It’s taken me the better part of a year to get around to Desperados 3. This may seem a little odd given how much I liked Shadow Tactics, the previous game from Desperados 3 developers Mimimi; however, there’s a few reasons for that, first and foremost of which is that, historically, I haven’t liked Westerns as a setting for videogames. I’ve played a few across a range of different genres — Red Dead Redemption, Call Of Juarez: Gunslinger and Hard West are the ones which immediately spring to mind — none of which struck me as being particularly bad, but none of which I managed to stick with for more than a few hours. This is strange because I am quite a big fan of movie Westerns, particularly anything from Sergio Leone, but I can never take them seriously when they’re transplanted into a videogame; matching the mechanics to the setting is always a sufficiently contrived process that I end up feeling like I’m wandering around inside a knockoff version of Westworld and quit shortly afterwards.
This is why I never took the time to go back and play the original Desperados games, and it’s a big part of why I’ve dragged my feet on installing Desperados 31 until now. I’m glad I did though, because now that I’ve finished it I’ve realised two things:
- It is possible to make a decent Western-themed videogame which doesn’t have to contort itself into unusual shapes to fit into whatever the genre du jour is, which conclusively proves that the problem doesn’t lie with the setting.
- If I’d actually bothered to play it last year, Desperados 3 would have been a serious contender for my GOTY 20202.
It’s probably stating the obvious to say that Desperados 3 bears rather more than a passing resemblance to its predecessor Shadow Tactics. This was always going to be the case; none of the real-time tactics games that came out of that weird little genre mini-boom after Commandos were drastically different from one another. They all used intricate networks of patrolling guards, oscillating vision cones, and punishing alert systems to create a series of puzzle box levels that your five-member team would have to unpick with whatever tools were at their disposal; the fact that said team could range anywhere from a disposable set of Starfleet redshirts in Away Team to a selection of Merry Men in Robin Hood was, effectively, just window dressing around the same core mechanics. It’s those mechanics that Shadow Tactics almost flawlessly updated back in 2016, and I was hardly expecting Desperados 3 to throw away all of that good work. It has the same interface improvements, the same concept of near/far guard vision and bushes and cliffs obscuring enemy views, and the same ability to issue orders to multiple team members while paused to synchronise guard kills, here rebranded as Showdown Mode. It’s not surprising that Desperados 3 lifts all of these basic mechanical tweaks and innovations almost verbatim — in fact, it’s something that’s in fine keeping with the traditions of the old real-time tactics genre, however short-lived it might have been.
(This is why I’m not going to waste time in this review explaining the basic mechanics of Desperados 3 — I explained them four years ago in my Shadow Tactics review, so if you want to know the fundamentals of how the game works you’re better off reading that.)
What is surprising, however, is just how literally Desperados 3 copies and pastes what I considered to be the more Shadow Tactics-specific ingredients of that game. For example, in Shadow Tactics the first character you get is Hayako, a ninja who can scale cliffs using vines, who can distract people by throwing rocks, and who can kill guards by either stabbing them at close range with a tanto or by lobbing a shuriken into their neck at medium range. In Desperados 3, the first character you get is Cooper, a cowboy who can scale cliffs using vines, who can distract people by throwing coins, and who can kill guards by either stabbing them at close range with a knife or by throwing that same knife into their neck at medium range. Shadow Tactics has Aiko, a female character who can put on a disguise to pass unnoticed through enemy areas and who can distract guards by flirting with them; she can also throw bottles of sneezing potion to blind guards for brief periods. Desperados 3 has Kate, a female character who can put on a disguise to pass unnoticed through enemy areas and who can distract guards by flirting with them; she can also throw bottles of perfume to blind guards for brief periods. All of the character archetypes from Shadow Tactics make a similar return, albeit with some rearranged abilities: just like Shadow Tactics’ Mugen, Hector is the big guy who can kill Samurai — sorry, I mean Longcoats, in a single hit from his melee weapon and who can carry two dead bodies at once, but he’s given up his decoy item to the sniper character, Doctor McCoy. In exchange he’s stolen the whistle-and-trap combo from Yuki, who has been remixed into Desperado 3’s single new(ish) character, Isabelle; just like Yuki she can scale cliffs and has also swiped the sniper’s pet decoy (although it’s a cat rather than a tanooki), but her other two abilities are entirely new. She’s very much the exception, however; the names and faces might be different, but all of the other characters and abilities function pretty much identically to their Shadow Tactics equivalents.
