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Wednesday, January 25, 2023

Shadow Gambit in the exclusive preview: A magical tactics game from the masters of the genre

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Undead voodoo pirates in a real-time tactics game: At GlobalESportNews you can exclusively read all about Shadow Gambit, which is set to leave Commandos behind for good.

One of the first questions we asked Mimimi Games in our interview about Shadow Gambit: The Cursed Crew? Well, who can guess it? Of course, “Why pirates of all things?” At least in parts of the GlobalESportNews editorial team, they don”t sail under too good a star. And that”s despite Guybrush Threepwood, Sid Meier”s Pirates and Sea of Thieves.

Dominik Abé, co-founder and creative director of the development team answered us dryly: “Ninjas, cowboys, pirates!” We laughed together because it could also be the truth. In the company”s history, Shadow Tactics (Ninjas) and Desperados 3 (Cowboys) mark the big, important and successful games.

Shadow Gambit should now join these titles and ideally become even more successful. But Dominik quickly became serious again and explained that the game”s undead pirates were the decisive point in the internal pitch about the setting.

Mimimi wants to take real-time tactics to a new level with Shadow Gambit: The Cursed Crew. Away from semi-realistic scenarios like Edo period Japan or Westerns towards more creative freedom.

(The islands in Shadow Gambit are not only full of palm trees and bushes, the Inquisition has also built smaller and larger forts on them.)
(The islands in Shadow Gambit are not only full of palm trees and bushes, the Inquisition has also built smaller and larger forts on them.)

The Venture

The fact that developing a successful real-time tactics game is not an easy task can already be seen in the original target audience. In 2016, Shadow Tactics initially appealed to people who grew up with games like those in the Commandos series or the original Desperados titles. They are likely to be between 35 and 50 years old, with purchasing power, but also critical. Through life experience, but also through a glorified view even of things that weren”t so good in the games at the time.

Mimimi, however, has managed the feat of not only inspiring these people with Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun, but also winning over parts of the YouTube generation for real-time tactics. If you browse through the (over 26,000) user reviews (status: “extremely positive”) on Steam, you will read the words “like Commandos” again and again, but also about how complete genre beginners were caught in the quicksave-quickload spiral thanks to the gripping mechanics, the pretty story and the well-done characters.

(Pirates of all things! Afia is the (in)secret main character on board.)
(Pirates of all things! Afia is the (in)secret main character on board.)

And if you search for “Shadow Tactics Speedrun” on YouTube, you might not even know where to start, so abundant is the offer. In short: The courageous step of wanting to revive real-time tactics has paid off, Mimimi Games could be called the Pyro Studios of our time since Desperados 3 at the latest. And then again, not, because unlike the Commandos parents from Spain, the Munichers want to make real-time tactics bigger and better and more diverse than we have known it so far. And that”s where Shadow Gambit comes in.

Shadow Gambit: The Cursed Crew is not only a special venture because of the pirates (scoff!). It is also the first game that Mimimi has brought to market through self-publishing. However, the studio does not have to bear all the costs alone, at least not right away; the Video Game Fund Kowloon Nights is on board (more on this in the box). Much more exciting, however, is that Mimimi wants to break with much of what we know from Shadow Tactics and Desperados 3 – and at the same time build on the strengths of the two games. Sounds contradictory? Yes and no.

What is Kowloon Nights?

Behind the name lies not only a time of day in a district of Hong Kong, but also a video game fund that promises studios maximum self-determination. Kowloon (partly) finances the development of games, but does not intervene in the creative process or the subsequent marketing. And especially important for smaller studios: every revenue generated by a game goes first to the studio and is not immediately siphoned off by the fund. Kowloon Nights, for example, has already financed Sifu, Scorn or Welcome to Elk.

The magic word: Fantasy

Just a few weeks ago we celebrated fantasy on GlobalESportNews . And now it”s the deciding factor that should set Shadow Gambit apart from Shadow Tactics and Desperados 3. Instead of relying solely on semi-realistic skills like distraction via a rice wine bottle or a thrown rock, Shadow Gambit has a ghost fish named Sir Reginald leaping out of solid ground in a beautiful water and jump animation. Yes, out of the ground!

