Desperados III Review
Clearing the bayou, with a revolver or voodoo
Games often have a particular style and rhythm, like a musical instrument. Action titles are the cymbals that clang loud and fast. Narrative adventures tend to invoke a tinkling triangle. And strategy games are big drums rumbling in the distance. But stealth games are trickier to assign. They are like a slow violin that you can barely hear, right until it sounds like two cats fighting. Desperados III is a real-time tactical game with heavy focus on stealth, and every screech of failure exposes more of the wonderful symphony beneath.
Mimimi Games have already made some noise in the real-time tactics genre with their last game, Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun. It took the essence of the Commandos series and transported it into feudal Japan. It is absolutely worth playing. And after you finish it, play Desperados III because it skillfully mixes the original Desperados with that title. It is another great isometric experience, with open levels, multiple routes, careful balance between characters, ample variety, and polished design.
The story in the third game focuses on John Cooper, who is a bounty-hunter/cowboy type that is looking for a man called Frank. This mysterious Frank works for the DeVitt company and we see members of that organization kill passengers in a train robbery. And so Cooper continues searching for Frank by following the DeVitt trail across the land, from Colorado to New Orleans to El Paso. During the adventure, he’ll have to destroy a train bridge to halt their supply lines and defend a ranch from a hostile takeover. The basic story has a good arc, aided by some flashbacks and a circular finale. Although a skilled gunman and good with a knife, Cooper will find some allies along the way and he certainly needs their help.
Two of the four allies are straight from the original game in the series. Kate O’Hara is a bride-to-be who just happens to kill her fiancée in her introductory level—a real shotgun wedding. She can equip a disguise to roam among guards and pull out a compact Deringer after she’s lured some hapless fool to a dark corner. Doc McCoy is a doctor of death, with a sniper, lethal injection, and toxic gas at his disposal. The two new allies prove to be just as handy: Hector Mendoza has a bear trap, whistle, and a shotgun; Isabelle Moreau can use voodoo magic to mind control guards or use her cat to distract them.
While the team hides in bushes, Kate roams about
The five characters blend the previous Desperado games and Blades of the Shogun into a smart combination. It should feel quite familiar if you have played the latter, just with a reshuffling of skills to keep things fresh. Hector (like Mugen from Blades) can run around with two bodies and hurl them into a bush, while McCoy struggles to drag a single deceased along the ground. Long Coat enemies are like the Samurai from Blades of the Shogun, as they can only be killed by Hector or require a team effort. There are other differences when it comes to effective range, movement speed, and actions. Cooper’s revolvers can shoot medium distance but are somewhat noisy. Isabelle has no way to kill at range directly, but she can link guards with a blow-dart so they both bleed out when she slices one of their throats. These differences matter in a game where there is half a second between success and failure. Most missions feature 2 to 4 characters and they are designed well for the available skills. You can switch between each with the number keys, and divide and conquer, or group them and swap over when needed.
Stealth is the primary way to complete missions. Guards’ viewcones can be highlighted so careful navigation of any character, by running and crouching, means it is possible to get behind patrols without action or detection. From there it is usually about working backwards, taking down one guard at a time and clearing the path. Some guards are in each other’s viewcones like a never-ending conga line, so a distraction (by throwing a coin) or a lure (using a medical bag) is needed. Finding the best intervention method can be as tricky as finding the most susceptible target. And even then it is a good idea to hide bodies in case something goes awry.
And things will go awry a lot. If you get spotted doing nefarious things, the alarm sounds and armed help pours out from guard houses. These gung ho reinforcements will eliminate any hostile they see and continue to roam if they find nothing. While it is possible to fend some off and/or hide and heal, it is usually better to try again without raising hell. Fortunately quick save and quick load work brilliantly. Games like this are designed to be a series of experiments. Get detected after hiding a body? Reload and pick another hiding spot. Pull off a dual shot but alert a guard? Reload and fast-forward until the patrol moves out of earshot. Retrying makes pulling off tricky maneuvers, between the tight viewcones, more rewarding. And being able to save often encourages divergent tactics.