So my initial impression was that this wasn’t so much Desperados 3 as it was Shadow Tactics: Wild West Edition. To say this was unexpected would be an understatement, as I had assumed that the point of getting the Desperados license was to make a Desperados game, and given that the characters had been lifted directly from Shadow Tactics I got to wondering how Desperados 3 could possibly resemble either of the previous Desperados games at all. Fortunately for me I do try and do the bare minimum of research before calling a game out for being lazy or derivative; in this case said research consisted of watching half an hour of a Desperados longplay on Youtube, during which I discovered — to my considerable surprise — that that the characters and abilities from Desperados 1 are themselves damn near identical to the ones in Shadow Tactics. Sure, there’s a little bit of mechanical drift thanks to the various changes that Shadow Tactics made to the basic real-time tactics formula, but Cooper’s got his knife which he can use to either stab or throw and can climb cliffs; Doc McCoy has his sniper rifle and his gas grenades; and Kate has her disguise, her two distraction abilities and even a blind ability, although in Desperados 1 it’s a mirror rather than a bottle of perfume.
After giving it some thought I’ve concluded that this weird convergence isn’t really the fault of either game, it’s just that introducing genuinely new abilities into a real-time tactics game is really difficult without smashing up the basic structure that makes these games so compelling in the first place. It’s not so much that Desperados 3 overly resembles Shadow Tactics, or that Shadow Tactics overly resembles Desperados 1, but rather that all of them have been reluctant to move too far away from the gameplay concepts established by genre progenitor Commandos back in 1998 — after all, Commandos has a sniper character, a character who can disguise and distract guards, a decoy ability and so on. It’s not like Desperados 3 doesn’t try to innovate, as Isabelle’s new abilities are straight out of Dishonored 2: she can temporarily mind control enemies to move them out of position or even get them to kill their friends, and she can also magically link two guards so that whatever happens to one of them happens to the other, whether that’s being blinded, distracted or outright killed3. These abilities have exactly the same potential for excellent emergent bullshit as the ones in Dishonored — for example, it’s entirely possible to link an unaware guard to a nearby chicken, and then kill the guard by killing the chicken — which makes them a lot of fun and I very much appreciate their inclusion in the game. However, they’re also arguably overpowered, as Isabelle is often able to combine her abilities to single-handedly clear huge swathes of enemies out of a level while the rest of the team sits around a rock playing cards. Desperados 3 is very smart and just about manages to keep her contained with some excellent level design and guard placement, but it goes to show that this kind of experimentation runs the serious risk of breaking the teamwork paradigm that the real-time tactics genre relies on. It’s understandable that Mimimi mostly prefer to play it safe and stick to tried-and-tested genre norms, especially when they’ve already had a full game’s worth of practice with them in Shadow Tactics.
But this then raises the following question: what reason is there to buy Desperados 3 if it’s “just” a reskinned version of Shadow Tactics? This is perfectly fine if that’s what you want, of course, but if you’re a fan of real-time tactics games you probably already bought Desperados 3 and don’t need me to convince you. Well, there’s a few reasons, first and foremost of which is that Western theming. It’s really good, drawing from the entire spectrum of Westerns over the last sixty years — Desperados 3 is heavily influenced by Sergio Leone’s spaghetti Westerns, which explains why I like it so much, but there’s also a bit of Tombstone, a bit of Unforgiven, a bit of Deadwood, even a reference to the Westworld TV show which doesn’t fall completely flat. The look of the thing is perfect, mixing muddy frontier towns with sun-bleached deserts and Louisiana wetlands. (Yes, there’s a swamp level in Desperados 3, but it defies expectations by being one of the best levels in the game.) What I found particularly impressive this time around is how the visual style had been pitched just right so that the levels always looked like gorgeous miniatures, essentially fully 3D versions of the intricate pre-rendered 2D art that comprised the originals’ backdrops. There’s just so much detail crammed into each one — one level near the start has you blowing up a wooden railway bridge, which is something of a shame because it looks like every single plank and beam in the bridge has been manually tweezered into place by some long-suffering 3D artist. The hand-built nature of the levels, and the fact that there’s very little copy-pasting of things that should be noticeably unique like buildings and signage, makes every one of Desperado 3’s levels pop out of the screen in a way that very few games manage these days.