Instead of laboriously heaving himself over walls or sneaking into rooms, Mr. Mercury, Sir Reginald”s owner, much like his little fish, simply dives down, whether there is grass or hard stone beneath him, and then hops back up out of the ground within a certain radius. Ideally in such a way that when he emerges he also sinks an opponent without a trace with his mighty anchor.

You can already tell: the rules in Shadow Gambit are basically still the old ones, each character has a certain skill set. Using these skills with an alert mind, with an eye on the terrain and the positioning of the enemies, that”s the fascination of the genre. But the skills are quite different from those we have experienced so far. This is made possible by the undead pirates and the fantasy setting.

Of Pirates and Hypocrites

Those who are reminded of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” film series are not far wrong, because the band of pirates from Shadow Gambit is also on the move in the golden age of piracy in the Caribbean. In a magic-infused Caribbean, where ghosts and the undead as well as magic are normal and fully accepted in society. Quasi like playing kill … of shooters in Germany. The only problem is the inquisition of the flaming maiden.

Insert: In the English version, the gang is called Inquisition of the Burning Maiden. That immediately makes everyone”s ears ring, they automatically think of the Iron Maiden, whether it”s a musical combo or an instrument of torture, which, by the way, is supposed to be synonymous for many people, I hear. In any case, you would know immediately where you stand with these guys if the Inquisition were the Iron Maiden. Blazing Maiden, on the other hand? Was the maid unhappily waving the candle around? Of course we”re exaggerating, but our sense of language screams Iron Maiden. Mimimi, by the way, is aware of our emotional state, but (currently still) has a different opinion, pfff!

(Things are rarely right on the islands, here the Inquisition is experimenting with soul magic.)
(Things are rarely right on the islands, here the Inquisition is experimenting with soul magic.)

Back to the Inquisition of blazes… well, back to the Inquisition. It has a massive thing against magic, you know it from the Dark Ages. It oppresses the population, which is cool with all that stuff, and would also like to banish all undead and ghosts from the Caribbean. To do this, she uses not only force of arms but also a kind of magic herself, specifically soul-consuming fire.

And so it happens that the brave crew of the ghost ship Red Marley is suddenly sailing through the Caribbean surprisingly decimated, the Inquisition having immobilised significant parts of it through the aforementioned fire. Consequently, one of our first official acts in Shadow Gambit is to get a few buccaneers back on their feet – before we set off on the hunt for the treasure of the legendary Mordecai. Which almost certainly holds some power to put an end to the Inquisition once and for all.

Eight Friends

Basically, it sounds pretty similar to Shadow Tactics or Desperados 3, doesn”t it? In these games you don”t start with all the heroes and heroines from the beginning. In Shadow Tactics, for example, Ninja Hayato meets the samurai Mugen and the sniper Takuma “by chance” at the beginning. In the following mission, young Yuki then joins the Blades of the Shogun. And so on.

By the way, it”s similar in Desperados 3, where John Cooper also gathers his Western gang in the course of the first third. This happens in linear missions, which also advance the plot and deepen the chemistry between the characters. No wonder, then, that in these titles we are not allowed to decide for ourselves who goes with us to complete mission XYZ. In both cases, the game or Mimimi takes care of that for us.

Shadow Gambit is different: not only are the men and women much more extensive – there are eight characters in total – but we can also choose our own squad before each mission. Depending, of course, on whom we have “revived” before.

(Here the crew sits together at the table. And this is also where we choose our characters for the upcoming mission)
(Here the crew sits together at the table. And this is also where we choose our characters for the upcoming mission)

Spitzfindigen Menschen dürfte inzwischen spätestens jetzt auffallen, dass auf dem Artwork aber neun Seeräuber zu sehen sind. However, according to Mimimi, one of them (Virgilio, top left) is not a playable but immensely important character in the plot. And when you get right down to it, there are actually ten characters on the artwork, but more on the tenth later.

Three Friends

The magic number in the missions is three. We will be allowed to take a maximum of three undead buccaneers with us into the missions. The only exception seems to be the finale, which, according to Mimimi, will only start when we have all eight pirates cheerfully gathered on board the Red Marley. By the way, the developers didn”t come up with the number three, it was crystallised in playtests.


The good thing about it: Ideally, we don”t carry around any unnecessary ballast, i.e. a character who has to spend most of the mission parked in some bush waiting until he can use his cool skill once or twice. This happened most recently in Aiko”s Choice, the add-on to Shadow Tactics, when the compact samurai Mugen had to hang around uselessly on the mainland for quite a while while the rest of the team was out on the offshore islands. Reason: Mugen can”t swim.

