by master craftsmen, and it’s a pleasure finding downtime to just pan the camera around and take everything in, from the gentle flowing of a river to the busywork of townspeople to the chaos of a battle unfolding around the map’s edges.
Oh, and while the English-language voice acting is just fine, you’ll want to switch to the surprise inclusion of Japanese vocals (there are helpful subtitles for everything, even NPC chatter, that hover over each character in the game), which don’t just feel more authentic, but are fantastic.
I haven’t finished the game yet, hence why this isn’t a full review, but I’m dying to get back in and see how intricate the remaining stealth scenarios get and how gorgeous some of the later levels are, because what I’ve played so far has only reinforced the fact that 2016, for all its faults elsewhere, has been an absolute utopia for strategic video games.