If you play more than a minute of Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun without saving, a timer pops up. “Last save 1:01” it says in friendly green. You can turn the timer off if it annoys you, but I like it. After two minutes it changes into cautious yellow. Maybe when it hits three minutes it turns red, but I don't know because I've never played Shadow Tactics for three minutes without saving. It's not that kind of game.
It's real-time tactical stealth in the same mold as the Commandos series—the World War II games where you silently maneuvered a squad of unique specialists through German bases. Shadow Tactics is set in Edo-period Japan, so instead of a Green Beret and a Sapper it gives you a slowly expanding squad including a ninja with shuriken, a samurai who can sword-sweep two guards at once, a street kid who can drop a trap then lure guards toward it, and so on.
Each of its levels is filled with guards of varying attentiveness and distractableness who have to be dealt with to reach your goal, whether that's blowing up a gate or assassinating a lord. Those levels can at first seem pants-wettingly large and full of enemy samurai who are immune to half your attacks and distractions, but Shadow Tactics lets you chop the levels up into fun-sized pieces.
The easy quicksaving, automatically spread out over multiple save slots, is your best tool for that. Yuki the street brat drops her trap in the snow, lures a guard into it, then drags his body into a bush—press F5, quicksave. Mugen the samurai crouchwalks into a building just before a guard turns the corner and walks past—press F5, quicksave. Screw up any of those actions? Press F8, quickload.
Sometimes people talk about saving and loading ruining their enjoyment of a game, which is an alien concept to me. Reloading because I goofed up right proper is like rewinding a scene in a movie where I couldn't hear the dialogue or rereading a paragraph in a book because I vagued out and didn't absorb it. Those things don't destroy immersion because immersion is not a fragile thing. If it can survive sirens in the street, arguing neighbours, and barking dogs it can survive me tapping F5 until it becomes muscle memory.
Saving and loading helps you break each intimidating level of Shadow Tactics up into discrete actions, tiny challenges to be tackled one at a time until you finally triumph over what initially seemed daunting. The levels accentuate this, each sliced up into sections—by walls or water or cliffs—where a set of guards watch over each other. Those guards can be taken out in ones or twos by waiting for patrols to pass and then luring them away, perhaps with Mugen's flask of sake. Maybe someone is standing behind an ox that can be angered into kicking them, or on a platform that can be rigged to fall so it looks like an accident.
Once you deal with that area you move on to the next. Each is a stealth-puzzle mouthful you quickload a few times to gnaw at before finishing. This sense of reducing each level to pieces by biting into it and chewing it up is inherently pleasing, but quicksaving is important to Shadow Tactics for another reason as well, and that's because it's a stealth game.
Stealth is a genre where freedom to experiment is essential. Knowing how long an unconscious guard will stay asleep for, how quickly they'll be alerted if you stray into their viewcone, the precise limits of your tools and abilities—you have to playing around with these things to understand them. If failure is punished by being forced back to a checkpoint you're discouraged from learning any of that. I once found a toy train in survival-stealth game Sir, You Are Being Hunted that could be used to distract robots, but the first time I took it out it appeared at my feet and began loudly whistling. I was killed by robots almost immediately, then had to go back to such an old savepoint I never risked deploying a train again.
In Shadow Tactics, experiments are encouraged. The description for sneezing powder, which temporarily blinds guards, tells you its use is unlimited and you should test it as much as you want. Even limited-use or risky items are easy to understand by merrily quicksaving before throwing them into the world. The shuriken kills an enemy at middle-distance, but noisily so anyone nearby will hear. The birdwhistle calls enemies to your location, but there's time after blowing it to hookshot onto a nearby roof, from which you can drop down onto the clueless investigator. Learning how these things work is the first step to mastering them, and when you master the tools of a stealth game you feel like a real ninja—or green beret, master criminal, or whatever.
I'm about halfway through Shadow Tactics, still not quite at that level of mastery. One thing that's getting in the way is fluctuating difficulty. Things sometimes don't seem like they should be as tricky as they are, but the controls make them so. For instance, there's a shadow mode that lets you queue up actions with multiple characters and then execute them simultaneously. Press shift and the world drops into black and white as you give each specialist an order, and when you press enter they perform them in synchronization.
However, it's only possible to queue up one action per character. When I needed to have the samurai and street kid both hop out of a wagon after it entered a guarded compound, immediately duck into crouch mode then sneak into the bushes before they were spotted—all while avoiding snow patches they'd leave tracks in—that was too much for shadow mode. It had to be laboriously performed with a sequence of precision clicks and hotkey presses that felt harder to pull off than it should have.
Moments like that, where you know what to do but have to quickload too many times just to get the timing and sequence exactly right, interfere with the pleasant bitiness of Shadow Tactics. Chewed too often, some of its morsels lose their flavor. I've heard the same barks of conversation so often I switched the language to Japanese (with English subtitles) just to get some variety.
At this point though, I'm still enjoying Shadow Tactics. Dropping a bottle of sake where a guard will pick it up, running him through with a katana then dumping him down a well? That part's unlikely to get old any time soon.