The first three characters

The (possibly) bad thing about this: we get bogged down in our choices and only get to point x with the characters we choose, or have to bang our heads disproportionately because the skills aren”t well matched. The former is rather unlikely because the maps in Shadow Gambit are supposed to be much more sandbox than in Shadow Tactics or Desperados 3, which means that we find more possible routes to our respective goals. Even with a not so happily assembled trio.

(Of course there are rocks to drop on heads in Shadow Gambit too).
(Of course there are rocks to drop on heads in Shadow Gambit too).

Theoretically, however, the latter could happen. To date, however, we only know three members of the pirate gang in detail and cannot set the fear in stone. Rather, we hope that the skills are designed in such a way that everything can be done with all combinations, because … those who want to play especially hard can also go out with only two pirates. Or even just one. Very few of us will do that, but after two or three weeks at the latest, YouTube will certainly put us to shame with one-character speedruns.

Adieu Commandos!

One wonders a bit why fantasy only really enters the realm of real-time tactics à la Commandos in the year 2023. Our theory is exactly this: Commandos. That”s what the genre has been oriented towards for far too long. The only notable reach over into supernatural realms in all these years? The voodoo lady in Desperados 3. So now the full magic assault.

The three characters we already know in detail and have seen in action are the aforementioned John Hughes Mercury and his ghost fish Sir Reginald, the giant Gaëlle le Bris, who can shoot both friend and foe from her cannon, and Afia Manicato, who can approach enemies at lightning speed and then take them out thanks to her magic sabre. While Mr. Mercury distracts enemies via ghost fish, Gaëlle does it with firecrackers. And Afia can stop time for a few seconds for individuals.

(With her special attack, Afia can not only take out enemies in a flash, but also cover short distances.)
(With her special attack, Afia can not only take out enemies in a flash, but also cover short distances.)

In addition, all of them still have a standard attack and a muzzle-loading pistol with one shot each. These three are – as far as we have experienced (see video again) – quite a successful combination for the beginning:

If, for example, an Inqusitionshansel is standing at an elevated position that neither Mr. Mercury can reach with his magic dive nor Afia with her lightning-fast sabre spell, Gaëlle slurps one of the two characters into her cannon and shoots it at the opponent. The opponent”s skull not only hums, he is also defenceless for a while and can be bound and gagged and then hidden. With the time spell, Afia creates a safe running route for all three. And if you need to dispose of an enemy in a hurry and there”s no hiding place nearby, Mr. Mercury simply makes the dead man disappear into the ground.

The special skills of the individual characters have a minimal recharge time, but that hardly matters. Meanwhile, what quickly becomes apparent: Shadow Gambit plays more dynamically than Shadow Tactics or Desperados 3, at least with the combination of Afia, Gaëlle and Mr. Mercury. Also, because we can now revive eliminated heroines and heroes within the missions, should at least one of our characters survive a battle.

Will this dynamic remain the same with the characters we still don”t know in detail? We”ll have to wait and see. Ideally, however, we should try out all the characters at least once on the way to the finale. If we limit ourselves to the same three, in the worst case we”ll be standing in the last mission with our trousers down and not knowing what to do with five of the undead in detail. Or at least not fast enough if things get tricky.

(I wonder if this is the spot on the Red Marley where you bring the dead crew members back to life?)
(I wonder if this is the spot on the Red Marley where you bring the dead crew members back to life?)

The magic ship

Whereby the “when the going gets tough” is also nonsense, because Shadow Gambit is still about real-time tactics. It lives from the fact that we overuse the quicksave and quickload buttons to an unusual degree. If you forget to do this for a while, you are reminded of it by a ship”s bell that gongs large and green across the monitor.

(The bell of the Red Marley reminds us to save after a certain time.)
(The bell of the Red Marley reminds us to save after a certain time.)

Ship”s Bell not by accident, because unlike other titles in the genre, this basic mechanic is woven into the narrative. The Red Marley, our magical ghost ship, gives us this ability. So she”s the tenth character we”ve talked about. Speaking of speaking: Our ship is not only magical, but also talkative. She will comment (gladly frotzily ironic) on our actions, probably preferably those where we”ve been a bit daft.  

