Shadow Tactics Got Everything Right… Except Japan

This recent release (Day 1 on Linux!) piqued my curiosity when it came out – taking place in medieval Japan (hm?), mixing stealth and Commandos-style gameplay (hmm!?) and all in gorgeous environments (!!) – that was enough to get me to want to try it out. The whole thing starts like an Hollywood action movie: right as one faction assaults another entrenched in a castle. But the assault is difficult as all gates are shut and archers and gunmen shoot everything on sight. Here comes Hayato, a ninja, whose mission is to get to the main gate on the other side of the castle, and break it open so that his lord’s soldiers can storm the place at once. That’s precisely the character you take control of from the get go.

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The whole setup acts as a tutorial to show you how to play and how to use all the tools at your disposal. The similarity to Commandos is pretty obvious right from the beginning. Enemies move around and have a limited field of vision that you need to exploit to either go through stealthily, or get rid of them one by one without raising any alarm. It’s often a matter of a few seconds between being right on time and too late – timing is the key. In case you are not used to saving games frequently, well this game will make sure you do – after 1 minute or so a message will pop up, as a reminder that it’s been already a while since you did not save. It makes sense, as it is very unlikely you can complete a single mission without failing at least once – and the price of failure is usually death, unless you manage to hide on time and not be detected anymore. That almost never works.

Through the course of this first mission, you will soon discover that you can be in charge of several characters at the same time. Once Hayato reaches a certain point, Mugen the armor-clad samurai becomes available and can help where Hayato cannot. Each character has a specific set of skills that you have to combine to progress smoothly. For example, Hayato can use a shuriken to kill a single enemy at short distance. Mugen has a powerful strike that can kill all enemies very close to him. He can also throw a sake bottle in the open to attract or distract enemies, making it easier to slash them once they are close enough. Additionally, due to his sheer strength, Mugen can carry several bodies at once (!) to remove them from sight, while Hayato is slow in doing so but can easily use hooks and ropes on buildings to reach higher grounds and stay invisible this way. As you progress to other missions there are more characters you get to control, with more abilities (an old geezer who can snipe from a distance, a mature woman who can disguise herself, a young girl who puts traps on the ground, etc…).

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Most of the time, you can get around using a single character to get through difficult parts, but sometimes it looks (and is probably) completely impossible to go through without further aid. In such cases you have to use the so-called Shadow mode. The Shadow mode makes it possible for two or three characters to trigger a single action/movement at the very same time – like a coordinated attack , to get rid of enemies facing each other. Without such a mode it would be very risky to get rid of such adversaries. And even if you are not into killing, you can also use such coordinated actions to distract one soldier to enable one of your characters to move stealthily behind them at the same time.

The whole game is very well designed. I am not talking only about graphics (while they are certainly pretty to look at). The UI is very minimal and gives a large place to the action. Controls are fairly intuitive, and the Shadow mode, for example, makes the screen go darker, signaling that you are not playing in real time anymore, but planning your actions ahead of time – in that mode whatever action or movement you do is recorded (for each character) and once you are done with the preparations, you can trigger this simultaneous set of actions with a single click. As the game is in a real 3D environment, you can rotate the camera to look for other paths or alternative ways to progress. It’s not always necessary but makes it easier to understand how everything is connected to each other. There are a number of visual cues, such as the field of view of soldiers marked as colored beams on the group, with different levels of gradation based on how well they can see you – at close distance they have a perfect sight, but beyond that they would not see anyone if they are crouching. When trying to hide corpses, places where you can drop the body to make it disappear become highlighted – a life-saver when you are in a hurry to act. The effort to make it easy to understand everything visually is remarkable.

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The usual pitfall of the genre is to create a problem with a single working solution that the player has to find with trial and error. This is not the case here. There are often several ways you can approach a given problem, and several ways that would work well, too.

The other pitfall is to make some solutions completely obvious – like, you know FPS put crates in the middle of nowhere, conveniently showing up as a hint of bullets to come… Here in Shadow Tactics, you can sometimes feel this way when a soldier is just standing right next to a bush, immobile, waiting to be murdered from behind. This being said, it’s never that bad – as you progress this kind of simple trick does not work anymore and a lot more soldiers just keep moving around in patrols.

There’s a few things that bother me a little bit, though. Note that it’s not specific to Shadow Tactics – most stealth games have the same problem: you can go around and murder 100 people and still remain unnoticed. As long as you get rid of them carefully, one by one. That does not seem to be very realistic. At some point soldiers should realize that something wrong is happening when they lost 70% of their comrades in the past 30 minutes. Same thing when they actually spot a corpse while you manage to stay hidden – there is a brief time when everyone is on high alert, then after a few minutes everything returns back to normal. That does not make sense either, if someone was violently murdered you would stay on high alert for the rest of the mission’s duration. That kind of scripting would be welcome to discourage one’s intent to go on a murdering spree. You can actually do that if you are so inclined (in several levels I managed to kill most of the enemies on screen) and that is a little inconsistent with the title… you know, “Shadow” Tactics.

