I’ve always had a soft spot for underdogs. It could be a hopelessly outmatched sports team, a musician rising from obscurity, or, in this case, a great game that isn’t getting the recognition it deserves. Desperados III would have completely passed me by if not for an internet reviewer praising it enthusiastically. After finishing the game, I have to pay it forward and tell you everything that makes it so fun. As Game of the Year season picks up, it’s my duty – as with Hypnospace Outlaw and Anodyne 2 last year – to advocate for the smaller guys.
Desperados III is a prequel and asks for no familiarity with the series. I certainly didn’t have any, and judging by the gap in game releases, most won’t. This is a real-time strategy cowboy stealth game. It may sound like an odd cocktail, but the game leverages the setting for approachable, engaging mechanics. The developer is Mimimi, a German studio that previously released Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun. I haven’t played that one yet, but they look very similar. You’ll be commanding your characters around enemy viewcones, employing specialized skills to advance through the level. For a relatively new studio, Mimimi feels like it’s punching above its weight here, packing in an impressive amount of content and showing a high level of presentation.
The game has a heavy emphasis on story. It’s a standard revenge mission for John Cooper, who lost his father as a boy at the hands of a criminal known only as Frank. Years later, he gathers up a crew of friends to take down Frank’s gang and the nefarious DeVitt Company once and for all. The plot is quite basic, but I am always willing to look past that if the characters are well done. Fortunately, this is very much the case. The playable characters are larger than life, and their interactions never get stale. The camera never gets closer than a god’s-eye view, but the performances are convincing enough to convey everything that’s needed. Their quips during gameplay are varied and change depending on where the story is. All told, they come together as a well-rounded, highly enjoyable cast.
You’ll be playing as:
- Cooper: Your typical cowboy archetype, he wields dual pistols, a handy throwing knife, and distracting coins familiar to any stealth game fan.
- McCoy: A doctor-turned-mercenary with limited mobility, he carries blinding tools and a sniper pistol that comes in clutch often.
- Hector: This boisterous big boy can take down the strongest enemies single-handedly, and he can combo his bear trap with a lure that easily mops up the small fry.
- Kate: She lacks lethal options, but with a disguise, she can infiltrate enemy camps and distract horny guards so the others can get to work.
- Isabelle: You won’t play as her until halfway through the game, but she has some exciting tools, including chaining and mind control powers, and she runs circles around the others.
After introducing what each character can do, Desperados III mixes and matches their abilities in a very smart way. Every level will give you different combinations of the five. You might tear through enemies with Hector at one point, but you’ll have to come up with a different strategy when he’s absent. Constantly giving and taking away options forces you to examine the situation from all angles and internalize what every character can do. Putting them in different groups also organically develops relationship dynamics. It’s a great source of variety that works for the whole campaign. If every character were in every level, it would get boring fast.
The same can be said for the enemies – there are only three main classes of human foes, with some guard dogs thrown in rarely. Differentiation couldn’t be simpler: thugs and gunmen will fall for anything, ponchos are much more discerning, and long coats are beefy and eagle-eyed. Also worth noting is the guards’ genders, as women are immune to Kate’s charms. I guess the DeVitt Company is decidedly heteronormative. When guards are grouped up, the highest ranking one takes precedent; you’ll need to wait for a gunman to leave a poncho before he becomes vulnerable. Again, it’s the placement of enemies in combination that keeps things fresh. While the game would benefit from another type, the variety is sufficient as is.
With the way levels are designed, I began approaching them in a more puzzle-like way. You will typically have a few strongholds between you and your objective, each crawling with guards. Investigating viewcones gives the impression that the whole zone is covered. If each area is a defensive wall, the game is about finding the one loose brick that lets you tear it down. You will be creating openings for your characters, finding out what works and does not, and methodically taking out your opposition. Like the game itself, your team feels like the underdogs. Each time, I wondered if this was the challenge that would stump me, but it never happened. I think that’s exactly what Mimimi wanted, and it’s a great feeling to have on a first playthrough.
The game facilitates this by heavily encouraging quick saves, to the point of flashing reminders on screen when you haven’t done it recently. You can turn these off, but the game seems built on trial and error. I would fail dozens of times before executing each step of my plan, and I think that’s intentional. On the other hand, that’s just how I play stealth games. I know some people prefer a more naturalistic playstyle, and the game allows for that, too. Setting off the alarm brings in more guards instead of causing an instant fail. You have loud options when these encounters happen, but I preferred to quick load until I got through undetected.
Making save scums part of the design is just one of the ways Desperados III is friendly and accommodating to players. You have difficulty options, of course, but you also have a powerful tool called showdown mode. This lets you pause and queue actions for all your characters at once. It’s perfect for executing a sweet double kill or timing a distraction. There’s no penalty or cooldown for using this. My only gripe is technical – sometimes, when I clicked the button to activate it, the game would send the character to where the button was instead of where I wanted them to go. You also have the ability to speed up time with the hold of a button. This eliminates a lot of potential tedium when waiting for guard cycles. All of these touches only make the experience more fun, and it shows that Mimimi understands how people play RTS games and the things that can frustrate them.
A campaign playthrough will take you around 25 hours, but Desperados III has copious replayability. This starts with the extra challenges on each level. These are expected for the genre, but they are actually hidden during the first playthrough. You might do some accidentally, but your first run through a level will be free of those extra pressures. And pressure is right – very often, I looked at a stipulation and wondered how the heck you’re supposed to do it. It will ask you to avoid strategies that were instrumental to winning the first time, go out of your way for extra objectives, and fulfill speedrun requirements. Grinding for these challenges seems like a nightmare to me, but stealth enthusiasts will surely get satisfaction out of it.
There are also bonus “what-if” challenges that put you in the campaign maps with different characters and objectives. I haven’t looked into these much, but they seem thoughtfully constructed, and it’s a nice bonus for sure. I imagine they will be a more appealing option to some than endlessly replaying campaign missions. Finally, there is a trio of DLC levels that I’m eager to get to. I hope they push some wilder mechanics than what’s in the base game.
Fully mastering Desperados III will take no shortage of time, which is a positive in my book. Like all my favorite games, it’s easy to learn and hard to master. I was constantly impressed with the scope and detail put into this technically budget game. How faithful it is to the other entries in the series, I can’t say. I can say that it’s a fantastic stealth game that deserves much more attention. You might be feeling pressure to catch up on your Yakuzas and your Cyberpunks, but I offer this as an alternative. Try out Desperados III, pardner!
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