The production values in general are a noticeable step up from Shadow Tactics, which was itself no slouch in this department; the very first thing you see in the game is a man riding up to a fountain in a desert and getting off his horse, and I was astounded at how good the animations for this were. They’re lifelike enough that they’re probably mocapped, but I can’t believe a small studio like Mimimi went to that kind of trouble for this, and their integration into the game is flawless. The character work is similarly excellent — again, this is something that Shadow Tactics already did really well but which Desperados 3 improves upon in every way. Each of the five team members has a palpable sense of personality helped along by excellent voice acting and some great writing, and each character’s voice responses upon being selected and ordered around change depending on what the level is and what’s going on in the story at the time, which is a great touch. The overall plot is nothing special, being… ah, inspired, shall we say, by Once Upon A Time In The West, but thanks to the animations, the writing and the voicework it’s impeccably well-told. It’s also helped along immensely by the soundtrack, which is absolutely superb; at first it doesn’t seem all that special despite being a nice distillation of the various movie Western soundtracks we’ve been graced with throughout the years, but the more I listened to it the more I came to appreciate how it was layering in various instruments and motifs that you wouldn’t necessarily expect from a Western, but which absolutely fit the kind of game Desperados 3 is.
Most importantly of all, though, the real-time tactics genre is one of the few where the game mechanics don’t have to bend over backwards to support a Western premise. It’s a setting where we’re already very accustomed to a small band of misfits teaming up to accomplish a bank heist or a train robbery or defending small Mexican villages, and these concepts can be lifted and dropped straight into Desperados 3 with just a little bit of tweaking to make them fit narratively. The best use of the setting is on Desperados 3 worst level, oddly enough; it’s the inevitably-tedious level where all of your guns and tools are taken away and you have to do the whole thing with non-lethal abilities. The gloss the game puts on it is pretty fun nonetheless: Cooper and the gang got blackout drunk during a night out on the town and come to in the morning with a town’s worth of angry guards looking to have words with them about all of the criminal damage they caused while they were living it up. The level starts you off with Hector, who has misplaced his (lethal) bear trap and has to make do with a (non-lethal) rake; the rest of the team can be found passed out at various points around the level and have to be woken up by Hector before they can continue. The voice actors have a lot of fun with the hungover voice lines, with Kate’s responses to being asked to flirt with guards being a particular highlight, and as you move through the town you can see the detritus left behind from their all-night bender. Taking all of your fun toys away for a level is something videogames really like to do for some reason; I’ve hated it every time I’ve come across it and Desperados 3 is ultimately no exception, but the theming almost made it tolerable and it’s used to similar effect throughout the rest of Desperados 3.
And of course because this is a Western-set game it lets the designers come up with a far more nuanced take on firearm usage. Shadow Tactics took a rather blunt force approach to them, handing every character an identical matchlock pistol with three shots that was mostly used for taking out Samurai when Mugen was otherwise occupied. Desperados 3 also gives every character a firearm (except for Isabelle, who is OP enough without one) but goes to the additional trouble of making each character’s guns match their playstyle:
- Cooper gets two revolvers, which can be fired separately at two separate targets. This is surprisingly difficult to use effectively because the revolvers are the noisiest ability in the game and so it’ll draw a lot of unwanted attention unless you happen to be shooting at the last two guards in the area, in which case you have about fifteen other abilities you can use to dispatch them more easily. Still, Cooper already has his knife for a ranged attack, and so the revolvers are more intended to be used in Showdown mode to sync up with the rest of the team and take down half a dozen guards at once — the revolvers being noisy is less of a problem if everyone in the sound radius is also in the middle of being stabbed or shot by somebody else.
- Kate gets a derringer, which despite its small size is no less deadly than Cooper’s revolvers. It has a short range but also has an absolutely tiny noise radius and can be used for stealth kills; Kate needs it, however, because she doesn’t have any other way of permanently killing guards — she can stun them temporarily by kicking them in the groin, but they’ll eventually recover unless another character is on hand to tie them up while they’re down.
