The Desperados series is a member of the fairly niche real-time tactics (RTT) genre. It’s not a genre I was overly familiar with going in, and indeed this is my first dabble with the Desperado series in general. So if you’re looking for the opinion of a seasoned RTT savant, then you’ve come to the wrong rodeo. But if you’re looking for a fresh perspective from someone effectively experiencing the genre for the first time, then saddle up, we’re going for a ride.
Down on the bayou
Desperados III is a prequel to the original Desperados: Wanted Dead or Alive game from 2001, but having no real knowledge of that game other than a small primer, the tale stands well enough on its own. The narrative centres around gunslinger John Cooper, a guy primarily on a mission for revenge against a man with the unassuming name of…Frank. For reasons revealed in the first chapter, John tracks Frank (not to be confused with the film When Harry Tracks Sally) across 1870s America on a mission of vengeance, aided by a ragtag band of deadly misfits that he picks up along the way. The narrative is fairly straightforward, but well delivered through basic in-game cutscenes. There are a handful of impactful moments and twists that shine a light on John’s history, as well as those of his compatriots, but the fact the fairly brief story moments are bookended between lengthy gameplay sequences means the finer narrative can easily get lost in the noise.
Desperados III is presented with a top-down isometric view, with the player given full control of the camera to scope their surroundings. The name of the game is stealth (lethal or non-lethal) and strategy, as you creep around various classic Western locales, completing objectives and outsmarting (or in my case, killing) guards. You have the ability to display the vision cone of any guard to see whether they’ll spot you, and there are a handful of abilities for each character to distract, lure, bamboozle or disarm them. Each of the five characters you can take control of has wildly different abilities, making them suited for different situations and setting up a multitude of combinations. For instance, Scarlet O’Hara isn’t good at lethal takedowns, but as long as she’s got a disguise she can distract most male guards, and even lure the weaker-willed ones away from their post. Doc is the team medic and is also handy with a sniper rifle, whereas Isabelle Moreau is a mysterious Southern mystic who dabbles in voodoo and mind control. No one character is really strong enough to solo a mission (except maybe Isabelle, she doesn’t muck around), so combining skills and strengths provides the best outcomes. There’s a handy Showdown Mode which allows you to stop time and coordinate a series of actions and abilities for each character, and pulling off a perfectly-timed and well orchestrated strike using multiple characters is a definite highlight.
The 16 missions are visually and thematically distinct and help sell the Western setting well. On your quest for revenge you’ll be taking part in such classic Western capers as crashing a wedding, hijacking a train, breaking into/out of of jails, surviving a hangover and burning steam boats by the bayou. The presentation is impressive, with lots of tiny environmental details bringing the diorama-like settings to life, without obscuring the tactical aspects of the terrain. The animations are extremely impressive and life-like – it’s clear the developers spent some resources on hiring some talented tiny people to do motion capture with, and it has paid dividends. Sound design is also on point, particularly the slightly modernised Western-flavoured original score, which is unobtrusive for the most part, but kicks in at key moments. I could have done with less of the repetitive conversations between guards in an endless loop, but it can be forgiven in the context.
Your ultimate enjoyment of Desperados III will hinge on one thing: are you a hardcore enough dude to handle its difficulty? After a fairly brief introduction to the basic mechanics, the difficulty skyrockets to dizzying heights. Small groups of guards in near-linear scenarios quickly give way to sprawling levels densely populated by tight clusters of guards with complex, intersecting lines of sight which have to be navigated with extreme care. Although enemies are all on tight pre-determined loops that can be memorised, they’re a fairly savvy bunch, and if they see you murdering their buddy then they’ll raise the alarm and be on you like a duck on a June bug. The game actively encourages save scumming, and the dedicated quicksave button is mercifully responsive, because you will be failing and quickloading a lot. The gameplay feels a lot like solving a really large puzzle, but a little too often it falls into trial-and-error tedium: Quicksave. Will I get away with killing this dude? No, didn’t see the guy on the water tank and now the entire town knows I’m here. Quickload. Figure out a way to take out the guy on the water tank. Proceed with original plan.
Dividing and conquering the seas of enemies in a given mission can be an arduous task, and while finally cracking a tough encounter and tackling a difficult mission is rewarding, I didn’t always feel a glowing sense of achievement, as much as I felt a little drained. It’s the exact same feeling I had when playing Driven Out, and highlights the importance of how challenging games establish themselves on the hard versus fair versus fun continuum. On the balance of things, Desperados III is always hard, mostly fair and sometimes fun. In a fun kick in the guts (or important learning tool I suppose), the game also shows you just how much you suck at the end of a mission by showing how many times you quicksaved, quickloaded and died in an interactive playback.
The big easy
Hangover survival skills a must
Your ultimate enjoyment of Desperados III will hinge on one thing: are you a hardcore enough dude to handle its difficulty?
Perhaps this is a blasphemous suggestion in the RTT space, but some RPG-lite mechanics would have gone a long way to improving the experience. Replays of missions are encouraged, and several badge challenges invite you to complete the level a certain way, but if these maybe fed into a progression system where specific skills could be learned and upgraded (faster takedowns, multiple view cone visualisation and the like), it would legitimise a replay further. For the most hardcore, I’m sure the task is its own reward, but I think some form of progression would give a little bit of gameplay depth and give the player more tools to surmount the extreme challenge. I get the feeling Desperados III doesn’t want to be that sort of game though, and that’s fine too.
Nice church bell. Shame if were to…fall on someone’s head
The doctor is in
This type of game obviously has a niche audience, and whether you’re keen to rise to its hefty challenge and persist in the face of adversity will determine your enjoyment of it. There’s a lot to love in Desperados III, it’s got a great setting, good presentation and some cool mechanics, but by the time the credits rolled and I finally took my finger off the quicksave button which was nought but a worn-down nub at this point, I was fairly content to hang up my irons and ride off into the sunset.
Reviewed on Xbox One X // Review code supplied by publisher