Desperados 3 Review — I’m Your Huckleberry

Desperados 3 brings the goods in this reimagining of the classic tactics series.

Desperados 3 is a stealth tactics game featuring a memorable cast of Wild West characters. It’s also an oddly titled prequel to a series that started in 2001. It’s also an example of how effective “less-is-more” storytelling can be, even in a genre that usually puts the narrative on the backburner. Most importantly, Desperados 3 is freaking awesome.

Mimimi Games reinvention of a series that was last seen in 2007 is nothing short of spectacular. The way it mixes diverse, lovable characters, gameplay that feels like a top-notch puzzle game, and one of my favorite mechanics in tactics games is astounding. If you’re looking to get into stealth-based tactics games, Desperados 3 is a game you have to check out.

Let’s first talk about the different characters at your disposal. I think most people have probably played or watched someone play an XCOM at this point. Firaxis Games’ 2012 reboot quickly took the world by storm, and rightfully so. That game is a masterclass in turn-based tactics design. But, one of the biggest joys was making the fully customizable troops into your friends and making up your own story.

Desperados 3 is very much not like XCOM in that regard. This game has named characters with their own skills and personalities. That doesn’t make it better or worse, just different. Personally, I loved getting to know each of the five characters in Desperados. Not only are you slowly mastering their skillset, but you’re also learning what makes them tick.

The main protagonist of the tale is John Cooper. He’s the face of the franchise and wields dual pistols and his trusty knife. Of the five, his skillset is the most “basic,” making him the kind of everyman you can slot into just about any situation.

Joining him on his journey is one Doc McCoy. This hard-boiled doctor also happens to be an expert marksman. His silenced pistol is both the quietest gun and the one with the longest reach. So, if you need to pick off a foe from afar, he’s your man. His medical bag can also be used as a trap that stuns curious guards for a short time.

Next up is Kate O’Hara. This beautiful lady uses both her charm and nearly silent Derringer to murder her foes. She can also disguise herself and then use her feminine wiles to hold a bandit’s attention, while a teammate sneaks by. In my tabletop role-playing group, I usually end up playing a femme fatale, so Kate quickly became my favorite. Her moveset is just so different from the norm, and she really helps in a pinch as the ultimate support character.

Hector was probably my least used character, though I still adore that lovable goof. His two big calls to fame are his bear trap and his shotgun. If you want to methodically thin out a herd of guards without getting spotting, that bear trap will do the job. And, when things get truly hairy, his shotgun makes people die real good.

The final member of your squad is Isabelle. I mentioned above that Kate has a unique skill set, but hers is really nothing compared to Isabelle. She uses voodoo magic to mind control enemies. You can also blow dart two bandits and then anything that happens to one will happen to the other. This allows you to set up some devilishly fun kills.

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As you might imagine, the real fun of the gameplay comes from mixing each character’s skills together. So maybe you chain dart two guys with Isabelle, while you’re distracting another with Kate. Then, to keep you safe from a fourth patrolling guard, you kill the darted duo with Doc McCoy. Those kinds of combinations happen all the time in Desperados 3.

And Mimimi Games know this is where the good stuff happens, too. Because of this, they’ve put in a mechanic they call “Showdown” mode to facilitate some inventive and rad gameplay moments. Basically, whenever you want, you can enter a Showdown, and the whole game stops. This lets you queue up actions for every character in your party.

Say you need to get through an area and there are six enemies in your path. There’s no way to pick them off one at a time because all of their vision cones overlap. If you were to sneak in and knife one guy, his partner would see you and all hell would break loose. While you can manage a few big firefights in Desperados 3, stealth is almost always the best option.

These enemies aren’t pushovers, after all. I mean, you’d hardly call the basic fodder Einsteins, but some of the tougher enemies will give you fits. For instance, Kate’s charm doesn’t work on most of the higher level enemies (or any of the women). And the toughest enemy – the “Long Coat” – will take multiple hits to take down by anyone besides Hector. You’ll need to learn how each enemy interacts with your character’s skills if you don’t want everything to go sideways.

When that happens, it’s time for a good old-fashioned Showdown. By using Showdown mode, you can get all five characters to murder a different person at once. If you plan it correctly, everyone dies in climatic bang and you’re free to continue your business.

It’s both extremely useful and incredibly cinematic. It’s a little like the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral scene in Tombstone, except all the bad guys die at once. So, maybe this band of ne’er-do-wells is more effective than those iconic cowboys? Please, no one tell Kurt Russell I said that.

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You might be thinking, “Well, I have five characters to fight with, surely most of these battles are going to become too easy with Showdown mode, right?” And you’d probably be right, but Mimimi Games made such a smart decision by almost never allowing you to fight with a full party.

