An unspoken rule of deciding which games are worth your time is to be incredibly wary of additional subtitles, complicated punctuation, and other titling nonsense. You’d be forgiven, then, for checking out somewhere near the middle of having Mimimi Games’ latest release in their spiritual trilogy of stealth strategy games recommended to you.
You’d be doing Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun – Aiko’s Choice, and yourself, a great disservice though. This standalone expansion is par for the course for the developer. Which is to say that it’s a worthy addition to one of the best stealth games in recent memory.
The story is set in Japan’s early Edo period, a time of relative peace and prosperity after the chaos of the Sengoku Jidai. After their dissolution in 1573 by the ‘demon daimyo’ Oda Nobunaga, the Shogunate were re-established in 1603 by Tokugawa Ieyasu. Not everyone saw the rigid social order they kept as progress, however.
Shadow Tactics’ inciting incident involved unravelling a plot to overthrow the new shogunate. The three main missions and two playable side stories in Aiko’s choice take place as an offscreen interlude toward the end of the original game’s story, focusing on the titular kunoichi and her relationship with a former sensei.
Right at home
Gameplay follows the same patterns established by its predecessor. If you remember the old Eidos Commandos series, you’ll feel right at home. RTS style controls allow manoeuvring between up to five stealthy heroes, each with their own skills and drawbacks.
Samurai Mugen, for example, can use a devastating bladewind to disembowel multiple foes grouped close together, and is strong enough to pick up their bodies then sprint off to the nearest hiding place. The drawback here is that the warrior’s heavy armour prevents him from swimming, scaling vines, or using a grappling hook. So, if you want to take out a watchful rifleman above, perhaps you’ll need to send thief Yuki to stalk her way up there.
Each level is sprawling, intricate, and guarded by dozens of interlocking patrols and sentries that halt the team’s progress. Very brief combat encounters are manageable, but stealth is the overwhelming focus.
A common problem might be a key location watched over by three sentries, each visible to the others. To avoid raising an alarm, you’ll need to study patterns, isolate weak links, lure away stragglers, break patterns with distractions, or set up perfectly-timed coordinated combos using a queueing feature called ‘Shadow Mode’.
While suspicious foes are prone to unpredictability, the default state of these stages is one that allows for perfect information at all times. A quick click displays any foe’s view cone, including the range at which your characters are visible crouched or standing.
Spots can be marked to show any sightline that passes over them, and enemies have consistent reactions to each of your troupe’s tricks. Mimimi’s games are notable for their difficulty, but they define themselves through this consistency.
For the game to give you this god-like knowledge, combined with your access to five team member’s worth of overpowered abilities, and still provide such a constant and satisfying challenge speaks volumes to the complexity and ingenuity of the level design. A single level can take upwards of two hours to finish. Never mind how long it takes to achieve any sort of mastery or to tackle hardcore mode.
Challenges and speedrun goals breathe fresh life into well-trodden ground on repeated playthroughs. While Aiko’s Choice three main levels may not seem overly generous, there’s potentially dozens of hours of play here. That’s on top of the eight or so hours for a first run-through on standard difficulty.
Aiko’s Choice doesn’t require the original Shadow Tactics to run, but it does assume a certain amount of familiarity with how Mimimi’s stealth games function. While the first game introduced characters and their skills slowly, Aiko’s Choice gives you more or less a free run from the outset, with suitably complex level design to match.
Time with the gang
While the lingering friction of the transformation of the country in this new period is used as an aesthetic backdrop, Aiko’s Choice opts to focus more on its characters. It’s an understandable direction: one last chance to spend time with the gang before they plunge into the original game’s finale.
The dynamic of the group, one of found family in hard times, is also convincing. As with its approach to gameplay complexity, Aiko’s Choice assumes familiarity with each of its five central characters from the outset. It forgoes introductions to offer more insight into their relationships.
The three main missions are broken up by smaller interludes, focusing on small areas and one or two characters. The first of these, which sees aging gunsmith Takuma escape from captivity on a Portuguese ship with the help of his pet tanuki Kuma, is a real highlight.
If these levels have a weakness, it’s that none of them are quite as dynamic as, say, the original game’s opening Siege of Osaka. More moving parts, but less spectacle.
“More character drama than historical epic”
Ultimately, Aiko’s Choice is more of the same formula. Same team. Same abilities. Same journey. It’s such a winning formula, though, that it never needed to be anything else. The noticeable difference is that extra Desperados III design experience. These new levels are dense and varied, often offering a choice in objectives, and a host of interactable quirks and traps.
The finale, especially, offers a Hitman-esque crop of multi-tiered environmental assassination solutions. Playing just once feels like missing out on many of these missions’ more interesting puzzles.
Like the original, it’s certainly more of a character drama than a historical epic. Gorgeous and bright cel-shaded visuals paint a postcard picture of the Edo Period, often so stunning you’ll almost feel bad staining the crisp snow with blood. Still, each character comes to life through their approach to stealth and their personal codes and disciplines, painting a vivid – if romanticised – portrait of the era.