- Doc McCoy gets his sniper revolver, which has a massive range and barely makes any noise. Tends to be used for taking out people in guard towers or otherwise lurking somewhere high up that makes them awkward to get to, but just as good at close range if you feel like using it that way.
- Hector gets a shotgun, which isn’t used against single targets but instead cuts down everything in a short-range area-of-effect cone. It’s almost as noisy as Cooper’s revolvers, but this doesn’t matter so much for the shotgun because if you’re using it the chances are you’ve gone loud anyway and are using it to kill four, five or even six guards at once while they’re all clustered around a dead body.
This last point is key: unlike a lot of stealth games, and unlike Shadow Tactics in particular, triggering an alert doesn’t necessarily lead to an immediate reload. An alert will spawn additional guards, but there’s a finite number of guard reinforcements and if you play your cards right you can win the ensuing gun battle — and it’ll even make the rest of the level easier, because you’ll have cleared out all of the nearby guards and can fast-forward to the next bit. All guns have limited ammo but there’s chests with reloads scattered throughout every level so the game clearly wants you to be using them, and there’s also a higher prevalence of healing abilities available in the team that gives you a considerable amount of sustain during a fight — Isabelle has a self-heal, Doc has bandages that can heal any character, and Hector has whiskey that he can drink to heal himself up to full health in one go. You still can’t shoot your way through an entire level, but if a particularly difficult arrangement of guards is giving you too much trouble to do the stealthy way it’s now entirely possible — not to mention extremely cathartic — to brute force it with a classic Western shootout4. And possibly the smartest thing Desperados 3 does here is that it doesn’t judge. It’s not handing out Silent Assassin ratings or tracking how many people you kill on a Chaos meter or anything like that; all it cares about is that you complete the mission objectives. It doesn’t care about how, which makes Desperados 3 a truly freeform game that sees both ghosting a level and tackling it with an unhealthy degree of homicidal violence as equally valid approaches.
Honestly, there’s a lot of smart thinking and good design packed into Desperados 3, and it’s all executed with extremely high production values and a level of polish that I rarely see from AAA games, let alone a game from a mid-size studio like Mimimi. It’s so good, in fact, that I’m struggling to think of anything wrong with it at all; aside from the no-guns level — which I’ll concede is more of a pet peeve on my part than it is an actual problem with the game — the only thing I can really haul it up on is that the single action Showdown Mode lets you queue up is often not enough when you want to be doing four or five actions in rapid sequence with a single character, and the controls are nowhere near precise enough to handle that kind of fast input. I made a similar criticism of Shadow Tactics and it’s disappointing that nothing has been done to address it for Desperados 3, even if it is only really a problem towards the very end of the game when the guard layouts are at their most complex. It’s also a little disappointing that Desperados 3 isn’t really trying to take the real-time tactics genre anywhere new — but then why would it need to, when it’s refined the existing formula into a state of near-perfection? It’s consistently entertaining and always engaging, flawlessly combining all of the best aspects of strategy and puzzle games into something that made it genuinely difficult to stop myself from completing each hour-long level in a single sitting. It’s not like there’s anyone else operating in the real-time tactics space, either5; this gives Mimimi plenty of room to keep iterating like this for as long as there’s an audience for it, and I hope they continue to do so for years to come.
- The other reason is that it was published by THQ Nordic, a company I am trying to avoid giving money to after somebody pretty high up in the company decided it would be a great idea to do an AMA hosted by notorious internet toilet 8chan. ↩
- It would have lost to Hades, but I don’t think I played anything else last year that would have beaten Desperados 3 to second place. ↩
- The excuse for this is “voodoo”, which is… well, Isabelle’s a good character and I don’t think the portrayal is remotely malicious, but also I probably still would have thought twice before making the sole black character on the team the voodoo witch doctor. ↩
- Well, I say classic, there’s rather more hiding around corners and at the top of ladders to shoot people as they run around/climb up than you’ll find in your average Western. ↩
- Partisans 1941 aside. But I’ve not played that yet. ↩