Back in the late ’90s and early ’00s, there were several studios (namely Pyro Studios and Spellbound) making isometric, character-driven tactical stealth games. Some of these games include the Commandos series, Chicago 1930: The Prohibition, Robin Hood: The Legend of Sherwood, and most importantly for this review, the Desperados franchise.
Despite their varying settings and themes, the general idea of these games were very similar. You had a squad of two to six unique characters with their own suite of abilities, and you had to figure out how to use said characters and their skills to sneak, stab, and occasionally shoot your way through heavily guarded camps or fortresses.
Though these titles have a cult following of loyal and nostalgic fans, these games, and the genre as a whole, have largely been lost to the annals of PC gaming history. Until Mimimi Games released Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun at the tail end of 2016. This critically acclaimed title brought this obscure subgenre of tactical stealth games to the modern era.
It seemed only natural that THQ’s attempt to revive the Desperados series after a nearly 15 year hiatus would be helmed by a company that so recently proved themselves capable of bringing the genre to a modern audience. I’m certainly glad they did, because Desperados 3 could be used as a case study in how to modernize a 19 year old franchise so it can appeal to old fans and newcomers alike.
Developer: Mimimi Games
Publisher: THQ Nordic
Platforms: Windows PC (Reviewed), PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Release Date: June 16th, 2020
Desperados 3 is a prequel set several years before the original game, and expands upon the backstory of the franchise’s main protagonist, John Cooper. The tutorial and a few flashback missions follow a young Cooper as he is training to become a bounty hunter under the tutelage of his father, when their latest hunt goes horribly wrong.
Years later, Cooper is obsessed with tracking down an outlaw named Frank, determined to finish what he and his father started and finally have his revenge. Cooper soon learns that Frank is now working for the DeVitt Company, a major railroad corporation with some shady business dealings on the side.
He soon gets wrapped up in a greater conspiracy revolving around the DeVitt Company, and it’s through this job that he first meets Doc McCoy and Kate O’Hara, two members of his posse from the original games. This longtime franchise trio are joined by two brand new characters, a gigantic Mexican trapper named Hector, and a voodoo queen from New Orleans named Isabelle.
While the overarching story is pretty standard Wild West revenge fare, its held up by its charming cast of characters. The five main protagonists have great chemistry with one another; often bickering, teasing, and celebrating among themselves with some humorous and generally well-written and delivered banter.
The game even expands upon this banter with some unique unit barks relevant to the current mission. One memorial example is a level where you control just Hector and McCoy as they sneak around killing DeVitt Company henchmen on a rainy night.
The two are engaged in a bet over who can kill the most outlaws, with a bottle of fine whiskey on the line. The characters audibly count each kill they make in this mission, and will occasionally tease one another about “keeping up” if they kill several enemies at once.
Of course the main reason you’ll want to play Desperados 3 is for its tactical, character-driven stealth action, and the game excels in this regard. Fans of Shadow Tactics will find a lot of the core mechanics in Desperados 3 to be immediately familiar, and the whole game just feels like a more refined, Wild West-themed version of Mimimi’s previous title.
While some of the levels are a tad linear in places to let you get your feet wet learning new mechanics as they are introduced, most of Desperados 3‘s missions are large, open sandboxes. You are given plenty of freedom to tackle objectives in whatever order you want, and however you see fit.
Each of the five characters have their own unique set of complimentary skills that you’ll need to master to get past the game’s many challenges. Cooper has a knife that he can use to dispatch enemies up close, or throw to kill enemies from a distance. He can also throw coins to distract guards, and carries a pair of revolvers that he can use to take out two foes at once, albeit noisily.
McCoy is a doctor and veteran bounty hunter that has combined his two trades to make some efficient killing tools. He has a poisoned syringe that he can use to silently take down enemies in melee, and a custom long barreled revolver with a stock and scope that effectively acts like a sniper rifle.
Rounding out his kit are gas bombs that can knock several enemies unconscious, a handbag that can be used to lure enemies closer that releases noxious fumes when opened, and bandages that can be used to patch up the team.
