Desperados III doesn't have much competition for the title of best cowboy-themed real-time tactical stealth game on the PlayStation 4, but that doesn't mean developer Mimimi Games is happy to take the accolade by default. This is a well crafted strategy game and one that is easy to recommend to fans of the genre, but thanks to both challenging gameplay and occasionally finicky rules, one that's unlikely to win over newcomers.
Following in the footsteps of classic RTS sneak 'em ups like Commandos and Shadow Tactics, Desperados puts you in control of a band of outlaws in the old West, and it's up to you to guide them through increasingly dangerous missions. You're always outnumbered and outgunned, so the aim of the game is to achieve your goals being neither seen nor heard.
You view the action from an elevated position and move your posse through each map using the cover of darkness and shrubbery to avoid being seen by guards, lawmen, or merciless villains. The missions usually involve getting one or all of your party to a specific location and either finding something or killing somebody, but there's a few curveballs thrown in to keep you on your toes.
The story follows Cooper -- a bounty hunter with a heart of gold -- as he tracks a ruthless gunslinger named Frank, with whom he's got a score to settle. Along the way he'll meet a variety of colourful characters, each with their own unique gameplay quirks, and it's your job to direct them, utilising their abilities as best you can to make it through each level unscathed.
The stealth mechanics are quite clearly laid out early in the game, and it all starts simply enough, but the difficulty quickly ramps up. You can see what the guards can see in the form of a cone of vision, and you can use the environment as both a shield to stay hidden and as a weapon by arranging "accidents" to bump people off without arousing suspicion.
The rigidness of the rules can, on occasion, lead to frustration. Some missions could be taken care of much more quickly but for contrivances like paths blocked by debris we'd easily be able to pass, let alone experienced bounty hunters. And common sense is sometimes thrown out the window in order to make things more difficult for you, but we just found that irritating rather than being appreciative of the challenge.
Take for example a level in which you're encouraged to use burning torches to light oil pools as tough enemies walk through to kill them off. Conventional wisdom would say that you could light your torch at any of the many, many fires strewn throughout the map, but you can actually only do it at very specific ones that are guarded by legions of baddies. It's telling you to experiment, but only in the ways it wants you to.
Desperados III is entirely designed around the idea of repetition, and this, too, might be a source of frustration for some players. Each mission unfolds in much the same way, regardless of how large or elaborate they become. You begin, try something, die, reload, try something else, get caught, reload, try something else, make a small amount of progress, save, and repeat.
Quicksave is mapped to the touchpad, and the game explicitly tells you to use it frequently, to the point that a notice pops up on screen to remind you if you haven't saved in a while. While this mercifully means that you won't have to start an entire level again because one of your characters was caught doing a murder, it does mean that much of the game is spent repeating the same loop of reloading your last save and trying to do something better. This can be quite tedious, but when you finally work out how to move past a troublesome portion of a mission it's genuinely quite cathartic. The joys are fleeting but numerous enough to balance out the exasperating moments when you've been reloading the same save for twenty minutes.
Desperados III offers other highs, too. Of particular note is the brilliant showdown system, which allows you to pause time while you queue up actions for each of your party members. Having up to five wildly different characters work in unison to take down multiple enemies simultaneously is wonderfully satisfying, and scratches the same itch you might get from watching a Rube Goldberg machine working its magic.
The characters, too, are well balanced, with each feeling useful in their own way. Often in games like these certain characters can feel like they're a spare part, or have skills that are useful in only very specific situations. Here, each party member is an important cog in the Desperados machine, and it would behove you to use them all on your route to victory.
Cooper can use a throwing knife, and dual wield pistols to take down two enemies at the same time. Hector can lure enemies into his giant bear trap, and is the only character who can take down the powerful Longcoats in hand to hand combat. Kate can wear disguises and use her charms to lure bedazzled guards away from prying eyes before dispatching them in secret. Doctor McCoy is a sniper, and can also knock out multiple baddies with his vials of swamp gas.
Isabelle is perhaps the most unique and the most bizarre of the bunch. She joins the party a little later into the quest, but uses powerful voodoo skills that turn the game on its head. She can use mind control to force guards to murder their friends, as well as linking the souls of two enemies meaning whatever fate befalls one is inflicted upon the other. Business really picks up once she joins the party, with the number of creative options at your disposal increasing dramatically.
There's over a dozen missions to work through, with granular difficulty settings so you can tailor the experience to suit your playstyle. And there's replayability, too, in the form of challenges that require you to beat levels in a certain time limit, or with different restrictions.
Desperados III's Wild West setting makes for a charming backdrop, and the well-balanced, varied cast of bounty hunters means that each mission can be seen off in multiple, equally rewarding ways. But while the blend of refined real-time strategy mechanics and ever-escalating challenge will surely appeal to fans of the genre, novices could be perplexed by the often unforgiving difficulty and occasionally finicky rules.