Desperados III has a lot to live up to, especially in terms of the classic titles from almost 20 years ago. However, with its combination of intense stealth and diorama style puzzles, it doesn’t just match them, it outshines them.
The narrative starts out very cleverly, showing you John Cooper from the original games, then moving aside to display your character, James, his son. You are introduced to the game through his eyes as he learns the ropes (literally and figuratively) by distracting guards, sneaking past them and tying them up. This first level really sets the tone, narratively, very well. Characters give their thoughts and interact as you make your way through an armed fortress. It has a very stylish way of telling the story with fast jump cuts and pauses for effect. This, paired with the fantastic swelling of the music, comes together to make a real impact on the player.
The narrative, in question, takes a real centre stage in Desperados III. It essentially works as a prequel to the original Desperados and introduces the characters in organic ways. This is a very clever move as it’s rewarding to players of the original but also self-contained so new players can become invested in the story with no prior knowledge. This is helped by just how naturally it tells the story. It uses a non-linear structure to deliver the narrative from different angles and times. This works very well when you wake up in a swamp with no recollection of what is going on. You and the characters both feel unaware and are caught on the backfoot as you scramble to find the familiarity and safety of having an entire crew of characters. This focus on story is apparent throughout every aspect of Desperados, from the way the characters move to the way they speak and interact.
The first real thing you will notice upon entering the first level is that of the movement scheme. PC-centric games, especially those where you click to move the character, often don’t translate well to controller. The analog sticks aren’t as accurate or quick as a mouse so give a disadvantage to the player. Desperados III has worked around this with an entirely different scheme, one that uses the stick to move the character themselves. Think of the transition from The Sims to The Sims 2 on console and you have an idea. This is a great choice on developer Mimimi’s behalf as it immerses you into the character; as they get caught, it often shocks you too.
Getting caught is something that will happen quite frequently in Desperados III, especially as you ramp up the difficulty. It doesn’t shy away from this to make the game easier like plenty of others do. It instead opts to make that part of its central gameplay loop. You are encouraged to constantly quicksave and take each encounter one by one. This means you can clearly see the mistakes you make and correct them. By the end of a level, you will feel a real sense of personal growth as you learn what works within certain parameters and what doesn’t. This base loop is so addicting you will want to retry missions you’ve just beat on higher difficulties; for no reason other than just to see if you can. The “Desperado” difficulty, paired with the “stop-start” of the quicksave feature often means you will sit at one place repeating the same move with slight changes until you get it right. From the outside, this might seem menial, but when you’re playing it, it is endlessly satisfying.
This gameplay structure is brought to a new level as more characters join you. The maps become full-blown dioramas with hundreds of moving parts and people to think about. You might want two of your characters to simultaneously take down two guards, but who is watching them? If you take down the guard watching them, do you have enough time to move the bodies before another guard sees it? It is here where differences to characters’ skills and abilities come in, and whilst Hector moves bodies faster, John runs faster normally. These are little micro-decisions you have to make with every second of Desperados III, in order to get the best possible run. These also do a fantastic job of telling the stories of the characters. There are a multitude of tiny details that really enunciate who they are; how they walk, the equipment they choose, what they say when they do certain actions. For instance, when you choose the non-lethal option with John, his character says that will alleviate his conscience. This, paired with saving civilians, tells a more human side of John without the story explicitly stating who you are. This natural storytelling gives insight into the characters but is entirely avoidable.
The way characters clash and respond is something shown throughout both the dialogue and gameplay. One of Desperados III’s best features is its showdown mode. In this, you can slow down the game to a halt as you survey your surroundings, working out the best actions for each character, and then executing them after the showdown is over. This can go from getting a good look around you and a space to breathe, all the way up to a four-man simultaneous takedown. All enemies have a clearly defined field of vision and patrol route too, and so this means that whilst Desperados III does feel quite rigid and “video-gamey”, it still manages to give you the chance to be a mastermind, weaving in and out of view to perform simultaneous takedowns or great actions of stealth. The Desperados difficulty flips this on its head by keeping the showdown mode but not allowing it to slow down time. This means you have to be thoughtful or quick enough to do this entirely on the fly – a very hard and rewarding feat. Not only is this great but new characters are constantly added, entirely changing the way you go about situations. One specific character who is found in the latter missions does this very well.
The gameplay isn’t only shaken up through characters. Desperados III constantly surprises with its willingness to add new ideas to the player. The Baron’s Challenge looks at pre-existing missions and totally changes the way you are supposed to deal with them; things like using a character not previously seen or adding a shiny new Gatling gun where there wasn’t one before.
Desperados III on Xbox One does something very brave. It takes the pre-existing structure set almost 20 years before it and throws it out the window. Whilst it does feel like its predecessors, it is not afraid to strike out on its own and it does so wonderfully. Its music and atmosphere is phenomenal, its narrative is great, and its gameplay is just so rewarding and addictive. It really does stand out in its own right. Whether or not you’ve played the original is irrelevant: Desperados III is absolutely worth your time.