Mimimi Games has only produced phenomenal titles since making Shadow Tactics in 2016, be they DLC or new works. That said, one could argue they’ve made the same game three times, because the isometric stealth sub-genre has been thoroughly explored in their three latest titles, Shadow Gambit: The Cursed Crew being the most recent. I haven’t had the pleasure of playing Desperados III, but rumor has it everyone loves this title, which looks a lot like their two other games. Regardless of the similar design, is Shadow Gambit fun?
Yes, it is! Though novelty plays a part in “fun,” the small differences and change in scenery contribute to overall enjoyment. Mimimi has stated that it “had” to do pirates, because pirates are cool, and who can argue? Samurai, cowboys, and pirates: the trifecta has been completed. Maybe robots next time. I’m getting side-tracked, though; for all my quibbles with samey-ness, I instantly felt right at home in the tactician’s chair as I searched for Captain Mordechai’s mysterious treasure. Sticking with the familiar and with what works has its appeal.
Players are Afia Manicato, an undead pirate like most of our protagonists, who finds herself aboard the Marley, a sentient ghost ship. She quickly learns that there’s treasure to be had, what with the captain being actually dead this time. Question is: where is it? Afia quickly negotiates a cut of the shares in her favor with the ship, and off she goes to reassemble the captain’s lost crew located right on the deck. Problem is their corpses have been sapped of soul energy and need a black pearl to reignite their dying flame. To do so, Afia must thwart zealots and inquisitors who hold these treasures, and in the process may even find the captain’s long-lost treasure.
At the outset, the impetus is pretty simple: scavenge rare knickknacks in order to increase your character count. Of course, seasoned gamers will soon realize this is but the beginning of this 25-hour journey. While Afia finds the resources to revive the crew, she also discovers relics that contribute to solving the dead captain’s riddle and locating his lost treasure.
Shadow Gambit’s loop is quite simple: walk around the deck talking to people—or the ship—completing side objectives, and then gather your party to venture forth. Most of the time, three crew members, eventually of the player’s choosing, can join the party. Usually a couple missions can be chosen, but they all need to be done and the decision-making is slightly arbitrary depending on whether you want to revive more crew members or unlock more story.
After a briefing on the mission, players can look over the map to get an idea of what they’re up against, and then choose a landing from anywhere between two to maybe six locations, depending on the island. Like Mimimi’s previous titles, players take control of characters in top-down, isometric fashion as they skulk around. Stealth is the name of the game, and bushes are your spider’s nest. Wait for a patrolling officer, time the shifting viewcone correctly, and you can snag a free kill, making the island a little less threatening each time.
Most areas of the island are cleverly disguised puzzles. Players will soon find themselves figuring out which guard is watching who, and who’s the easiest pick among them to increase the odds of bagging the trinket or progressing to the next area. Remember, killing everyone isn’t the goal; typically, the objective is to interact with some part of the environment or steal something. Toppling guards just makes that easier.
Players also need to hide bodies, watch how much noise they’re making, and sometimes use multiple characters at the same time in order to accomplish a goal by using a fancy time manipulation system that freezes the action; this allows characters to act simultaneously, so no guard witnesses another’s death in that brief window between kills. Shadow Gambit encourages save scumming, as quick saving is a snap. In fact, it’s encouraged to such a degree that the mechanic is baked into the story, with Marley (the ship) frequently commenting on droughts between saves and after saves. Essentially, the ship has a time manipulation power that enables the pirates to save points in time that they can return to.
I’m burying the lead, though: while Shadow Gambit is a stealth-action game with the aforementioned mechanics, the cream is the special abilities. Those familiar with Shadow Tactics will recognize common tricks, such as throwing out bait to lure lower-level guards, noise manipulation like firecrackers, and killing from a range. Most characters have a signature ability that makes them truly unique, which is coupled with an assist ability, like a distraction tool. Initially, I found the lack of variety, especially with respect to previous titles, a bit disheartening, but I was quickly overtaken by just how fun the map design is. Unlike in Shadow Tactics, players will revisit islands to get different kinds of goodies, which is important, because most maps are designed to be approached in several different ways, elevating the quality of the level design. In previous titles, Mimimi’s maps were one-and-done, and oftentimes felt linear. Not so here, which differentiates Shadow Gambit from earlier works exceptionally well.
A few of the challenges in Shadow Gambit felt unreasonably difficult to me, but that was likely because I unknowingly brought the wrong team or just needed to rethink my approach. With the amount of tools provided across eight characters, finding a three-person crew to clutch victory shouldn’t be difficult, but this will only be apparent after repeat visits to maps. On the other hand, when I conquered a scenario or my plan worked beautifully, the jolt of dopamine was reward enough. Using the different tools I had together to overcome the challenge created a feeling I think most games struggle to capture, at least with any consistency. Mimimi has done that here throughout the game.
Shadow Gambit feels a little old for this generation of games in terms of visuals, but nothing looks bad, necessarily—just dated. The artwork is wonderful, with all sorts of odd undead people coming to life in unique fashion, each portrait conveying personality in one image alone. Everything animates and ambulates appropriately, so I’m not fussing here. Everyone’s voice acting is competent or fantastic, with no duds to be found. While I didn’t initially care for any of the characters, I found myself falling in love with each of them by the middle of the adventure purely because of the acting; they felt like real people I was getting to know, and like most people you may not like upon first meeting, consistent exposure can change your opinion. What starts out as yucks and one-liners becomes a crew of well-rounded individuals with thoughts, feelings, and challenging pasts.
As much experience as I have with Mimimi’s games, I unfortunately still battle with the controls. New players may find the default keys a bit odd, as adjusting the camera and using hot keys on the fly has a bit of a learning curve, but even with dozens of hours in these games, I still click on the wrong thing when I mean to click on something else, or the environment gets in the way when I don’t anticipate it will. Many of my problems with the controls stem from the isometric nature of gameplay, though I remember initially in Shadow Tactics having significant issues with getting used to the camera; fortunately, Mimimi has promised to provide alternative camera control options upon release that should suit some players.
Another resounding success is muted by similarity across titles. Who can fault Mimimi, though: they struck gold twice, once with Shadow Tactics and again with Desperados III. More of the same isn’t always bad, but I wish a bit more had been done here to offer a new experience. Regardless, Shadow Gambit: The Cursed Crew is undeniably engrossing, with a strong cast of characters and a story that twists and turns. Armchair tacticians, get your leaning ready, because there’s booty afoot, and the only ones who can claim it are a bunch of dead bodies. You got this!