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Another minor issue is that you cannot see the field of view of all soldiers at the same time – Usually only one person at once, and there is no obvious way to select which character you would like to focus on. That part could have been improved. In practice you get used to how things work and it is not as big of a deal as it sounds like, but still, that part is not ideal.

Outside of the key gameplay elements, the missions themselves are very diverse. As I said the first mission is about helping the army to enter the enemy’s castle. The second one focuses on weakening a convoy in the countryside to make it easier to attack afterwards. Then there is this rescue operation taking place in a monastery. And this lord assassination mission. All taking place in very different environments, and introducing frequently new gameplay elements. In one part the ground is covered by snow, making you leave visible footprints as you walk. Footprints!

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Enemies can therefore detect you much more easily, which makes things a lot more difficult. Another mission happens at night, and there the field of vision of enemies is much reduced – you may think it will make things easier, but do not fool yourself. They have almost perfect vision of anything that’s close to torches lighting the camps, so you need to navigate carefully in between lights while avoiding patrols altogether. Stressful.

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And this is not just the environment – levels are well designed and large enough for you to consider several pathways to reach your objectives. Overall it is well thought and such variations in conditions and architecture challenge you to adapt further once you thought you were getting used to the game. Each level can take a significant amount of time to beat, usually more than one hour. There are 13 missions, so there is plenty of stuff to do to get to the end.

So, Shadow Tactics does a lot very, very well. It’s just a shame that it fails at one thing: getting the cultural aspects right. Now, OK, this may sound like nitpick to most of you, and maybe no one really cares, but hear me still. I am assuming the guys from Mimimi productions (based in Munich, Germany) did quite a bit of research when they designed the game, yet you can really see through the appearances that they fundamentally do not get the Japanese context right.

First, the voice-overs. They are actually well done in Japanese – good voice actors, probably professional ones at that. But the language is a little weird. There are some direct English to Japanese translations that just don’t make any sense. Nothing Personal when Hayato kills an enemy becomes kojinteki no urami deha nai (個人的な恨みではない) which is something one would not say like that in Japanese. Then, you have the problem of most dialogs being written as if they were contemporary while ancient Japanese is actually quite different – Obviously nobody knows exactly how ancient Japanese was spoken, but in Japanese movies of the jidaigeki (時代劇) style they use a neat trick of a semi-modern Japanese with ancient idioms that make it sound from a different era. This did not happen here, and modern Japanese in a medieval Japan context sounds awkward. There are even borrowed words that makes absolutely no sense with the era depicted – such as when the young girl puts a trap on the ground and says iya na surprise desho (嫌なサープライズでしょう) – Surprise is a direct borrowing from English and would never have been used even in the late Meiji Era, let alone the Edo period the game is portraying. It just sounds off.

But it goes much further. Mugen, the samurai you sometimes control, is seen most of the time wearing his armor. OK, that’s what you see in museums, but the truth is such armors were only used in battlefields, not in regular towns or everyday life situations. Look at the Seven Samurai movie from Kurosawa. Do you see any guy wearing a heavy armor? At most the only characteristic sign of a samurai is that he owns and carries a sword – common folks having no rights of carrying any weapon.

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And if you are trying to infiltrate any place, you would NOT want to wear anything like a battlefield armor. It makes you slow, it makes you visible, and it makes you NOISY like hell. It just does not make any sense. When on a battlefield, you don’t care about any of these aspects, because the enemy knows where you are – in a stealth game, a samurai should rather wear simple clothes to be as invisible as possible – something inconspicuous. Especially ridiculous are the cutscenes where Mugen is visiting the Lord (shogun) all dressed up in armor. That would never occur – the armor is something you wear just before an actual battle, not for an official visit.

Even the environments are weird in many ways. Look at this interior and this situation.

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Since the nobles’ living quarters are covered by either wood or tatami, nobody should come in wearing shoes, unlike Mugen entering fully clad in armor and boots. Lights, i.e. candles should never positioned near the floor, since they may cause fire when too much heat reaches the tatami. Having metal lanterns right on the tatami is preposterous. Furthermore, any drinks should be on very short-legged table, not a bedroom-like table at the side of the lord’s seat.

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Just look at Kagemusha 影武者 from director Kurosawa to get a more authentic look at what things around a lord should look like. And this is a recent movie, but accounts in picture and writings abound to describe how lords lived and interacted. And for the most part traditions have not changed significantly in present Japan.

Even Hayato as a kind of ninja feels a bit off. Shinobi do not usually act during the day, yet most missions involving him occur in daytime. Look at the Japanese game Tenchu, focusing on the ninja world: most missions occur at night – that’s because it’s usually much easier then to hide oneself, especially in an pre-electricity era. Darkness makes their job easier.

