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Shadow Gambit: The Cursed Crew Innovates The Stealth Strategy Genre With A Game-Changing Mechanic
Platforms: PS5, Xbox Series X/S, PC
Genre: Stealth Strategy, Strategy, Real-Time Strategy, RTS, Pirates
After delving into the Japanese Edo Period with Shadow Tactics Blade Of The Shogun and going the American Wild West route with Desperados 3, developer Mimimi Games is giving us a taste of the pirate’s life with Shadow Gambit: The Cursed Crew. After spending almost 30 hours with the game, I can safely say that this is one of the best stealth strategy games I’ve ever had the pleasure of playing. And one involving undead pirates to boot!
At its core, Shadow Gambit The Cursed Crew is an isometric, squad-based stealth strategy game. Its blend of stealth and real-time strategy is unique, differentiating it from other recent turn-based stealth strategy games like the Miasma Chronicles. Taking place in a different version of history during the Golden Age Of Piracy, this alternate world is magical, where a mysterious curse is keeping some of the dead from staying dead.
To put it simply, yeah, these aren’t just normal pirates you’ll be controlling in the game, but undead pirates (which are even cooler). However, the undead in this world is hunted down by the overzealous and extremist religious group known as the Inquisition led by a powerful figure named Ignacia (and they’re the main antagonists in the game). That’s a pretty fascinating premise to begin with, but best of all, each of the eight playable crew members in the game is charming and has interesting personalities.
If you’ve played other top-down strategy games with stealth elements, the gameplay of Shadow Gambit The Cursed Crew may be familiar to you. However, there are many aspects that make it amazing to play, including a variety of different characters with a range of special abilities, multiple different ways to tackle each level or map (which come in the form of sandboxes) and more.
Each member of the titular Cursed Crew has different abilities, but you can only bring a maximum of three in a single mission. For instance, the game’s primary protagonist, Afia Manicato, feels similar to Corvo and Emily Kaldwin from Dishonored, as her ability to ‘blink’ or instantly dash across distances to kill enemies. This ability is one of the best in the entire game, and it remained one of the best even during the final levels of the game. What’s praise-worthy about Shadow Gambit The Cursed Crew is that I can say the same for essentially every playable character in the game.
Some of the characters share abilities that basically have the same functions, but they all still feel extremely distinct from each other. Another example is Teresa, one of my fave characters, who is a ‘sniper’-type who can shoot enemies from afar. Another, named Gaelle, can literally put enemy corpses into her cannon and use them as ammo.
Another, named Pinkus, can possess enemy units and safely infiltrate enemy bases; you can even keep possessing enemies one by one and clear the area that way (which feels unique). I can go on and on but yeah, while I do prefer certain characters over others, none of them feel especially useless or don’t do much to contribute to missions. Most of the fun in the game comes from trying different combinations of characters and witnessing your intricate plan work successfully.
That’s definitely great in a game that actually requires a lot of synergy between the characters and their unique abilities in order to complete the missions. What I mean by that is that players really need to fully utilize the abilities of each character and find ways to make them work together cohesively. When I successfully do that in Shadow Gambit: The Cursed Crew, it made me feel like the smartest strategist in the world, and that’s an awesome feeling in a game like this. However, the catch is that while the stealth strategy gameplay in the game can be very satisfying when you pull it off, it requires a lot of mental prowess and energy. It’s not particularly punishing or difficult (the game actually offers granular difficulty that you can tweak, but I played on the default difficulty), but it does ask a lot from players in terms of attention and focus, which means that completing just one mission in the game can feel draining (not in a bad way). This is not a game you play to relax your mind. There are no guns blazing or brute forcing in this one, unlike other strategy games. There’s a reason why it’s stealth first and strategy second.
There are many things you have to take into account during gameplay, including enemy positions and their view cones, interactable environments, and more. Some stealth strategy games, like Miasma Chronicles, can make you feel as if you’re shoehorned or forced into using a specific strategy or mechanic, but this game is different. It feels open from the very beginning, never feels restricted, and there are a lot of layers to it all.
While the stealth strategy gameplay in Shadow Gambit: The Cursed Crew is in real-time and not traditionally turn-based, players can pause the action at any time to queue up attacks that happen all at once or simultaneously. This allows you to consider your strategic choices or queue up multiple character actions. And trust me, with the sandbox levels of the game being complex puzzles in their own right, you’re going to use that function a lot. Oh, that and the quick-saving quick-loading (or as strategy game veterans call it, save-scumming) feature, which is impressively an actual gameplay mechanic in Shadow Gambit: The Cursed Crew.
The most ingenious part of the game is the developer actually adding an actual game mechanic that is essentially just save scumming. Yes, save scumming as an actual mechanic. I’m not sure if this is the first game to ever do this, but it’s definitely the first game where I’ve seen save scumming as an actual mechanic instead of something that players have to manually do in most other games (where you have to go into the menu every time you want to do it). With the save scumming mechanic in the game, you are free to experiment without having to worry about being punished for it. If you fail, simply press one button to reload the latest save or “Memory”.
It’s simple yet extremely intuitive, and as a player who plays a lot of strategy games, I can’t praise this game enough. This feature not only provides a safety net, the characters might even react to you using this feature. So not only is the mechanic useful gameplay-wise, but it’s also important to the plot, world-building and narrative of the game.
The Red Marley is a ghost ship with a living soul and it’s the hub for the player. In between missions, you can interact with your crew members to start optional conversations and scenes where you can learn more about their backstories. However, these Crew Tales are completely optional and they don’t add much to the gameplay, so you can ignore all this if you prefer to focus on the core gameplay. In addition, other sandbox elements in the game include being able to freely choose which level to play, as well as specific entry points on the maps themselves.
Overall, it took me around 30 hours to finish Shadow Gambit The Cursed Crew. Even after finishing the game, there is post-game content to extend the game’s replayability, including finishing off the optional Crew Tales and doing more stuff in order to unlock a secret ninth-playable character.
There aren’t many flaws in Shadow Gambit: The Cursed Crew, but here are a few qualms I had while playing. Firstly, the missions in the game can take a while to complete. Each mission can take at least 30 minutes but they generally mostly average about one hour each. The later endgame missions can easily take more than one hour to complete as missions get more complex and time-consuming. There are also no manual saves in the game. While this wasn’t exactly a problem that interfered with my gameplay, it’s annoying when you don’t know where you’ll continue from (unless it’s during a mission, where you’ll continue from the last Memory AKA quick-save you made). Also, with eight crew members, it felt a bit disappointing that most missions limit them to a maximum of three, though the final two missions of the game did allow me to use all eight at the same time (which was glorious).
Still, I understand how too many playable characters at once would have broken the game’s balance, though increasing the maximum party to four characters would have been good enough. Last, but not least, there’s not much of an upgrade system (the game does have a very simple skill tree with only one upgrade for each character). However, it can be argued that with the complexity of the game’s sandbox elements and the character’s abilities, the game doesn’t even need an extensive upgrade system as an incentive to keep playing. The endgame of the game can also feel tedious, as you replay the same maps for a few hours in order to reach the endgame.
Shadow Gambit: The Cursed Crew is one of the best strategy games of 2023 so far. It’s a delightful experience that requires patience to enjoy. For fans of the stealth strategy genre, this game is a must-play, especially the unique save-scumming mechanic that distinguishes the game from other titles in the same genre.
Shadow Gambit The Cursed Crew was reviewed on PC based on a review copy provided by the publisher. It is slated to release for the PS5, Xbox Series X/S and PC on 18 August 2023.
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