Aiko's Choice is a punchy, compact standalone expansion for 2016's exceptional tactical stealth adventure Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun, and that's all I really needed it to be. Across three beefy, brilliant new levels and three smaller interludes, this side story returns us to Japan's Edo period to sneak, slash, and stalk our way through expertly crafted outposts and fortresses. And these missions pick up where the already difficult original game left off in ramping up the challenge, so expect a good fight.
All five of Blades of the Shogun's memorable party members are back, using their unique ability sets in tandem to chip away at devilishly clever clusters of diverse enemies. The basic routine hasn't really changed from the original game, which I loved, and if you’re new to it you should check out my review from 2016 to see exactly why it works so well. But Aiko's Choice also feels more precise and less frustrating, thanks in part to a timer that reminds you if you've gone too long without saving. I also didn't run into any of those impenetrable, confounding situations like in the original campaign where it felt like I had to do something really cheesy or fiddly to progress. These scenarios are tough, but the solutions are never ridiculous.
It's worth cautioning against anyone considering coming in without having played Blades of the Shogun before, though. This definitely is not a walk in the sakura garden. While none of the new areas in Aiko's Choice feel obnoxious, they definitely don't hesitate to throw you into the deep end. Whether I was rescuing a captured party member or sneaking into a secluded temple, the difficulty level felt about on par with some of the maps in the original game's third act. You can pick up some scrolls that remind you how certain character abilities work, and there is fair warning given that you should play at least the first few levels of the base game before jumping in to get familiar with the fundamentals. But it strikes me as a little odd that Daedalic would release Aiko’s Choice as a standalone game if that’s the expectation.
My favorite of the new missions involves a series of five islands that force you to use different combinations of party members for each. Only two of them are reachable by the heavily armored Mugen, who can't swim and relies on bridges to get around. Two others are in range of Takuma's powerful sniper rifle, allowing you to pick off particularly annoying enemies you can't easily sneak up on.
The fifth, and most exciting, is out of rifle range and doesn't have a bridge, so you have to tackle it with only three characters. All of the new missions could stand up alongside the best ones from the main campaign, and I was downright impressed they managed to find so many new ways to make me think about these characters and their various tools again, all these years later. There are even a few small new mechanics to learn, like characters leaving footprints in the sand that can either give away your position or lure enemies into a trap.
Screens – Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun – Aiko's Choice
The shorter, interlude missions that sit in between are nice little breaks that give the story and characters more time to breathe. They're not particularly difficult, and only took me 15 to 20 minutes to finish, which is a big contrast to the three hours or so each of the big infiltrations lasted. The last of them features the titular choice, which is a small but personally meaningful moment for Aiko, as well as a heartwarming and slightly tragic send-off for our small band of blademasters.
It has the same sort of vibe as Mass Effect 3's Citadel DLC, getting to see your friends one last time before they embark on what would turn out to be a particularly costly mission in the original campaign. While the overall plot isn't exactly mind-blowing, there is also an interesting reveal about Aiko's character that changes the context of both campaigns and offers a little bit of a silver lining to its biggest tragedy. All of this is delivered with great voice acting, whether you play in English or Japanese. It was really nice getting to hang out with this crew again.
Aiko’s Choice is a rewardingly difficult, well-polished, excellently paced bow on Blades of the Shogun’s legacy. Honestly, the only major issue I had with it was that I wanted more when it was over after around 12 hours. These abilities are so fun to find new uses for, and these levels are so good looking and cleverly designed, that I felt like I had an appetite for a dozen more. Getting back up to speed after five years was definitely an adjustment, and I suspect it will be excessively punishing if you don’t play the original Shadow Tactics first. But as the sun sets one last time on the land of the rising sun, Aiko’s Choice is simply more of an excellent stealth tactics formula that lives up to everything that was great about its foundations. It’s like one of your favorite bands coming back onstage and playing an absolutely slamming encore that lifts you up, but is over all too soon.