In Desperados 3, the Wild West is a clockwork cartoon, its actions and reactions known with absolute certainty. If cowboy John Cooper tosses a coin within earshot of a DeVitt Company henchperson, they will turn to look in the direction of the noise. They will look long enough for someone to slip past their vision cone or to take a shot at another goon, who will collapse out of sight on the balcony below before the first one can even turn back around. If trapper Hector Mendoza whistles, the enemy will wander to the exact spot to investigate the commotion — and if Hector lays the humongous bear trap he lovingly calls “Bianca” on that spot, all the better.
Like an isometric Hitman where you control up to five characters at once, much of Desperados 3 involves nudging a rigid (often comedically so) A.I. toward its doom. The intricate levels teem with precarious boxes and rickety platforms, accidents waiting to happen that will never arouse suspicion no matter how many occur in quick succession. You come to know the moves and strategies with the reliable familiarity of chess pieces; without fail, guards go to check out the bag that spooky Doc McCoy can toss out as a distraction, taking a gas bomb in the face for their trouble. Unless they have ponchos, that is. Among guards, ponchos neatly signify a greater intelligence, an unwillingness to check out dubious luggage or follow Kate O’Hara into the bushes where she will kick them in the genitals. The ones in long coats are even tougher, unable to be taken down in a single blow by anyone but Hector.
The game is a shifting puzzle in the devious mold of developer Mimimi’s earlier Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun, which itself drew from Commandos and the older Desperados games. With the exception of some Shadow Tactics, I had never before played any such real-time tactics games and found the transition quite challenging. The game features a huge ticking reminder of how long it’s been since your last quick save, to remind you that trial-and-error is as much part of the deal as it is in so many other stealth games.
But things diverge from there: in addition to juggling multiple characters at once, the levels are not about sliding through conspicuous gaps in the enemy’s guard. The villainous DeVitt Company’s outposts and encampments are heavily patrolled, the view cones and hearing ranges crisscrossing in all sorts of ways inconvenient to a group of intruders. You’re not finding the hole in their defense so much as carving it out yourself, staring at the metaphorical board until you spot a handful of goons to be lured out of sight and into range of Cooper’s itchy knife-hand.
Why Don’t You Come to Your Senses
Desperados 3 is not squeamish about death, which is surprising in a genre that so often incentivizes clean, you-were-never-there infiltrations; there are no innocents under DeVitt Company employ. At the end of each level, a zoomed-out, sped-up playthrough all but celebrates your messiness, tallying ability usage while spotlighting kills with little skulls and spurts of blood. The enemies are red dots and your characters’ dots are blue, yellow, and other colors depending on who’s who, their travels throughout the entire level meticulously mapped with a continuous colored line. Considering how lengthy some of the levels can be, the result is as thrilling as it is cathartic, creating a tangible sense of accomplishment much more rewarding than any simple end-of-mission screen. You see the impossible odds and then exactly how you proceeded to circumvent them, at up to 32-times speed so that it doesn’t feel like you were staring at just one level for an hour or two.
Better still, the first time you play a level keeps any special conditions hidden, a godsend for those of us who often optimize our own playthroughs into frustration, straining to accomplish the additional achievements in a single go. If you happen to kill three guards with falling logs and there’s a special badge for just that, you’ll get it. But any undiscovered objectives are left until the level is complete, to be tried after you have the lay of the land. For as tough as the game can be, particularly on higher difficulties, touches like these keep it from feeling too overwhelming.
As a result, Desperados 3 incentivizes experimentation and using the characters’ abilities in concert with one another. A lot of this takes shape through the game’s “showdown” mode, which pauses and lets you map more complex actions to a single button press like popping around the corner to throw a knife or firing all weapons at once. The characters are all different, too; McCoy is a powerful sniper but drags bodies slowly and can’t climb any ropes or vines, while burly Hector can outright run with two bodies at once and even hurl them out of sight if necessary. Not everyone can swim, and whenever Kate acquires a disguise she can freely (and inexplicably, given that she’s just in a red dress) move through enemy territory, directing guard attention elsewhere with her abilities to flirt or beckon them to follow her. The final character, voodoo practitioner Isabelle Moreau, is perhaps the most distinct since she can outright mind-control certain guards or even link their fates, so that when Guard A down by the dock keels over so will Guard B up on the cliff.
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We Can Be Runaways
Although it’s a bit troubling for the game’s lone woman of color to be pigeonholed as the One Who Does Voodoo, Desperados 3 presents such a cartoonish vision of the West that Isabelle blends right in. While the game nods to plenty of serious westerns, it can scarcely be called one itself given its general goofiness and a largely functional story that’s mostly an excuse to rotate objectives, locations, and level gimmicks. Here, the Old West is surprisingly multicultural and features no shortage of capable gunwomen, which complicates the fact that several of Kate’s abilities only work on men (for the most part). If the details seem a bit incongruous or sanitized from time to time, the heightened atmosphere is certainly preferable to how a game like Red Dead Redemption II directly includes bigotry mostly for either disingenuous parallels to white struggle or window dressing in the name of authenticity.
The variety, at least, is welcome. There are bridges that need blowing up, trains that travel right through the map’s center, and even totally neutral public spaces where the characters can move about freely.In an age of endless skill trees and crafted upgrades, perhaps the most striking thing about Desperados 3 is its total confidence in its mechanics, eschewing the convention of doling out incremental progress to hold the player’s interest. The characters emerge fully capable from the outset, to the point where the game will need to take them away from you: many levels omit one character or another entirely, while others might break them off into groups at opposite ends of the map or only bring, say, Hector in at the very end.
When a character is missing, the game feels tangibly different. Losing the sheer range of McCoy’s sniper scope is a big deal, as is going without any of Isabelle’s voodoo or Kate’s ability to mingle with the crowd. And that willingness to change up the character combinations is what really sells the power of them all fighting together, more than any cutscene about friendship or camaraderie ever could. Each character feels essential and distinct, ensuring that when everything in Desperados 3 comes together for that one complex maneuver, there’s hardly anything that compares.