Each mission forces you into new combinations of characters as members of the team rotate in and out due to lore reasons. In one mission you’re walking the streets of New Orleans with the unlikely trio of Doc McCoy, Kate, and Isabelle. It’s like the Wild West version of Charlie’s Angels and you get to play as Bosley. Or maybe that was just me.

In the next, you might be trying to stop a train with Hector and Kate. You’re constantly kept on your toes up through the final mission. And that finale is an explosion of carnage that ends in one of the more satisfying conclusions I can remember in video games.

At the top, I mentioned that tactics games don’t often seem to place too much emphasis on their story. XCOM, for instance, lets you make your story, which is unquestionably fun, but at the end of the day, the actual narrative is pretty basic.

Before you get too excited, I’ll say that Desperados 3 isn’t breaking new ground in video games or anything. However, it’s very effective in how it tells its tale. Be warned, I’m going to go into some very minor spoilers in the next four paragraphs, so if you want to go in completely blind, just skip down.

Desperados 3’s story is almost like someone took that mostly throwaway sequence at the end of the first Red Dead Redemption where you play as Jack, turned it into a full video game, and then made it good. Listen, I love the first RDR, but Jack Marston is one of my least favorite controllable characters ever. If I ever have to hear his whiny voice yell “Work ya damn nag!” again, I’m not sure what I’ll do.

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That said, Jack Marston and John Cooper share somewhat similar redemption quests. Desperados 3 kicks off with John joining his father James (are all video game cowboys required to have a first name that starts with “J”?) on a bounty hunt for a notorious criminal called Frank. Things happen that I won’t get into and James dies. In the present, John is on a mission to track Frank down and kill him for what he did.

Now, on the surface, that’s a fine story. You can spin that yarn and spin it well. Certainly, in the early-goings, I wasn’t thinking this story would hit that hard for me. However, Mimimi does a few things with the narrative that I want to call out. First, they deliver a twist about halfway through that is one of those things I probably should’ve seen coming, but didn’t. And it floored me because it instantly recontextualizes one of the game’s key relationships in a meaningful way.

The other thing is that your first encounter with Frank sets up the idea that anything can happen with one bullet. It might not land for everyone, but the way they wrap that into the final confrontation was phenomenal. It puts this neat little bow on everything and lets the game finish with a satisfying bang. Pun firmly intended.

Usually, at this point in a review, I would tell you some of the problems with the game. Here’s the problem: I can’t really think of many. Sure, the missions are kind of long, but it’s so easy to quickly save and hop out if you need to stop playing.

I do wonder if the quicksave and quick load functions will feel as snappy on PS4 and Xbox One. But on PC, it feels nearly instantaneous. The game encourages save-scumming, which leads to you finding inventive solutions to its many puzzles. It feels less like save-scumming and that thing your grandma does when she’s solving a puzzle with you on a Sunday. She has her little area that she’s super focused on and will try and retry every puzzle on that table until she finds the one that fits.

You’re not failing, you’re learning!

See, I try to find something bad to say and it just turns into a positive! I haven’t even talked about how great the pre-mission cutscenes are. Nor did I talk about how hilarious some of the environmental kills are. At one point I murdered three men in slow-mo with a cannon. How can you not love that?

Desperados 3, Mimimi Games, THQ Nordic, PC, PS4, Xbox One

I haven’t mentioned the post-game screen that shows you watch a sped-up replay of the mission. It’s not a feature you need, but rewatching my playthrough at hyperspeed is always a treat. Heck, I also didn’t even tell you about all the extra challenges you unlock once you beat a mission. If you wanted to, you could dive deep into Desperados 3 and play this game for hundreds of hours.

I mean, I’m sitting here at three in the morning finishing up this review so it can get edited before the embargo and all I can think about is hopping back in. Who even needs sleep? I’ll just dream about vision cones and Hector’s luscious head of hair anyways.

I will say, I’m far from the biggest tactics fan out there. I’ve played a fair number of them and ranked Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden as my Game of the Year in 2018. I might’ve lost a few people with that last sentence who think Red Dead Redemption 2 or God of War should hold that crown.

However, it’s important to remember that it’s okay for you to be wrong. It happens to everybody. Maybe you mistake great production values for a great game. Or maybe you love playing objectively bad gameplay because you like well-acted stories. I don’t pretend to know you. I just know your opinion is the wrong one.

Joking aside, I would definitely consider myself a relatively casual tactics fan. So, I would hesitate to say Desperados 3 pushes the genre forward because I honestly don’t know if it does. That said, everything it does, it does incredibly well. Whether you’re looking to hop into stealth tactics for the first time or you’re an old pro, I would wholeheartedly recommend you check out Desperados 3. It is, without question, one of the best games I’ve played all year.

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