Desperados 3 has no dearth of handy tools, so it’s hard to pick a favourite. The brutal bear trap that clamps its jaws around anyone unfortunate enough to walk over it has to be a contender, but I’m also rather partial to the darts that let you kill two enemies with one blow—through magic, no less. None of them saved my arse quite as often as the humble F5 and F8 keys, however. The rest of my arsenal would be useless without them.
Every one of its stealthy encounters is a puzzle, and every puzzle is a chance to experiment and, more often than not, fail. Desperados 3 is all about a team of specialists working in sync, using preternatural precision and timing to overcome impossible odds, but the journey to perfection is full of slapstick escapades and catastrophes. A split-second or an inch can mean the difference between an effortless display of teamwork and a team full of corpses, but with quicksave in one holster and quickload in the other, you’ll get there eventually.
Maybe your very clever attempt to drop an entire wall on someone was foiled because a guard turned around and spotted you at the last moment, so you try again but this time send someone in a disguise to distract them. Another enemy might see through their disguise, however, but not if you’ve made this mistake before and wisely remembered to plonk down a trap right in their path. That leaves a conspicuous corpse on the ground, though, and the alarm is raised once again, but next time you’ll remember to have someone waiting in the bushes to dart out, grab the cadaver and hide it. Eventually, through trial and error, you’ll create the perfect plan and rack up a high body count.
Though it’s a prequel to 2001’s Desperados: Wanted Dead or Alive, Desperados 3 is really Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun‘s successor. Like Mimimi Games’ last real-time tactical stealth affair, it’s got smart—but not too smart—enemies, intricate maps overflowing with opportunities for murder, a quintet of proficient killers and sneaks, and best-in-the-business vision cones. As one of the greatest stealth games of the last decade, the Edo-era romp is a tough act to follow, but its Wild West cousin looks to some other brilliant stealth games for inspiration.
Not that dropping a sign on someone isn’t a good time. Accidental and environmental kills aren’t limited to civil zones, and they’re always just that bit more satisfying than filling someone with lead. There’s usually a bit of risk involved in using them, but after being quiet for hours, sometimes it’s a relief to cause a ruckus by dropping a mine cart full of rocks on someone. You can use gatling guns and barrels of dynamite, too, though not surprisingly they don’t count as accidental deaths.
Then there’s the addition of magic. About a third of the way through the game, you’ll meet Isabelle, and suddenly you’ll be doing all sorts of dishonorable stuff. Possessing animals, making guards kill each other, connecting people so they both suffer the same fate—Corvo would be proud. Every mission tasks you with manipulating enemies to get them into positions where you can kill them or pass by undetected, but normally it’s done indirectly. A character who can take complete control over almost every human and animal on the map, then, is a massive boon. Her lack of a proper ranged weapon is possibly the only reason you wouldn’t use her exclusively; that, and the fact that she’s in significantly fewer missions than anyone else.
Mechanically, Isabelle’s magic fits perfectly in a game that’s all about lateral thinking, but voodoo and cowboys is an unusual mix. Unfortunately, it’s not one that the story explores. Instead, it’s a straightforward tale of revenge mixed in with an origin story about the group, but more specifically its most boring member, Cooper. He’s proof that not all gunslingers are cool, and tragic backgrounds are played out.
None of the gang have wormed their way into my heart, but I’ve got no complaints about their performance on the job. Right up till the end, I was finding new ways to take advantage of their myriad talents, and watching them clear a room in tandem, a plan finally going off without a hitch, is one of life’s great joys.
Showdown mode makes these synchronised assaults possible, letting you pause the game so you can issue each character an order, which you can then fire off individually or all at once. It’s an incredibly powerful planning tool, giving you the ability to set up complex sequences that you have complete control over without supernatural micromanagement skills. The problem with setting up these elaborate attacks is waiting for the right moment, but that’s less of a chore with the fast-forward feature. You can use it at any time, and you’ll probably use it a lot.
The combination of firearms, lots of ammo crates and the ability to pause the action means you can drop the pretense of stealth and go in guns blazing, welcoming the alarms and turning it into more of a tactical shooter. Even if you prefer to be sneaky and creative, it’s reassuring to have the option to shoot your way out of trouble in your back pocket. Guns can become a crutch, however, letting you smash your way through a puzzle, but ammo is one of several elements that can be tweaked at the start of every mission. If you want, you can turn it into a pure, unforgiving stealth game.
Everything’s bigger—maps, enemy numbers, combat ranges, explosions. There are more obstacles—so many obstacles—but just as many tools to deal with them. It’s full of astonishingly complex clockwork dioramas, but Desperados 3 does rely a bit too much on its scale and overwhelming numbers to create its challenges. Early on there’s a mission where you’re defending a small farmhouse from attack, for instance, but instead of focusing on that one location, it’s spread out across a large area, where you once again have to kill and sneak past an entire army.
Though they’re impressive stealth sandboxes, none of the maps are lookers. There’s a lot of mud, sand and ramshackle buildings, and while the gang’s journey takes them across a few regions, a lot of the maps lack a distinct visual identity, especially compared to Shadow Tactics, where the lighting and art was so expressive and mood-setting. There are, however, some excellent trains, and at one point you do get to set fire to a big boat in the middle of a swamp.
You’re in for a good 25-30 hours of tricky tactical puzzles with the campaign, but each mission also comes with a slew of hidden challenges. The speed run challenges in particular make me balk, setting 15-minute targets for missions that took me nearly two hours to muddle through. There’s a series of separate challenges, too, which repurpose the maps and throw in new objectives and twists. It’s pretty filling.
I want to keep chasing the buzz from solving killer conundrums. I want to be able to slink through a map undetected in 15 minutes. Desperados 3 isn’t judgemental and doesn’t dole out scores, but I’m compelled to set myself new goals and explore routes I never went down. I didn’t use animals to do my bidding enough, and I should rectify that. My head is full of plans that I only came up with a few missions later.
Desperados 3 is bigger, more boisterous and a bit less elegant than Shadow Tactics, but that seems fitting for a game about gunslingers and outlaws. To hell with restraint—give me some dynamite. Failing my way through its frontier towns, homesteads and swamps has been a treat that’s only caused me to scream into a pillow in frustration a couple of times, and it’s all worth it when a scheme comes together and I get to feel like the slickest cowboy on the prairie.