Playing through Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun - Aiko's Choice
Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun was an absolute revelation for me when I got it in the Humble Monthly back in 2017. Here was a game that I'd never heard of, and certainly would never have purchased, and it captivated me: I really played the heck out of it. It was very much the game that sold me on maintaining my Humble subscription: I might have come for a good price for Total Warhammer, but I stayed for the ‘undiscovered’ gems like Shadow Tactics.
It's a simple premise for the type of game I'm sure we've all seen plenty of times before. Infiltrate an enemy position by sneaking around without being spotted by the guards, or you'll alert the local garrison and be forced to fight against overwhelming numbers. There are three types of guards, Soldiers, who aren't very bright, Straw Hats, who won't abandon their posts, and Samurai, who can't be easily killed by conventional means. Between these in different combinations, both stationary and on regular patrol routes, the designers managed to craft a series of differing and challenging puzzles that managed to keep me interested throughout the campaign and more, as I went back and ;played many painstaking extra hours of save-scumming1 to try and complete the additional badges for completing extra challenges on each map.
The drip-feed of ever-growing complexity over the course of the 13-level campaign, in which you protect the Shogun from the mysterious Kagesama by sneaking and quitely murdering your way past hundreds of his underlings from the undergrowth, is the key to keeping the game engaging. You start out controlling Hayato the ninja, who can climb undetected on rooftops, momentarily distract guards by throwing stones, and kill from a distance with his shuriken; and Mugen the samurai, who is stuck on the ground but can lure guards with his trusty bottle of sake, overpower enemy samurai and carry great weights. As the game progresses, you gain control of Takuma the sniper, Yuki the thief and Aiko the kunoichi, who each have their own range of special skills that can get you out of (or into) a sticky situation. Breaking a map into a series of interconnected puzzles, carefully positioning your units and then executing four or five simultaneous …executions… to clear knot of guards that had previously felt impenetrable makes you feel very clever, and I had a ball with this game for something like 50 hours before I let it lie, satisfied with the experience once I felt like I’d seen everything the game had to offer, even if I hadn’t achieved total mastery2.
So when Aiko’s Choice came along at the end of last year, a stand-alone expansion to Shadow Tactics, I did something very unOwllike and purchased it, for actual money, at full price, on release. I didn’t have any time to play it right then, being a new father and all, so it sat quietly on the shelf of unloved games in the Steam Library until the news of it’s inclusion in the November 2022 Humble Bundle.
This was a good excuse so try it out, so I installed Aiko’s Choice, and while I enjoyed diving back into this one and spending a little time enjoying Shadow Tactics again, I’m disappointed to have to report that it was a slightly underwhelming experience. Maybe the five-year-old nostalgia goggles were doing their work, but I think the main issue is that while the original game had some excellent pacing and progression, this one just…doesn’t. There’s only three new missions (plus three very short story-missions that really don’t count) that took me only five hours or so to complete, and they introduce nothing new to the Shadow Tactics formula, with no new weapons, characters or enemies. Even the plotline (and the titular Choice) lack any meaningful dramatic tension, though I won’t get into that any further here for spoilerific reasons.
I suppose it was kind of fun to have a map3 in which you can use all five of the player characters together, something that was vanishingly rare in the original game, but that’s not enough of a draw to sell a title that costs $29. In fact, I can’t see a reason why this would be a standalone title at all, given that I think that it just adds the grand total of two enemy models to the game. It could and should have been DLC for the original game, and releasing it as a standalone title just makes me a little less fond of Daedalic as a publisher and Mimimi as a developer, companies that had previously earned themselves some goodwill in my book for their otherwise excellent offerings. I would have loved to see an expansion that offered either mod support or just some new game mechanics, and the sameness of this title left me feeling a little cheated. While I’m glad that I played it and I enjoyed the few hours spent clearing it, I can’t honestly recommend this one.
My verdict? Play the original Shadow Tactics (it’s had a few big sales lately and is free on Epic this week) but don’t bother with this one unless you’ve cleared most of the challenges in that and are desperate for some more. If you’re getting Humble Choice this month, it’s worth an install, but if you’re like me you likely think that the other games in the bundle are all very underwhelming prospects then you’re probably going to give the bundle a skip this time around, and I don’t think Aiko’s Choice should change your mind. Me, I’m pressing PAUSE on the bundle for the first time in six years of continuous subscription.
Behaviour that this game (somewhat refreshingly) both demands and strongly endorses
Some of the requirements for the speedrun badges are nuts.
Nominally two, but Mugen and Takuma can’t interact in the islands level, so I maintain that that doesn’t count