To appreciate Desperados III, you have to understand that videogame time is not linear. Videogame time allows you to rewind and try again. Over and over, if necessary, until you get it right. In most games, I’ve seen this as a failure, on my part and on the part of the design. I already played this bit and it didn’t work out, so why would I want to replay it? Why would I want to replay it over and over?
The answer offered by Desperados III is “because it’s going to be really cool when you finally get it right.” The answer is also “because you should feel free to experiment with different approaches and we don’t want to punish you if your experiment doesn’t work out.” The answer is also “because stealth games are tedious enough, so let’s not pretend you weren’t saving and reloading in other stealth games.”
So Desperados III is very up-front about encouraging you to save and reload like it was going out of style. Sometimes a box pops up to remind you how long it’s been since you last saved. It’s the developer’s way of saying, “Hey, you’re supposed to save and reload like it’s going out of style, so here’s a nag to tap that F5 key”. I’ve never not appreciated this nag. In fact, I feel bad calling it a nag. It’s a reminder to play the right way. If I’m playing the right way, I’d already tapped the F5 key and the nag hasn’t appeared.
Because once you embrace that savescumming is intentional, you’re finally playing a stealth game as a series of successful tricks. You sneak past every guard. You assassinate every villain. You pull off every complicated coordinated move. You fooled everyone on the map! Along the way, you erased every failure with a quick tap of the F8 key. And at the end of the mission, you get a debriefing on the map to show just how good you were. Colored lines unfurl in real time to show where your characters went and what they did. This replay is a testament to just how sneaky you were. You pulled off the plan without a hitch!
Desperados III reminds me of the Hitman games, but with even better situational awareness. The secret to appreciating the Hitman games is understanding they’re not about what your character does; they’re about the clockwork workings of all the other characters. You observe how the level plays out, what its inhabitants do, how they interact with the environment. You study the world and learn its rules. Then you tweak it to accomplish your objective. You’re not one of the main actors. You’re not even a supporting character. You’re just making adjustments to the elements that matter.
That’s kind of how Desperados III works, but minus the nihilism of a ghost who was never really there. This is a Western, after all, with a deliciously high body count. But because it’s played from on high, you can appreciate its clockwork workings much more readily. Each level in Desperados is an intricate diorama full of little people going about their business. Since your perspective isn’t hitched to an Agent 47, you’re free to scroll around and watch anything anywhere. It’s much easier to take it all in and learn the inhabitants, the environment, and their interactions. It’s much easier to study. Hold down the X key and study it in fast-forward if you want. From your bird’s-eye-view, you get a comprehensive set of tools so there’s never any guesswork about what characters are going to do, or where they can see, or who’s watching them. Desperados III is very forthright about its latticework of guards and patrol paths and lines of sight, about its AI behaviors and scripting, about its interactive spots and hiding places. There’s no fog. There’s no guesswork.
And since you have multiple characters, there are more options for where and how to apply tweaks. These characters are another strong point. Your assassins are an adorable rogue’s gallery of Western tropes. The gunslinger, the doc, the burly trapper, and the sassy cowgirl, each with his or her own bag of tricks and playstyle. With well-written banter and even backstories, they’re the kind of characters you want to bring on an adventure.
Half-way through the game, there’s a mission in which your characters are scattered and have to recover their special abilities. They had a night of hard drinking, you see. So the burly trapper has misplaced the giant bear trap he uses to lure enemies to their death. He temporarily replaces it with a garden rake. Desperados III knows that stepping on a rake is funny. Meanwhile, it’s got all sorts of salty Western language and adult violence. “Fuck this” and “son of a bitch that” and “goddamn this, that, and the other”. A hundred slit throats and stabbings. Crushing, poisoning, a room splattered in blood from a shotgun blast. The sassy cowgirl can’t do lethal knockouts, so she’ll knee someone in the groin, but another character will have to come over and slit his throat so he doesn’t wake up. Like most stealth games, Desperados III can be weirdly grim. This is the frontier, after all. But then it appreciates that someone stepping on a rake is universally funny. It’s got a genuinely funny sense of humor. Like I said, these are the kinds of characters you want to bring on an adventure. Desperadoes knows that a game about characters needs good writing, and it’s got that in spades. And rakes.
One thing I really miss from Hitman is how solving missions in different ways unlocks tools that you can use to bring back into the mission, and especially into other missions. This gives each map a lot of replay value. It gives the game a sense of progression. It’s a fundamental part of what makes the latest Hitman games so effective. Play in different ways to earn tools to play in different ways. Now that’s a gameplay loop! But Desperados III just has achievements called badges. They encourage you to replay levels and try different approaches. They incentivize the harder difficulty levels. But there’s no gameplay. Badges are just bragging rights. Which is fine, since the levels still have plenty of variety. They’ll still unfold any number of different ways, especially as you get further into the sixteen-mission campaign. Not to mention the DLC, mainly because I haven’t played it yet. But it’s not as if Desperados III needs RPG character progression or loadouts or unlockables. It’s got what it needs: a keen appreciation for how to smooth the tedium out of stealth games, adroitly presented by its rakish cast on a picante Western stage.
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