You can't improve without failure. Progression in anything is a constant loop of trying, failing, learning from that failure, and trying again. I didn't become a veteran of tactics strategy games without getting my Chemists killed in Final Fantasy Tactics. I didn't settle into my long-time fighting game fandom without losing many, many quarters trying to pull off fireballs in Street Fighter 2: Champion Edition.
Desperados 3 finds its foundation in failure. I've sent one of my characters in the wrong direction, leaving them to get shot. I've coordinated complex maneuvers, only to have a character leave cover and get spotted. I've even just thrown a character to the wolves just to see what would happen. Desperados 3 knows you'll fail: quicksave and quickload are key parts of the experience. Hell, a default setting will warn you if you haven't quicksaved in the last minute. That's how quick failure can visit you in this game.
Desperados 3 is a stealth tactics game from Mimimi Games, the folks behind Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun. In 2016, Shadow Tactics was a low-key favorite of mine, so I'm glad to see the studio get a chance to tackle this series. It's been a weird chain to get to this point: the first Desperados, Wanted Dead or Alive, was essentially a clone of Commandos: Behind Enemy Lines. It even released during the height of that series' popularity. Shadow Tactics, meanwhile, was originally pitched as "Commandos with ninjas" by its developer, so seeing the folks behind the spiritual successor take the reins on a new entry in the previous homage is an odd serendipity. I'm not complaining though, as Desperados 3 shows that Shadow Tactics was not a fluke.
The core of Desperados 3 is the same as Mimimi's last outing, a mix of complex vision cones, sound bubbles, cover, and unique character abilities combining into a stealth playground. From the isometric viewpoint, you'll control your squad of Wild West warriors. The five each cover their own broad spectrum of abilities to attack enemies, control the battlefield, and move around unseen.
Nominal lead character Cooper can shoot his double pistol to kill two folks at once, while the heavy Hector has a massive bear trap named Bianca to kill unsuspecting foes on patrol. Kate O'Hara can disguise herself and flirt with male enemies to keep them distracted, but she's stuck at close range, unlike Doc McCoy—pun likely intended—who can snipe from long range. The Doc is also a great hand with a lock pick. Finally, the mystical Isabelle Moreau can take control of weaker enemies and even connect them physically: one attack, two deaths.
There's also some gaps and overlap in non-character specific abilities. Cooper can carry a single enemy body at a steady pace, while the heavy Hector can carry two bodies at a run, but Kate and the Doc can only slowly drag a single enemy. Isabelle is the only member of the team that can swim, and she and Cooper are the only two that can climb up ropes and ivy growths. Hector is the only one big enough to knock out the stronger Long Coat enemies in a single blow, while everyone else is forced to shoot them first to stun them. The stringent focus of each character allows Mimimi to craft each level with those characters in mind, like having a larger enough group that you need to use McCoy's ether bomb to knock out one cluster of enemies, while Kate blinds another with perfume, opening the way for Isabelle to climb to another location. Desperados 3 rewards the player's knowledge of how team fits together and where skill overlap and diverge.
The squad's abilities intertwine in Showdown Mode. In Showdown, you can pause the action, set up different attacks and moves for each character, and then simultaneously execute them. When faced with three guards, one way forward is to distract one with Kate, connect two of them together with Isabelle, and then use Cooper to shoot the distracted guard and one of the connected targets at the same time. Three guards, dead in a few seconds. And that's a low-level combination, all things considered. It's immensely satisfying when you pull off a perfect chain of kills (or knockouts), following 15-20 minutes of trial-and-error.
Desperados 3 offers a chess-like mix of pieces thrown out onto these massive levels. Each character is better for certain situations than the others, and Mimimi has built these open playgrounds with many ways forward. While Desperados 3 starts vaguely linear as it teaches the ropes, it quickly opens up to allow players to tackle these stealth puzzles anyway they see fit. As it progresses, it throws more obstacles, like footprints that certain guards can follow as well as other cool environmental hazards. Mechanics like killing a guard with a horse—throwing a coin on the horse causes it to kick—is endlessly satisfying, as is crushing multiple enemies with a well-placed boulder. There are also level-specific traps that look like accidents, a la Hitman, like dropping a church bell or luring a guard onto train tracks just in front of an oncoming train.
In fact, Desperados 3 twinges the same heartstrings as IO Interactive's Hitman games, and has some of the same frustrations. There's a lot of minute positioning and, as a result, accidental moves along the way. I was never fully fluid with the controls; even toward the end, I'd click to move Isabelle not realizing I had Doc selected, leading to his death. And I had to rebind the controls in order to settle in a good spot. The controller bindings are actually pretty good, but in the heat of combat, I tended to prefer mouse and keyboard.
It took me around 1-2 hours to finish each of Desperados 3's 16 available levels, and I'd hazard the last few were closer to 2-3 hours. Each location has three badges and a host of challenges for completing the level in a certain manner: finishing the level under absurd time limits, not using certain abilities, or killing enemies with environmental hazards. Again, the Hitman comparison is apt: Finishing the levels isn't enough, the meat is in returning and doing better next time. When I finished a level in 45 minutes and one of the challenges was to do it in under 5 minutes, 30 seconds, it's like the game was daring me to jump back in. (At the end of each level, Desperados 3 offers a replay diagram of your path and actions, which is a wonderful illustration of one's play time.)
Visually, it's a knockout on PC. The levels are amazingly detailed, with lush ground cover swaying in the wind or characters leaving muddy footprints behind. The characters and some of the textures are a bit softer when it comes to details, but that's largely because the camera is usually further out during play. Overall, it looks a bit better than some isometric titles I've played recently, like Warcraft 3: Reforged or Wasteland 3. It doesn't retain the same mood as Shadow Tactics, but still Mimimi knows how to pull off the isometric viewpoint in terms of graphics.
You'll note I've said little about the story this entire time. Desperados 3 has a plot, but it's not the purpose of the entire affair, so it comes across as pretty one note. You'll get to know each character in big sweeps like an animated cartoon, but you'll never spend enough time during the campaign to come to love them. In fact, the levels are so long, that you'll sometimes forget the narrative reason you were doing something by time the end rolls around.
Desperados 3 is a very specific game for a certain type of person. I don't think everyone has the patience to spend over an hour savescumming their way through countless deaths. Similar to Hitman, it rewards taking your time, being methodical, and being ready to die. A lot. It's the grind of real progression, rife with failure. But the payoff is those moments where all the planning and dying comes together. When I'd kill like six enemies in the span of a few seconds. When those moments come together, Desperados 3 is worth it. The narrative might be lackluster and the controls tripped me up occasionally, but Desperados 3 is still a fantastic stealth smorgasboard.
Mimimi Games returns to the real-time stealth tactical genre with Desperados 3. Across massive levels, players will guide their magnificent five characters toward their objectives. Each hero has their own strength they bring to the team, and they're all essential to survive. Desperados is a game of trial-and-error, expecting quicksaves and quickloads to "solve" each level. There's some small muddiness in the controls and enemy perception, and occasionally the punishment for slight mistakes in character or item placement feels punitive. That said, Desperados 3 nonetheless remains a fantastic follow-up to the first game and another win for the developer.