Kate O’Hara is a master manipulator, and requires a disguise to unlock her full set of abilities. When she is disguised as an alluring lady of the night, she can flirt with guards to divert their attention, or lure them away with the promise of a good time, which usually results in them turning into a dark corner to get shanked in the back.
She can also throw perfume bottles to momentarily blind outlaws. Finally, if she needs to get her hands dirty, she can deliver a swift kick to the groin, or shoot someone at close range with a small Derringer pistol.
Hector is a massive bear of a man, boasting the most health of the posse. He carries a big axe that is vital for taking out the equally large Longcoat enemies that your smaller party members can’t deal with by themselves.
He also has a sawed-off shotgun that can kill multiple foes at once in a narrow cone of fire, and his beloved bear trap Bianca. To compliment Bianca, Hector can whistle to draw in nearby enemies. Finally, he can heal himself with a swig of particularly strong alcohol.
Finally, there is Isabelle, who is perhaps my favorite of the bunch due to her interesting array of voodoo curses. Her most conventional weapon is a knife, and she can send out her Siamese cat Stella to distract guards who are simply unable to resist petting her floof. Her two most interesting skills are her curses.
One of them can link two guards together, meaning that whatever happens to one, also happens to the other. Her strongest spell is the ability to outright possess an enemy, allowing you to move them around and even kill their former comrades.
Not only does this curse have limited charges, it also uses some of Isabelle’s health to cast. Luckily, she also carries some Jasmine herbs that she can use to tend to her wounds.
I’ve seen some people object to the idea of supernatural elements being added to a franchise that, while highly stylized, was largely grounded in reality. Personally, I don’t mind at all, and think that Isabelle has a really cool kit of abilities that can allow for some awesome and intricate plans. That said, I can certainly see where those people are coming from.
While most characters have some sort of firearm, you will normally have to use them quite sparingly due to the noise they make, and their limited ammo capacity. Desperados 3 is first and foremost a stealth game, so don’t expect to pull a Solid Snake and fight your way out of a bad situation too often, especially on the harder difficulty settings.
Your characters have other little passive skills to remember as well. For example, Hector can carry two bodies at once, while Cooper and Isabelle can swim and climb vines. McCoy and Kate have to drag bodies instead of carrying them, which is slower and makes more noise, but their lower profile while dragging means that guards that are further away won’t notice them as easily.
If the individual arsenals of your own characters isn’t enough, many levels also feature environmental hazards that you can interact with. Pushing boulders onto unsuspecting outlaws, collapsing a catwalk, throwing torches onto spilled oil slicks, and even mounted Gatling Guns are but a few of the tools you can find within the levels themselves that open up your options.
As you can imagine, coordinating the efforts of potentially five characters at once can be a bit daunting. Luckily, Desperados 3 features a tactical pause function called Showdown Mode.
This allows you to pause the game and queue up one action per character, who will then perform said actions as soon as you hit the Execute button. You don’t have to do so immediately either, as you have the option to queue up your actions and then return to real-time so you can time your plan with the patrol routes of nearby enemies.
You’ll need to as well, because Desperados 3 has a ton of factors you need to consider before making your move. Rotating vision cones and patrol routes are just the start of the guards’ behaviors. If an outlaw frequently stops to talk with a buddy while on patrol, then the other guard will get suspicious if he hasn’t seen him for a while.
The game gradually introduces new mechanics at a steady pace. Puddles make your footsteps louder, and guards will notice muddy footprints and start to follow them. Street lamps and lanterns provide vision zones that allow enemies to see you from further away. Lanterns can be extinguished, and any guards that notice a burned-out lamp will come investigate and light it back up again.
Enemy variety is unfortunately on the sparse side, but each type of enemy has very clearly defined quirks and abilities. Ponchos won’t fall for tricks like McCoy’s bag or Isabelle’s cat, while guard dogs can sniff out characters in cover and can see through Kate’s disguises.