The abilities that Red Marley gives us also include Shadow Mode (Shadow Tactics) and Showdown Mode (Desperados 3). Mimimi does not yet know what it is called in Shadow Gambit. We suggest something with “sh” and “o” and “w” and maybe “Mode”. Update: According to Mimimi, it could be Ghost Mode. Well, what do you know!

(According to Mimimi, the secret star is the ghost ship. Here, three characters set off on a mission in a dinghy.)
(According to Mimimi, the secret star is the ghost ship. Here, three characters set off on a mission in a dinghy.)

Anyway, this action lets us meticulously plan (group) attacks in advance and then have them executed with “Enter”. Really cool: Shadow Gambit shows us in such situations, in which we move the position of a figure, a small preview by means of a ghost shape of our … ghost shape, in order to visualise possible mistakes in our planning.

One island, two missions

There are several missions waiting for us on the secluded island of Moldy Grove, we show you two in excerpts. 

  • In the green mission we are supposed to spy on the plans of our opponent Inquisitor Ignacia. Since this is a main mission, it gets doubly tricky towards the end.
  • In the red mission we have to recover one of the valuable black pearls before the Inquisition ships it to one of their crematorium islands to destroy it forever.

The Red Marley is the Normandy?

But we must start with some character, someone must be at the helm, someone must not have been crippled by the Inquisition. Curtain up for Afia (emphasis on “fia”). She is also the navigator of the Red Marley.

With the Red Marley we sail through the Caribbean and can head for islands as we please, once we have found them, to complete the missions waiting there. This happens in a similar way to Mass Effect: at a map table on the Red Marley we choose a destination and then off we go. On each of the islands there are several missions with different entry and exit points, which we can then select or view separately on a detailed map.

(In the still nameless planning mode (Showdown Mode in Desperados 3), a ghostly figure shows the running route.)
(In the still nameless planning mode (Showdown Mode in Desperados 3), a ghostly figure shows the running route.)

The missions are divided into those of the main storyline, of which two can be available at the same time. In addition, there are missions in which we have to capture black pearls and those in which we collect soul magic. We need pearls and soul magic to revive crew members.

There are also optional missions that revolve around the individual pirates and pirate women. In these missions we then learn more about the past of the individual characters. And last but not least, Shadow Gambit offers so-called hub missions, also optional. These only take place on the Red Marley. When we asked about the purpose of the optional missions, Matthias Kraut, Communications Lead at Mimimi, answered: “They help you.” Aha, some kind of progression system? Or even wilder: Mass Effect-style loyalty missions? Anything is possible, Matthias at any rate wrapped himself in meaningful silence after his hint.

(This is what the exits look like on the maps that connect us to the Red Marley.)
(This is what the exits look like on the maps that connect us to the Red Marley.)

But we”re now biting into this idea and wondering if there will also be some kind of snusnu scene in Shadow Gambit before the final mission. After all, the crew members are supposed to form closer bonds during their time on the Red Marley. And didn”t Mugen and Aiko already prove in Shadow Tactics that there”s still enough time between battles for the Shogun to get closer?

Besides, since we saw the big red lizard and the skeleton disappear together behind the screen on the Lady Vengeance (also a living ship!) in Divinity: Original Sin 2, nothing surprises us in this regard! And honestly, what”s wrong with a game in which a giant undead woman shoots her comrades-in-arms across Caribbean islands with a cannon?

Editor”s verdict

    When Kevin approached me and innocently asked if I”d like to write about Mimimi”s upcoming game, he already knew my answer: “Of course!” After all, I had a kind of revival experience with Shadow Tactics over six years ago now. A revival, to be precise, because I thought games like Commandos were dead and forgotten. Blades of the Shogun proved me wrong.

    And now, with Shadow Gambit (please count for me how many times I”ve written “Shadow” in this article, I don”t dare myself), Mimimi is going down the path they hinted at to me years ago: With the undead pirates, the studio is really letting off steam. Of course, the skills still have to fulfil certain tasks, distraction for example. Or quick elimination. And all that in such a way that ideally you grasp it immediately on first viewing. But those are the only barriers. I don”t know what I”m more excited about, though: the skills of the other crew members, the size of the game, or the narrative or the chemistry on board the ship. If it all turns out the way I”m dreaming, Shadow Gambit could really be a bit like Mass Effect, snusnu scene at the end or not.

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