Executing multiple attacks at once is easy
One of the most alluring aspects of general play is how characters are able to quickly finish off stragglers. Cooper can throw a knife and then unleash two revolvers at once. Isabelle can take down three or four with her voodoo hoodoo. Even McCoy can gas a bunch and then provide involuntary euthanasia. A special Showdown mode allows characters to act simultaneously; it pauses the world and commands can be issued so they can be individually executed, with hotkeys, or enacted all at once. Full out assault is not practical because of limited ammo reserves and skill cooldowns, but these spurts of violence are an elegant way to clear areas and they make finishing levels satisfying.
The sixteen levels take a while to complete because they’re huge, open, and full of enemies. There is more leeway in which direction to progress than in Blades of the Shogun. Many levels have two main paths, like pushing a mine-cart through a canyon or taking the route around a waterfall. Some have multiple objectives, like in the town of Flagstone, where you can pick off four assassination targets in any order. A couple of city levels have neutral zones, where civilians go about their business and you can mosey around without fear of detection. But the city levels tend to be less clean for gameplay purposes, simply because multi-storey buildings are too much of a visual hassle. Sure, you can rotate the camera and zoom, but it’s still harder to get a read on distorted viewcones from multiple directions and elevations. There are some interior spaces to explore, although they tend to be cramped and disappointing. After beating each mission, which might take 1-2 hours, you’ll see a fantastic 2D overview of every movement and action by each character.
The campaign is varied and extensive across about twenty-seven hours it takes to complete. Differing initial parameters and some level quirks keep it interesting, like swamp water that increases footstep sounds or a recurrent train that blocks viewcones just long enough to kill and hide the evidence. Optional “badges” for each level are there to achieve, but their requirements are hidden until the mission is first completed. There are special challenge missions that add more hours of play. These come with a briefing from a character called The Baron—voiced by Doug Cockle—and take players through the same levels with new objectives and a different team roster. With tighter requirements, they can be quite hard. While the extra challenges are nice, the alternate routes in the story levels are more enticing.
The finishing touches in Desperados III are impressive. The game makes effective use of the Unity engine and is technically polished. There are many voiced lines from the main cast in each level, and a couple of humorous ones from guards and civilians. Character animations are natural, and they are used to convey emotion in the story cutscenes. There are hidden stories in levels too, although the insufficient zoom is not enough to fully appreciate them. Perhaps one area that needed improving is visual contrast. With a natural look, enemies and even basic geometry blends into the world. A highlight mode puts a red outline around threats, but not when they’re standing near a white-outline safe spot. Even footprints that linger in mud—and bring enemies to your location—are hard to see at full zoom.
Levels are detailed and complex
Music is one of the standout features, but not for obvious reasons. Yes the score is rather good, with the typical twangy cowboy western mix consisting of slow guitar strumming, piano, and whistles; it also changes as the camera moves about. But the real success is how each character is linked to a specific instrument. McCoy’s instrument is a harmonica, Isabelle’s is a trumpet, and Kate’s is a fiddle. When they each perform a task, like killing or hiding bodies, a short random sequence of that instrument plays. And when many characters act simultaneously, it’s a burst of jazz that brilliantly fits with the ambient score. So while you’re making mischief, you’re also making music.
Desperados III is a stellar entry in the real-time tactics genre that's faithful to the original, with finely tuned stealth action. It has excellent synergy between the five characters, and most of them have a strong ability to dispatch remaining foes thanks to tempered lethality. Levels are massive and feature alternate routes that add great replay value on top of the campaign. Picking apart patrol routes is addicting, even after many blunders. And the presentation is quality, with detailed towns and bayous on top of some great music. It is hard to say which of Mimimi’s two games is better, but Desperados III offers plenty to sing about.