A third of the way through Desperados 3, Mimimi Games' excellent sneaky tactics romp, the Wild West gets a bit weird. A new playable character is introduced who deviates from the usual cowboy cliches thanks to her ability to possess animals, control the minds of her enemies and link living creatures together Dishonored-style. These occult shenanigans are a consistent highlight and demand a follow-up. Shadow Gambit: The Cursed Crew, the team's latest project, is more than happy to oblige.
This is the Golden Age of Piracy, but not as we know it. In this alternate history, death has taken on a new meaning for the pirate crews that sail the high seas. In a nod to Pirates of the Caribbean, Captain Afia is on a mission to gather a crew of undead ne'er-do-wells, using magical artefacts known as Black Pearls to transform them into their best selves—all in an effort to pull off a big heist and thwart the forces of some anti-magic killjoys: the Inquisition of the Burning Maiden.
The foundation established in Shadow Tactics back in 2016—itself a riff on the classic Commandos series—remains intact. You'll command your crew of undead pirates in real-time missions, viewing the action from a top-down perspective, all while avoiding guards with their large but easily-obscured vision cones. Completing the tricky missions necessitates creative use of your crew's eclectic abilities, as well as the environment itself, and save scumming is very much expected. But this new setting brings with it a lot of new ideas and twists on familiar mechanics.
"In our previous games that had a more realistic setting, we were super limited in what we could do in terms of the character skills, the mechanics and gameplay," says communications lead Matthias Kraut. "But now with Shadow Gambit we go full fantasy and magic; this means we have ghost ships, a magical world, and cursed pirates with supernatural abilities, which gives us a lot of freedom to design meaningful, crazy new mechanics."
Take Captain Afia, for instance. She's got a sword embedded in her chest, which she can rip out to let her ignore the rules of space and time, dashing forward to impale enemies in the blink of an eye. Other crewmates include Mr Mercury, a skeleton with a magical anchor that opens up portals to the Shadow Seas, effectively letting him hide from enemies whenever he wants or teleport to hard-to-reach places. His best friend is a fish, Sir Reginald, who also lends a fin by distracting enemies. Then there's Gaëlle, who carries around a big cannon that can suck up and launch both allies and enemies. On their own, these abilities seem pretty damn handy, but they're also designed to synergise with the abilities of their fellow crewmates, letting you pull off elaborate attacks all at once, solving multiple problems in one fell swoop.
This is where your ship comes into play. The Red Marley is a ghost ship—you can tell because it's covered in bones and has an ominous glow—with a living soul, and along with being your mobile HQ and an important character in her own right, she can also help out during missions. While Shadow Gambit is a real-time affair, through The Red Marley you can freeze, speed up and reset time. Along with giving you opportunities to set up some flashy moves, this also serves as Shadow Gambit's take on save scumming.
"The fantasy magic aspect allows us to change the whole flavour and the narration around the quick-save, quick-load mechanics," says Kraut. Instead of being a mechanic that exists outside of the game-world, it's firmly embedded in the story. "The characters will even react to you using that feature. So, for example, if you're in a challenging situation and you have to rewind the same moment in time with The Marley's power very often, a character might comment on this, or perhaps cheer you or themself up in that situation."
Mimimi has always encouraged liberal use of save scumming, which in turn encourages experimentation and gives you a more manageable route to a flawless run. Here, though, that support is so much more overt. And there's no limit to your use of these powers.
"This is the same as in Shadow Tactics and Desperados," says creative director and studio founder Dominik Abè. "It's unlimited and there's no penalty. We think it's a core aspect of those types of games." Even as a hardcore stealth fan, Abè sees this mechanic as essential, especially if you want to get through a mission without being spotted once. "For that you really need to reload. We think it's really liberating to just do that as often as you want and just experiment and come up with crazy ideas. So there's nothing we want to punish there. And those games are still super challenging, so there's nothing we think takes away the fun—we think it's really increasing it."
It's another tool in your arsenal rather than a crutch. But it's not the only way to get out of a tricky situation. "I love it that I'm not forced to quick-load again because I messed something up," says Kraut. "I feel like now I can just be like 'Let's see what happens—I can still get out of this situation when I get discovered.' For example, with Mr Mercury and his anchor you can just hide underground and maybe wait until the alert is over. There are a lot of possibilities."
Controlling a mobile HQ also means that the traditional linear series of missions is out, replaced by something significantly more flexible. While the story is split up into multiple acts, you can tackle missions, visit islands and unlock crewmates in whatever order you fancy.
Islands contain multiple missions, undertaken one at a time. Within those missions is even more flexibility. It's up to you where on the island you want to begin the mission, and when you first arrive you won't have to immediately pick the crewmembers that you bring with you—you can do a bit of scouting first. Abè offers an example where you might notice a lot of watchtowers, which might inspire you to bring a sharpshooter along for the adventure.
Each island promises to be a chunky sandbox with no predetermined best route. And while Shadow Gambit is absolutely a stealth game, it's not one where you will be forced to be as silent as a ghost. You are, after all, bringing a cannon with you. While the studio's previous games have allowed you to approach certain situations with guns blazing, an aggressive playstyle seems even more viable here thanks to death becoming somewhat inconsequential. Losing a crewmember is only a temporary setback, since these walking corpses can be revived. As someone who adores stealth games but doesn't always have the patience to spend ages hiding in bushes and quietly sneaking around, this all sounds very encouraging.
This more aggressive approach to stealth, and the roguishness of the cast, does mean one system from Desperados 3 has fallen by the wayside: social stealth. Mimimi's cowboy sequel introduced neutral areas where the party could wander around looking for opportunities for mischief without being constantly harassed by enemies, even setting up Hitman-style accidental murders, like making a half-finished building fall on someone. Conceptually it was great, but there wasn't much room for experimentation, and most of the time you'd still end up sneaking through off-limits areas full of guards anyway. I would have loved to have seen it developed more, but I can understand the team's desire to move onto new pastures.
If you still crave moments where you aren't being hounded by the Inquisition, there's always the ship. While you're hanging out on The Red Marley, you can chat to your crew and get to know them better—a bunch of undead weirdos are bound to have some good stories to tell—or just explore the ship herself. "The Marley is bigger on the inside—way bigger—so there's some stuff to do there," says Abè. It's slightly evocative of Mass Effect, and this isn't the only nod to RPGs. Your crew's personal stories also lead to unique, character-driven missions, because what is friendship if not a willingness to commit some thefts, murders or piracy on your pal's behalf?
Mimimi could have offered us more of the same and I would have absolutely been content, but Shadow Gambit appears to be jam-packed with novelties and playful twists. We'll see if it all pays off later this year, but in the meantime it sounds like it has the potential to be the studio's best stealthy adventure yet.