Releasing a Wild West game in the wake of the sublime Red Dead Redemption 2 might appear to be an act of extreme optimism – particularly if you're a small indie studio like Mimimi, the outfit behind Desperados III.
Wisely, Desperados 3 avoids comparisons with Rockstar's behemoth by taking a radically different approach – although it is an action game, it majors on stealth, with gameplay that is heavily reminiscent of early Metal Gear Solid games.
As is its isometric viewpoint – something of a throwback to games from a dim and distant past – which may well put off those who demand a sheen of modernity. Happily, it packs in more than instantly meets the eye – its apparent simplicity masks plenty of tactical depth, along with a sparsely delivered but interesting storyline and a generally believable Spaghetti Western vibe.
What's the story?
In Desperados III, you play John Cooper, a hard-bitten character handy with guns and knife, who is first glimpsed as a teenager on a stealth mission with his dad. Cooper is on the trail of someone called Frank (for initially unexplained reasons), a quest that leads him around lawless swathes of the US, including Colorado, Louisiana, New Orleans, Texas and New Mexico.
Along the way, he hooks up with a band of ne'er-do-wells who coalesce into a proper gang, each with skills of their own.
Doc McCoy, for instance, is both a healer and a sniper; Hector is a tank-like individual armed with a fearsome man-trap plus a shotgun that can blast several enemies at once; Kate, first glimpsed blasting her corrupt bridegroom-to-be with his own shotgun, can temporarily blind enemies with bottles of perfume, wear disguises and wield a short-range but near-silent Derringer.
Perhaps the best of the lot is Isabelle, whose voodoo skills allow her to take control over enemies (at a cost), and bind enemies together so that what happens to one also afflicts the other.
As in Metal Gear Solid, the gameplay involves working your way through huge numbers of annoyingly observant enemies, with visual cones you can highlight. Teamwork is of paramount importance: if, say, you're spotted while dragging a body away to hide it in a bush, reinforcements will be summoned, and most of your gang can only take a couple of gunshots before dying. It's one of those games which encourages you to save frequently.
Apart from the thoroughly beguiling storyline, Desperados 3 is studded with clever touches that keep its gameplay fresh throughout Cooper's journey. There's the odd explanatory flashback, and the missions are pleasantly varied, such as defending Kate's ranch from a full-on assault, blowing up a bridge, or embarking on detective work in New Orleans. Some enemies are so tough that only Hector can take them out with one blow; if he isn't around, a co-ordinated effort is required.
Desperados III has a great engine entitled Showdown Mode, which pauses the game while you schedule an action from each party member – mastery of that is crucial when you're facing a group of enemies who never leave each other's eyelines. Indeed, Desperados would be near-impossible to complete without Showdown Mode. It's a satisfyingly hard game, just as stealth games should be.
Its AI is particularly impressive too. While enemies walk specific paths which you must learn to plot your moves, they are quick to rally and bring in reinforcements when they spot either a party member or a dead body you have neglected to hide.
Desperados 3 is at it best when you discover seemingly emergent ways of disposing of enemies – like chucking a coin at a horse just as a guard walks behind it, thereby encouraging it to kick out.
The interaction between the thrown-together gang is great, too. There's plenty of replay value, thanks to challenges like going through entire levels without firing a gun, or speed-running, and a mysterious character called the Baron throws down further challenges designed to entice you back to levels you have completed.
It does demand patience too. At times, you will encounter passages which feel near-insurmountable. Plus, you must constantly exercise concentration regarding which character you're controlling (although you can tag groups of characters to move as one). Casual gamers might find it all a bit of a hassle, but those with a particular penchant for stealth games will love Desperados III.
However, it isn't the longest of games – it has 16 levels, each of which can easily be completed in 30 minutes.
What may look old fashioned brings stealth-action with tactical wallop. If you can get past the isometric view, then you'll find clever and engaging gameplay, and a surprisingly compelling story.
Desperados III's immaculately observed Wild West setting and characterisations gives it all ingredients of a cult sleeper-hit.