Whenever I have a chunk of holiday sitting in front of me, the possibilities seem endless. Maybe I'll finally play Cyberpunk 2077 now it's been properly patched, I think. But maybe I should also finally finish Nier: Automata in preparation for when Replicant comes out at the end of the month. There are also those dozen odd indie games I've got piled up, too. Narita Boy, the final bit of Record Of Lodoss War: Deelit In Wonder Labyrinth, Signs Of The Sojourner and goodness knows what else. "I could probably do a bit of each!" I say optimistically. In the end, though, my grand plans for playing loads of games never really materialises. I might be able to manage it if I literally play games every second I'm awake from morning til night, but that's not very relaxing now, is it?
In the end, after an impromptu viewing of the 90s western film Tombstone, I decided to opt for the very manageable mission chunks of Desperados 3 as my big Easter holiday project, which is the latest rootin' tootin' real-time tactics game from the Shadow Tactics devs, Mimimi Productions. I'd played the opening few missions back when it came out last summer, but its long, sprawling maps gradually demanded more time and dedication than I was able to give them. I like to do entire missions in one go, you see, and do them stealthily, which often takes even longer because I'm pretty bad at being sneaky - as my five hours doing a complete ghost run of Dishonored 2's Clockwork Mansion level will attest. Now, though, I had entire afternoons to luxuriate in its detailed, densely packed playgrounds of trigger happy cowboys, and goodness, what an astonishingly satisfying and generous game it is.
It takes a long time for me to "get good" at stealth games. There have been times when I've either died or raised the alarm so much in a particular scene that hitting the quick-load button practically becomes automatic, like a natural extension of my body movement. There have even been times when I've pressed it when something hasn't actually gone horribly wrong - it's that ingrained in my moment-to-moment finger movements - resulting in having to replay entire chunks of game again for no good reason, a feat made all the more infuriating when I haven't been nearly as attentive at actually hitting the quick-save button as well. Even 30 seconds can seem like a lifetime when you're carefully manoeuvring yourself around sight cones and setting up complicated power and ability chains, and entire minutes can seem like decades.
But as much as I curse myself in the moment when something like this happens, I do find this endless procession of failure and trying again surprisingly satisfying. Which is odd, because I definitely don't feel this way when I'm repeatedly having my ass handed to me in a game like Dark Souls, say - and I'm not entirely sure why. By all accounts I should feel the same way about both types of game if it's the doing something over and over again that I enjoy, but there's no way I can even picture myself feeling the same way about Dark Souls right now as I do about Desperados 3.
I think it's because, as former vid bud Matthew puts it in his video review above, watching skilful characters enter a chaotic space and completely take control over it calmly and quietly is much more my kind of pace than having to deal with the tension and high adrenalin stakes of a Dark Souls boss, in which my own flailing inadequacies at mastering the game's systems become even more painfully apparent. I like to stand back and observe, not rush headlong into the thick of things, and picking off opponents one by one is, to me at least, an innately more satisfying process than constantly reacting to a world by the seat of my pants.
Desperados 3 lends itself to this play style beautifully, giving you a capable cast of characters and a tantalising set of abilities to distract, divert and draw attention as you see fit. Yes, you can theoretically go in all guns blazing - a point I discussed with Mimimi's head designer last year - but like Shadow Tactics before it, I think Desperados works best as a giant stealth sandbox. There are so many avenues for potential chaos here, and the sheer number and variety of approaches there are in any given level is a perfect fit for my trial and error quick-load habits. If one approach fails, there's no reason to keep bashing my head against the same wall until I 'get it'. I can just try something else instead - a bit like IO Interactive's Hitman trilogy but in miniature. Indeed, some missions' individual achievements actively encourage you to take particular routes (the right or left side of a canyon, for example), leaving even more delectable, destructive delights for you to discover on a second playthrough.
You're rarely allowed to get comfy with the same set of tactics to get where you need to go, too, as each level constantly reshuffles the tools and characters you have at your disposal. It keeps you on your toes, and makes every new adventure feel distinct and different from the last. That's important when even one mission can take the best part of two hours to complete on a first playthrough, particularly at my terrible snail's pace, and it's refreshing to be taken out of your comfort zone every now and then each time you arrive somewhere new.
The best thing about Desperados 3, though, is that each level has an instantly memorable hook. There's the one where you're shooting your way down the length of a train. There's the one where you break up a wedding. Where you defend a ranch at night. Where you all get hammered in town the night before and have to find where everyone's collapsed in a heap before escaping on a boat. Where you blow up a bridge. Get trapped in a swamp. Blow up a boat. Escape a labour camp by pushing a minecart all the way down a canyon and blow up the exit (it's a western, of course there's going to be lots of dynamite), and I haven't even got to the bit where you're dashing in between actual trains yet, as I'm still a few missions away from seeing it through to completion.
Regardless, it's all prime, grade A steak in Desperados 3, which makes it all the more delightful to repeat and revisit when things go wrong. You don't begrudge the game when you get stuck on something, because everything you're doing is so darn playful and fun. There's no filler in any of these levels, and you really get the sense that Mimimi took great pride and pleasure in crafting each scenario - which is helped in no small part by the excellent voice work, I might add, from the bedraggled, "I'll be there in a sec, just gimme a minute" hangover groans to the quiet and confident, "Easy does it"s and, "How about that?"s.
Ultimately, they're just all great places for getting up to no good, whether it's doing things the old-fashioned way such as taking out a bunch of cow pokes with Doc's smoking med bag and Hector's beloved bear trap Bianca, or pulling off elaborate 'accidents' like crushing a bunch of punks with a giant boulder or yoinking a merc's gatling gun and turning it against them and all their mates. I might fail several times before I can pull off these stunts with any degree of success, but I really do take a great amount of pleasure in finessing these tricks and slipping through the cracks, especially when said mischief takes place in such instantly memorable environments. Maybe I'll feel the same about Dark Souls eventually, but for now, I'm glad I didn't let this one get away during my week off, because hot damn, it really is too good to miss.