While some gamers might scoff at the sheer number of female outlaws and guards in a Wild West game, they have a clear function to make each encounter more difficult because they aren’t affected by Kate’s feminine wiles.
Each encounter in Desperados 3 is as much a puzzle as it is a stealth segment, and the sheer number of skills and ways to approach any given situation means that there is plenty of room to experiment.
This experimentation is actively encouraged by the game, which prominently displays the quick save and quick load keys at the top of the UI. It also includes a feature that allows you to set a timer that reminds you of how long its been since you last saved.
This results in a ton of replayability, and that’s before you even get into optional objectives. Each level has eight “badges” you can earn for doing optional objectives. Two of these are always for hitting a specific speedrun time, and playing the mission on Hard.
Some of these objectives revolve around things like making all four assassinations in level three look like accidents, or resisting the temptation to use a strategically placed Gatling Gun on another mission.
Some of them actively require you to play the mission multiple times. An example of this is the McCoy and Hector level I mentioned earlier, with one badge for making Hector win the bet, and one for McCoy. Another involves the posse being split in two and picking which group gets to the objective first.
There are also Challenge missions that unlock as you progress in the game. These allow you to revisit older missions with different party compositions and unique modifiers. The first Challenge mission is a modified version of the aforementioned Hector and McCoy level, but you are limited to nonlethal skills, distraction abilities, and must kill four specific enemies with environmental hazards.
While Desperados 3 features a nice and balanced difficulty curve in the normal setting, the game has plenty of options for gamers that want a real challenge. There are two harder settings above normal, with the hardest setting featuring a unique twist: Showdown Mode no longer pauses the game.
While I have few major complaints with Desperados 3 overall, I must bring up the pathfinding. While unit pathfinding is largely decent enough, it does bug out from time to time.
I’ve had a few instances where a character couldn’t figure out how to drag a body to one of the game’s many strategically placed man-eating bushes, or a character getting stuck in a loop where they climb up a ladder before immediately climbing back down.
The most frustrating example of this was the Baton Rouge level, where you have to carry around an unconscious Doc McCoy and get everyone to a ferry at the city’s dock. Something about a character carrying McCoy breaks the game’s pathfinding, leading to some awkward micromanagement situations.
The final stretch was particularly frustrating, and I had to retry it multiple times because one or more characters couldn’t figure out how to enter the door of the ferry, leading to them getting spotted and shot due to their incompetency.
The context-sensitive action for jumping off a ledge is also annoyingly specific at times. You have to maneuver a character to just the right place to make the prompt pop up, even if a character is already really close to the edge.
While such pathfinding situations are fairly rare overall, when they do happen they can be extremely frustrating and end up in a botched plan.
Minor issues aside, Desperados 3 is an excellent reboot to a largely forgotten franchise from the early 2000s. It strikes a solid balance between being streamlined and modernized to appeal to current gaming trends and expectations, while also remaining true to the franchise’s roots.
Desperados 3 builds upon the slick interface and mechanics of Shadow Tactics, iterating upon Mimimi’s previous formula to create a fantastic isometric tactical stealth game.
Between the game’s open levels and the diverse skill sets of your characters, Desperados 3 gives players a ton of freedom to craft intricate plans, and it’s extremely satisfying to see those plans come to fruition.
It’s also just really refreshing seeing such an old and niche franchise being rebooted to modern standards. While I’d love to see more Shadow Tactics and Desperados from Mimimi in the future, it would also be great to see their take on Robin Hood: Legend of Sherwood or Commandos.
If you loved the Desperados series back in the day, you’ll probably find a lot to like in this modern take on the series. If you enjoyed Shadow Tactics, Desperados 3 plays almost exactly like a Wild West version of it. If you’ve never played one of these isometric character-driven tactical stealth games before, then Desperados 3 is an excellent place to start.
Either way, for me, Desperados 3 is a strong contender for one of my favorite games released so far this year.
Desperados 3 was reviewed on Windows PC using a review copy provided by THQ Nordic. You can find additional information about Niche Gamer’s review/ethics policy here.