Mimimi Games has already reinvigorated the sneaky real-time tactics genre through the excellent Shadow Tactics and Desperados 3, but for the studio's first self-published game, Shadow Gambit: The Cursed Crew, the studio has really pushed the boat out. This piratical adventure is downright lavish, featuring a large crew of undead killers, each with their own magical quirks; a sentient ship with the power to manipulate time, which also serves as a hub for your crew; and a more open-ended structure, both within and between missions.
The studio's ambition is aided by extremely solid foundations. If you've played its last two games—you really should—you'll recognise the core features. You'll guide your team of ne'er do wells through maps teeming with enemies, obstacles and opportunities for mayhem, employing their specialist skills to distract, manipulate and murder. Enemies are alert to noises, footprints and feature dynamic view cones that are affected by the time of day, obstacles and whether your skullduggerous pals are sneaking or not.
Each mission is an elaborate puzzle with multiple solutions, rewarding creativity and risk-taking. Shadow Gambit adds to this wonderful recipe with heaps and heaps of magic, which will both help and hinder you.
Jumping into the start of the first act, I only have control over Afia, the soon-to-be leader of the crew. Even with just a single pirate, Shadow Gambit is a lot of fun. As well as having a dagger and pistol, Afia wields a magical sword that's embedded in her chest, which allows her to blink to an enemy location and swiftly murder them. This isn't just a tool for murder; it's a convenient way to get to out-of-reach places. She can also freeze an enemy for a few seconds. I'm reminded of Dishonored (not for the first time in a Mimimi game), but not just because of the existence of the blink ability. They're both stealth games that nonetheless love a bit of flashiness, recognising that being sneaky doesn't mean being boring and just going around snapping necks.
I leave a trail of corpses behind me (some of them stuffed in bushes or thrown off cliffs) and eventually liberate The Red Marley, the aforementioned sentient ship. From here, I can sail to new locations once they are unlocked and put together a proper pirate crew using soul magic and black pearls to create undead pals.
Come sail away
The Red Marley also serves an important function mid-mission, allowing you to pause and speed up time, or create memories that allow you to travel back in time should you screw up—which you inevitably will. Save scumming has always been an important part of these games, encouraging you to experiment and make mistakes. But here it's turned into a proper feature, with your friendly ship even suggesting times to lock in a new memory. Thanks, buddy!
For my second crewmate, I have two choices: the ship's cook and the ship's medic. Though distinct characters with unique abilities, they are both able to manipulate enemies. The medic can get enemies to follow her, while the cook uses a bird whistle to attract them to a specific location. This kind of ability is essential because a big part of Shadow Gambit, and all of Mimimi's games, is breaking enemy patterns and drawing out guards. I go with the cook because I care about food more than my health. He's got another handy ability, too. He can toss a paper doll onto the floor, and when an enemy walks into its radius, he can teleport right to them and slice them up with his sword. He can also stick the doll to an enemy, which is great when you need to take out a patrolling guard at a specific point on their route.
To get to grips with new crewmates, you can complete tutorial missions conjured up by The Red Marley, teaching you how to use their two special abilities, and then setting you up with a challenge. All of these are optional, but having the opportunity to learn the ins and outs of a new character before the next proper mission is a very welcome feature.
With multiple characters in tow, things really start opening up, allowing you to tackle missions from multiple angles or synergise attacks and abilities. This is aided by the return of Shadow Mode, which pauses the game and lets you line up actions with different members of your crew and then execute them all at once. This has lots of utility, but is especially handy when taking out enemies connected by a magical thread, which brings them back to life unless all of them are killed at the same time.
In a later mission, I add the ship's ghostly quartermaster to the roster. His magical trick is possessing enemies, gaining new abilities depending on the type of enemy he's possessed. This allows him to saunter around hostile areas unmolested, create distractions, and get close to other enemies to take them out. This proves to be extremely helpful when we're sneaking through a large island filled with multiple compounds bursting with guards and patrols and locked doors.
Since you're free to pick what crewmates to revive first (there are eight in total), and which to bring along on missions, the maps are designed for a lot of different approaches. In one mission, I split up the group to assassinate two enemies situated on either end of a bridge, and at first it seems like I've made a mistake. The obstacles I encounter on one side initially seem like they would have been better handled by someone I've sent to the other side. But through careful timing and some trial and error, I manage to muddle my way through it—only to discover another less obvious route that would have allowed me to keep my squad together. There's a good lesson here: always be rotating that camera.
You can even select where to enter missions. Some maps have multiple locations where a boat can dock, and you can unlock mystical doorways that create new places to enter and exit islands. Since islands contain multiple missions, the best place to arrive is going to be determined by your objectives, but also who you've brought along with you. Not every character can swim or climb, which will have an impact on the route you take through the map. And there are more subtle differences, too. Afia, for instance, takes quite a while to pull off her basic attack, leaving her open to being spotted. If you've only got a brief window, then you'll want a more swift murderer.
Conveniently, selecting a mission from the map menu gives you a bunch of information: how long the mission will take, the time of day and how much vigour you'll gain. The latter is related to an upgrade system that I didn't have a chance to play around with. Essentially, every character's magical ability can be enhanced. So Afia's blink, for example, can have its range extended.
The preview build let me play through the first act and conjured up plenty of engaging stealth conundrums, but it's only whet my appetite for more. The fantastical elements prove to be a real boon, letting you access lots of creative solutions, as well as giving the art style and environments a more playful vibe. Shadow Tactics and Desperados 3 were handsome games, but ghost ships, cursed islands and lush paradises make this cruise especially striking.
You'll be able to take Shadow Gambit for a spin yourself from June 19, as it will be part of Steam Next Fest. And it's not long until the full launch on August 17.