Architecturally, there seems to be some mix-up with more ornate styles you can find in Asia but which are extremely uncommon in Japan. Hexagonal pavilions are extremely rare in the archipelago in the first place (you mostly see them in Okinawa, which is not really Japan since they were integrated very recently, history-wise), and they certainly have no ends reaching up towards the skies like that (and no watchtower either! This looks super strange).

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The typical architecture in Japan is made to look rather simple, and certainly avoids unnatural/exaggerated curves – it’s much more subtle than what you see in the game.

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The style shown in that particular level is much likely to be found in China, as you can see below in this example from a Chinese garden:

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Sometimes it kind of feels like the game knows a little bit about Japan, before it completely misses the mark. For example, there is suicide ritual going on at some point as an official could not accomplish his mission and asks to commit seppuku (splitting one’s belly as a form of suicide).

The game shows a kaishakunin (介錯人) (a suicide assistant, usually a friend when done accordingly to the customs) then decapitating the official after he plunged his blade in his belly – and then you see the head rolling, leaving a trail full of blood right in front of the lord. This is not bad (the decapitation part is not known to everyone outside of Japan) yet this would probably not have happened this way.

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First, the kaishakunin should not completely remove the head but rather leave just enough flesh for the head to fall down on the upper body as if an embrace. It is considered extremely distasteful for the head to roll down. Besides, the seppuku would not occur suddenly out of the blue like in the cutscene, it is usually part of a ceremony and it requires some preparation, as samurai lives are not treated like commoners’ – there is honor in the suicide – it would be set to happen at a certain time, the victim should wear white clothes, etc… this was not the typical on-the-spot kind of suicide. Below is a representation of the custom.

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Furthermore, the game wrongly uses the term seppuku (切腹) verbally – it is indeed the correct word to use in writing, but in speech the usual hara-kiri (腹切) is used. Yeah, Japanese has tons of this kind of weird rules between spoken and written language. It takes years to figure them out.

How characters talk to each other is off as well. The teenager Yuki talks to Aiko, who is probably in her 30s, referring to her as Aiko-san – which sounds way too casual, and one would never call a stranger using their first name. Like, Never. She should have been addressed by her last name plus the addition of -sama, at least, if not a more honorific form. This is Japan after all, where you have about a dozen ways to show respect when addressing someone else.

There’s more stuff that’s off, but you get the idea. I don’t mean to be harsh to the developers, because when Japanese folks make a game set in the US or in Europe, it is typical that they get cultural aspects completely wrong, too. It’s extremely hard to avoid such mistakes when you only have a superficial understanding of how people think and behave in other places. It is extremely difficult to go beyond stereotypes unless you do a lot of research about the topic you’d like to cover. Anyway, if you get the game, just don’t think the way the Japanese world is described is authentic in any way.

So there you have it. Shadow Tactics is, despite the cultural flaws I mentioned, a great and fun game to play. This is a Unity Game (5 I believe), and the performance is pretty good in full details on my rig (i5 3.4 Ghz+GTX970+8GB RAM) while the frame rate does stutter a little when the camera hovers the whole scene when many objects and buildings. Nothing catastrophic, yet noticeable at times.

It’s available on Steam and GOG (great job for making it DRM-free right at release), and I do feel it’s a bit pricey (about 40 USD). This is a well designed game, well worth playing, but when you go in such price ranges you inevitably have to compare with AAA titles, and this may be detrimental if you have very high expectations in terms of production values. We live in a world where huge, award winning games like Witcher 3 are sold for less than 30 USD, so going beyond is certainly daring, especially for a genre that’s not mainstream. Well if you are put off by the full price, I would seriously recommend anyone to consider it very strongly once it’s on sale. And right now it’s going in our recommended games list for Linux.

I do hope they plan for expansion packs or, who knows, a second episode? – it would be a shame they stopped there.


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7 Comments

  1. Really interesting review, particularly about the Japanese cultural setting of the game. I suppose that I am still amazed by most high res realistic style games, but computer gaming has developed its own own culture as well. So for instance, the characters always in battle dress and the guards going back to a low-state of alert only a few minutes after the action, I think, is part of the computer gaming culture over the last 20 years.

    • Yeah – surely the gaming world has developed its own stereotype of narratives and so-called meta-humor as well that only gamers can understand. It is fine, yet there is certainly many opportunities to go beyond what has been done before in terms of mechanics – and I think there’s probably a public willing to pay for it.

  2. Great review 👍 We’d love to do a follow up interview on the Japanese thing. Some things were design decisions, at others we simply failed. Could be really interesting to talk about this with you 😊 Fell free to reach out to us! Greetings from Germany, The Mimimis ❤️

    • Hey Mimimis! Thanks for reaching out to us! Sure, would be great to do a follow-up on this if you are interested to discuss things further. I will message you.

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