Because of a lack of mainstream publicity, it’s hard to see Desperados III being considered as one of the best games of 2020 by the end of the year, but there’s no question in my mind that it deserves to be in the conversation. Mimimi Games did very little in terms of new ideas and instead expertly perfected and utilized a plethora of old concepts. With the exception of some rare inconsistencies and bugs, Desperados III tells a story of revenge complete with interesting characters to help carry a diverse and engaging gameplay experience.
The Perfect Strategy Game
Strategy games, both real-time and turn-based, operate on the edge of a cliff where backing up with simplistic and repetitive mechanics often leads to boredom, and taking the extra step too far by including too many complex mechanics sends the game flying off the edge with nothing to really grab hold of. Desperados III balances on this cliff stiff as a plank while juggling on a unicycle. It includes five characters with four different skills each and a huge emphasis on stealth. Mimimi Games goes to great lengths to manage how you use them, which leads to endless unique situations where the same characters and abilities still provide compelling experiences. The developers take great care to consistently ask questions like, “What if this character wasn’t able to use this ability?” or, “How would this combination of characters play out?” You’re consequently forced to think about alternate approaches to situations in order to remain hidden throughout the game. This way, when the final levels hit you, you’re completely prepared to manage all of the characters and their abilities at once with dozens upon dozens of enemies in various formations waiting to shoot you down.
These enemies serve as the most significant indication of just how much thought was put into the level design. All enemies follow pretty consistent paths that give them vision over certain parts of the map. Like the previous Desperados games you have access to each enemy’s cone of vision, complete with a solid part where the enemy can always see you and a striped part where you’re still hidden if you stay crouched. The game then comes with some rules. Implicit rules, such as grounded enemies having striped vision on a two-story balcony and no vision of a three-story balcony, give Desperados III plenty of “Aha!” moments that spur you to think creatively and learn throughout the game. Explicit rules, like hiding in bushes conceals you as long as you’re crouched, coat the gameplay with inherent difficulty that makes every level progression like carving further into a juicy steak. With these rules as a base, every situation has been designed fairly and given tremendous consideration. This is often evidenced by the small things that you don’t notice. For example, you may not have noticed how convenient it is that an enemy is just barely out of another enemy’s sight, or how a wagon just happens to be right there to give you cover, allowing you to make good on a planned kill with more ease. While some situations require a rare level of timing and positioning, nothing is impossible thanks to these smart decisions.
Perhaps you can take out a group of three guards, but can you take them out and drag their bodies into a nearby bush before another guard rounds the corner? If you can’t, you better believe that the alarm will go off, spawning a fresh batch of enemies to deal with. Maybe you can take out the guy rounding the corner first so that he’s not an issue anymore. Well, there’s another guard on a balcony who has constant vision over that guard. Okay, now the approach is to kill the guard on the balcony first, kill the guard rounding the corner, then kill the three guards with a synchronized attack. Unless, of course, you can find a way to take all five of them out at the same time, or lure someone away from their usual position, or distract some of them, or simply sneak past them without them ever knowing you were there. This is a rather simple example that you may encounter less than halfway through the game, and it only gets more intricate the further you go.
To pull off puzzle-like circumstances such as this, showdown mode becomes an integral component to the game. Taking down multiple guards at the same time is difficult when constantly switching between characters and choosing abilities, so showdown mode allows you to pause time (except on the highest difficulty) and plan out several actions that are executed simultaneously. This opens up tons of new situations that the designers could play around with, knowing full well that with showdown mode, players can make previously impossible challenges as easy as pressing enter. The door is then open to brand new challenges that push showdown mode to its limits.
While this all certainly covers the fundamentals of the various intricate systems present, this just begins to scratch the surface of the experience. In everything I saw, I only ran across a few puzzling issues. The game focuses heavily on quicksaves and quickloads, so if you screw up, you can immediately step back to your save and try again. When doing this to retry something that will cause an enemy to search the area, including a nearby bush you may be hiding in, you get a glimpse at how truly random and frustrating the AI can be. You could try it once, watch an enemy search the area, accidentally screw up, then reload your save to try again. When doing this, you’ll often find that the enemy’s search path the second time through is different. They may even decide to suddenly search the bush you’re sitting in, even though they didn’t the first time. This can lead to bouts of constantly reloading, hoping for an outcome where the enemy doesn’t search the bush you’re sitting in. You’ll also find yourself pulling your hair out at times when you’re reminded that your character slows way down when you stand within a guard’s eyesight. While the level design was thought out to a considerable degree, the same can’t quite be said about these strange aspects.
Additionally, there are one or two enemies throughout the game that are bugged and can see you in bushes. It’s likely an extra script or something wasn’t attached to this enemy the same way it was attached to all the other ones during development, which is a simple mistake that’s glaring when it happens in the middle of the game. Desperados III does great work creating tension and forcing concentration, and when the game suddenly breaks like that, you’re left very on-edge and frustrated. Other than that, the experience is pretty much entirely bug-free, and you’ll feel compelled to forgive the few bugs you run into because of the overall experience.
A Complimentary Western Tale
The storyline then takes this experience and puts a strong exclamation point on it. Is it a story that’ll be adapted by Steven Spielberg anytime soon? Pft! Hell no. It’s a simple revenge story where John Cooper puts together a band of misfits to take down a wealthy bastard with too much power named Vincent DeVitt and an old nemesis named Frank. It even has trouble sticking to this basic premise, as it’s difficult at times to pin down who the true main character is. In chapters I and III, it’s made perfectly clear that it’s John Cooper, but in the middle, the game tries to give more of the spotlight to the other characters- Doc McCoy, Kate, Hector, and Isabelle. This fails miserably, as John Cooper suddenly fades a bit into the background and we’re still left with little character motivation for Isabelle.
However, it does perfectly what a game story is supposed to do: it gives context to the gameplay. In fact, it does this better than most games on the market. The story and your party’s circumstances directly affect which characters are present for a mission, which abilities those characters have, what the mission objective is, and how you approach the mission. Maybe the narrative dictates that one of the characters is passed out and you have to worry about carrying them through the mission. Maybe you’re without weapons because they were confiscated for some reason. Maybe a couple of the characters start together in one part of the map and another combination of characters starts in another. These all go on to spawn a lot of the gameplay systems previously mentioned.
The characters have a decent hand in all of it, too, especially since the narrative does a decent job of putting them at the forefront. One of the best details in this regard is the way the story unfolds throughout a level. Characters talk to each other as you reach certain checkpoints, and these short conversations reveal more about their relationships and how each one belongs in the situation. Further context comes from the snappy voice lines that come when you choose a character, select a new destination, or pick an ability. The variety keeps things from getting stale, and each level comes with its own new voice lines that fit the story properly. Thankfully, this and the fitting sounds design help distract from a lackluster soundtrack that can get a bit stale.
All of this culminates into Desperados III, a brilliant effort with little to complain about. In fact, there’s so much to praise that I insist you go and play it for yourself to truly do the game justice. We didn’t even get to touch on swimming, climbing things, footprints, longcoats, achievements, or special challenges, all of which open up new doors that will leave you playing this game for up to sixty hours without ever getting bored. What more could you ask for from a game?
This review of Desperados III is based on the PC version. A review code was provided by the publisher.
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