The first two Desperados games never blipped on my radar since they didn’t come to console, but I surely do remember Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun. That unassuming title from the same team seemed to come out of nowhere (appropriate, given the ninjas?) and set my tactics brain on fire – complex, nuanced, detailed and intricate, it was one of the best experiences I had in 2017, and I was ravenous for more. Now, in 2020, Mimimi Productions has delivered.
Desperados III is a semi-realtime team tactics title seen from an overhead isometric perspective. The player is in charge of five characters, each with a predefined personality and skillset. Cooper’s the cowboy with a throwing knife and revolvers. Doc is handy with bandages and a sniper pistol. Hector’s the strongman with a giant bear trap. Kate dazzles guards with her good looks, and Isabelle practices Voodoo that can dominate an enemy’s will.
The premise is classic Western – Cooper’s after the man who killed his Pa, and he gathers a ragtag group of skilled misfits who can help him get the job done, upending a dirty railroad company’s underhanded deeds along the way. Although cutscenes are minimal, the crew often talks to each other during missions to build camaraderie. They’re a solid bunch, and the chatter is appreciated. That said, story is not the draw here.
Most levels in Desperados III are massive, sprawling affairs set in the West (and beyond) filled with dusty roads, construction sites, stables, saloons, and, of course, plenty of enemies. Hostile troops come in various flavors and roles — some are stationed at specific places to keep watch, while others have predetermined patrol routes. It’s up to the player to study enemy patterns and their surroundings to figure out how the team’s talents can crack the challenges that lie before them.
Each area is incredibly detailed, offering multiple paths towards victory. Cautious players can use Cooper and Isabelle’s agility to climb and sneak along rooftops. Hector might lay his trap down and whistle for a guard to come investigate, while Doc is perfectly content to pop heads from the safety of being a hundred yards away.
This crew is capable of handling any situation, but there’s a twist – since every level has multiple enemies covering each other and tiny windows of opportunity to operate unseen, the player will often have to coordinate actions between two (or more) characters at once via “Showdown Mode”.
With the press of a button, everything onscreen stops and the actions of every character can be planned out in advance. For example, Cooper can be told to spring from behind a corner to silence a guard while Hector prepares to blast three stationed nearby who would have come to his aid. At the same time, Kate can plan to coldcock the goon she’s been sweet-talking to stop him from sounding the alarm. Once plans are laid, all three actions are triggered simultaneously to take out an entire group of foes that would have been impossible to do in sequence.
Even better, there’s no one correct answer for any scenario. Sometimes Showdown is the way to go, other times the direct approach works, and sometimes being quiet wins the day. In addition to this freedom of approach, I loved that the devs have story events that affect team composition – some characters aren’t available in some levels, and these forced changeups keep things fresh. Instead of constantly relying on the same abilities, the player is asked to make do with what they have — something easily solved with one teammate becomes a new challenge with another, and vice versa. It’s wonderful.
Smartly, the devs let the player save at any time with no limits, and thanks to this, the willingness to experiment comes without penalty. It’s absolutely the right call, not only to encourage new strategies, but because Desperados III can often be quite difficult, requiring a thorough, systematic approach to every area — running and gunning almost never works.
No, success comes from meticulously scrutinizing each map and figuring out which guards need to be taken out in which order, and then how to take them out without causing a ruckus. I saved and reloaded dozens of times in each map because even the best plan can (and will) fail repeatedly thanks to unexpected guards popping up, lookouts that go unnoticed until too late, or just plain poor timing on the player’s part – half a second’s delay can mean the difference between sneaking away or getting a bullet in the head.
While I absolutely love Desperado III’s formula, I will say that many levels are too long. It’s common to spend an hour or two on a single mission, and even longer if things don’t go well. The devs make clear that speedruns are possible by setting them as in-game achievements, but the first time through a location is usually overwhelming. Being faced with one huge job after another can feel grueling, so for this review I limited myself to one level per day to prevent burnout. A few smaller levels sprinkled throughout the campaign would have been welcome.
I’d also like to see more dramatic punctuation during the campaign. The giant levels take a significant amount of time and effort to get through, but the payoffs are rarely showstoppers — there aren’t many emotional high points or ‘wow!’ events that feel commensurate to the challenge. After taking two hours to systematically remove an overlapping series of guards covering each other with airtight sightlines, getting a low-key “we did it.” and moving on to the next one feels a bit flat.
Those complaints are minor ones, though. Like Shadow Tactics before it, Desperados III is one of the best tactics games available, and certainly one of the most satisfying titles I’ve played this year. It’s a finely-tuned masterpiece of Swiss-watch construction, polished in every respect and delivering the kind of tuned cerebral action that isn’t easily found. For fans of complex strategic gameplay, they just don’t come better than this. Rating: 8.5 out of 10
Disclosures: This game is developed by Mimimi Productions and published by THQ Nordic. It is currently available on PS4, XBO, PC. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the PS4. Approximately 28 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was not completed (still playing!) There are no multiplayer modes.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated M and contains Blood, Strong Language, Suggestive Themes and Violence. The official ESRB description reads as follows: This is a strategy game in which players assume the role of a cowboy (John Cooper) on a quest for revenge in the Wild West. From a top-down perspective, players traverse the wilderness and frontier towns to battle enemy bandits and rival gangs in turn-based combat. Players use pistols, shotguns, and stealth attacks (knives, traps) to kill enemies; players can also employ indirect kills (e.g., poison) to dispatch enemies. Combat is accompanied by realistic gunfire, screams of pain, and blood-splatter effects; fallen enemies can be seen lying in large pools of blood. Cutscenes depict additional acts of violence: a man shot in the head; a man executed at close range by a villain. The game contains references to suggestive material: dialogue referencing brothels (e.g., “She on the first floor of the Flagstone brothel, drinking whiskey and watching the girls dance”; “Fanciest whorehouse in the quarter. Girls there will make your dreams come true.”) and allusions to sex (e.g., “That was one hell of a night…What’s wrong darling? Lost something in the heat of the night?”). The words “f**k,” “sh*t,” and “a*shole” are heard in the game.
Colorblind Modes: There is one colorblind mode available in the options.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: All dialogue can be subtitled, including ambient conversations from NPCs if the player is close enough in the game for their character to ‘hear’ them. Text cannot be resized or altered.No audio cues are necessary for gameplay, as there is ample visual feedback onscreen at all times for nearly every situation – how much noise a character makes, when enemies spot the player, and more. It’s all visual. This game is fully accessible.
Remappable Controls: The controls are fully remappable.