Desperados III has cinematic aspirations. It’s an obvious thing to point out, but this game really tries hard to nail the spaghetti western feel. Delivering ‘cinematic’ experiences was a near-universal aspiration for the industry in the early 2000s, but rarely had that dubious ideal been approached with the assurance of the original Desperados. A wild west saga played out in cycles of intense tactical planning, followed by spurts of hectic action, its exquisite dioramas would freeze then revive with a press of the pause button, making you feel like the star in a genuine American frontier epic. Injecting life into the fading franchise could have been a challenge, but German studio Mimimi had already proved itself up to the task by modernising the genre with its previous game, Shadow Tactics.
A prequel dealing with protagonist John Cooper’s first encounters with his long-standing comrades, Desperados III tells a convincing, even occasionally touching origins tale so liberally peppered with Once Upon a Time in the West references it almost crosses over into homage territory. From the initial act of involuntary patricide that sets Cooper on the path of revenge, to the majestic closing confrontation inexorably leading to one final pull of the trigger, Sergio Leone’s fingerprints are all over this story, and it’s all the better for it. Even the electric guitar flourishes punctuating the flashbacks’ climactic moments are Ennio Morricone-inspired.
Over 16 chapters, you will become familiar with the distinct personalities and skillsets of five playable characters, including new series entry Isabelle Moreau, whose voodoo powers make her the deadliest of the group. Gradually, you’ll learn to co-ordinate all that knife-throwing, trap-setting, and sharpshooting to counter increasingly complex setups by the railroad company’s hired muscle with a minimum of fuss. Stealth isn’t required, strictly speaking, but there’s a certain inelegance to finishing a mission with guns blazing, a small army at your heels, hanging on to your last shreds of health when options abound for a smoother exit.
While the series’ mechanical core has remained intact, a powder keg of criss-crossing patrol trajectories and probing visibility cones are ready to explode at your slightest misstep, so environments in Desperados III feel more vibrant and responsive than its predecessors, as chickens noisily cluck at your approach and footprints on snow reveal your position to guards. They offer some dazzling sights too: an array of traditional locations complemented by a lavish party at a train mogul’s estate or the back alleys of New Orleans.
For all its theatrical allure, however, the visual ambiguity of the isometric perspective remains the source of frequent irritation. From the way right-clicking doesn’t always select the desired character, to misjudging the elevation of your next target, you suffer one unintended causal chain after another. As the whole operation dissolves into shouts, stampeding feet, and gunfire, each reload starts feeling like an injustice personally inflicted on you.
Ironically enough, this also underlines the cinematic aspirations of Desperados III: you’re the exasperated director shouting “Cut!” over and over again, until everyone gets their damn shot right.
Showdown Mode may be just fancier wording for ‘pause’, but that doesn’t stop it being a remarkable tool for establishing complex causal chains between character abilities, environmental cues, and enemy behavioural patterns. Meticulous orchestration is required, but dispatching a group of carefully positioned guards with a single command is immensely satisfying.
The Desperados franchise is back on form, establishing Mimimi as undisputed masters of the genre.
Genre: Spaghetti western sim | Format: PC (tested) / PS4 / XBO | Developer: Mimimi | Publisher: THQ Nordic | Price: £44.99 | Release: Out now