A third of the way through Desperados 3, Mimimi Games’ excellent sneaky tactics, the Wild West gets a little weird. A new playable character is introduced that deviates from the usual cowboy clichés thanks to her ability to own animals, control the minds of her enemies, and link living creatures together Dishonored-style. These occult shenanigans are a constant highlight and beg for a sequel. Shadow Gambit: The Cursed Crew, the team’s latest project, is eager to join.
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 team of undead idlers, using magical artifacts known as Black Pearls to transform them into their best selves – all in attempt a major heist and thwart the forces of some anti-magical killjoy: the Inquisition’s Burning Maiden.
The foundation laid in 2016 in Shadow Tactics – itself a riff on the classic Commandos series – remains intact. You command your crew of undead pirates in real-time missions, watching the action from above, while dodging guards with their large but easily obscured viewing cones. Completing the tricky missions requires creative use of your crew’s eclectic skills, as well as the environment itself, and safe scum is highly anticipated. But this new setting brings many new ideas and twists on familiar mechanics.
“In our previous games, which had a more realistic setting, we were super limited in what we could do in terms of character skills, mechanics, and gameplay,” says communications lead Matthias Kraut. “But now with Shadow Gambit, we’re going full of fantasy and magic; this means we’ve got 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 example. She has a sword in her chest, which she can pull out to override the rules of space and time and rush forward to impale enemies in an instant. Other crew members include Mr Mercury, a skeleton with a magical anchor that opens portals to the Shadow Seas, allowing him to effectively hide from enemies whenever he pleases or teleport to hard-to-reach places. His best friend is a fish, Sir Reginald, who also borrows a fin by distracting enemies. Then there’s Gaëlle, who carries a large cannon that can suck up and launch both allies and enemies. On their own, these skills seem pretty damn useful, but they’re also designed to work in tandem with their fellow crew members’ skills, allowing you to unleash extensive attacks at once and solve 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 is covered in bones and has an ominous glow – with a living soul. She is not only your mobile HQ and an important character in her own right, but can also assist during missions. . While Shadow Gambit is a real-time affair, The Red Marley lets you freeze, speed up, and reset time. This not only gives you the opportunity to pull off some flashy moves, but also serves as Shadow Gambit’s take on safe scum.
“The fantasy magic aspect allows us to change the whole flavor and narration around the quick-save, quick-load mechanics,” says Kraut. Rather than being a mechanic that exists outside of the game world, it’s firmly anchored in the story. “The characters will even react to you if you use that feature. So for example if you’re in a challenging situation and you have to rewind the same moment in time with the power of The Marley many times, a character can comment on this, or maybe they cheer you or themselves up in that situation.”
Mimimi has always encouraged the liberal use of safe scumming, which in turn encourages experimentation and gives you a more manageable route to a flawless run. Here, however, that support is so much more overt. And there is no limit to the 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 kinds of games.” Even as a hardcore stealth fan, Abè considers this mechanic essential, especially if you want to complete a mission without being seen once. “You really have to reload for that. We think it’s really liberating to just do that as much as you want and just experiment and come up with crazy ideas. So we don’t want to penalize anything for that. And those games are still super challenging, so there’s nothing we think takes away from the fun – we think it really increases it.
It’s another tool in your arsenal rather than a crutch. But it’s not the only way out of a tricky situation. “I love that I’m not forced to reload fast 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 if I get found out.’ For example, with Mr. Mercury and his anchor, you can just take shelter underground and maybe wait for the warning to pass. There are many possibilities.”
Operating a mobile HQ also means the traditional linear sequence of missions is out, replaced by something significantly more flexible. While the story is split into multiple acts, you can complete missions, visit islands and unlock crew members in any order you like.
Islands contain multiple missions, performed one at a time. There is even more flexibility within those missions. It’s up to you where on the island you want to start the mission, and when you first arrive you don’t have to immediately choose the crew members you take with you – you can explore a bit first. Abè gives an example where you might see a lot of watchtowers, which might inspire you to bring a sharpshooter along for the adventure.
Each island promises to be a thick sandbox with no predetermined best route. And while Shadow Gambit is definitely a stealth game, it’s not one where you’re forced to be as quiet as a ghost. After all, you bring a cannon. While you could approach certain situations with firearms in the studio’s previous games, an aggressive style of play seems even more viable here as death becomes somewhat unimportant. Losing a crew member is only a temporary setback, as these walking corpses can come back to life. As someone who loves stealth games but doesn’t always have the patience to hide in the bushes and sneak around quietly for ages, this all sounds very encouraging.
This more aggressive approach to stealth, and the roguish cast, does mean that one system from Desperados 3 falls by the wayside: social stealth. Mimimi’s cowboy sequel introduced neutral areas where the party could roam looking for opportunities for mischief without being constantly harassed by enemies, even setting up Hitman-style kills like dropping a half-finished building on someone. Conceptually it was great, but there wasn’t much room for experimentation, and most of the time you’re sneaking through trespasses full of guards anyway. I would have liked it to have developed more, but I understand the team’s desire to move to new pastures.
If you still crave moments when you’re not hunted by the Inquisition, there’s always the ship. While hanging out on The Red Marley, you can chat with your crew and get to know them better – a bunch of undead lunatics no doubt have some good stories to tell – or just explore the ship itself. “The Marley is bigger on the inside — much bigger — so there’s some work to do there,” says Abè. It’s somewhat reminiscent 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 the willingness to commit thefts, murders, or piracy on your friend’s behalf?
Mimimi could have offered us more of the same and I would have been absolutely delighted, but Shadow Gambit seems to be packed with novelties and playful twists. We’ll see later this year if it all pays off, but in the meantime it sounds like it has the potential to be the studio’s best stealth adventure to date.