Winding back the clock to rewrite past mistakes is a core stratagem of any Mimimi game. Baldur's Gate 3 might have rekindled the debate about save-scumming over in RPG circles, but in the stealth strategy arena where Mimimi operate, reaching for the F5 and F8 keys to quick load a previous save is as natural as swapping between your party members on 123, or activating their unique abilities to clobber all manner of unsuspecting guards on the back of the head with ASD and F.
In their latest real-time tactics-me-do Shadow Gambit: The Cursed Crew, however, the act of quick saving has been woven directly into the language of the game, presented not as cold, hard button commands, but as 'captured memories' that your magical ghost ship The Red Marley is able to unleash to make sure your supernatural pirate crew don't get caught or die (again) on the job.
Functionally, quick-saving's no different to how it was in Desperados 3 or Shadow Tactics: Blades Of The Shogun. If you haven't quick-saved in a while, The Red Marley will literally ding a ghostly bell at the top of the screen reminding you of the march of time. But the small linguistic change is arguably Shadow Gambit's greatest masterstroke, elevating it beyond even the incredible Desperados 3. I can't tell you specifics - otherwise Mimimi might tie an anchor to my leg and chuck me into the depths of Davy Jones' locker - but nor would I want to, as this is the kind of mid-game reveal that should be experienced with as little foreknowledge as possible. Just know that it's the kind rug-pull that puts it in the same 'Cor, yes, this is really very clever indeed and could only ever be done in a game' camp as the likes of Inscryption, Zero Escape, Tunic and Doki Doki Literature Club.
Shadow Gambit is like a cannonball to the chest (or stomach, if you're Gaelle De Bris up in the header image), building on the studio's already excellent stealth foundations with a tale of plot and plunder that strikes right at the heart of what memory is, as well as the devastating power it can hold over us. If the diegetic transformation around the nature of quick-saving hints at a studio grappling with its own legacy of mechanical artifice, then the second act of Shadow Gambit is ample proof that Mimimi have thoroughly mastered how interactive form and function can coexist to challenge us afresh. That they've also accomplished this while not only giving us their largest cast of would-be assassins yet, but also their most imaginative and unconventional mission structure so far, is nothing short of remarkable.
Unlike the linear, set-piece driven sorties of Desperados 3 and Shadow Tactics: Blades Of The Shogun, Shadow Gambit leans into its pirate fantasy with aplomb, giving you a crop of islands to explore and a mission log to tackle in (mostly) whatever order you like. You'll revisit most of these islands four or five times over the course of the game, and after learning the ropes as the wily navigator (and definitely long-lost cousin of Dishonored's Corvo and Emily Kaldwin) Afia Manicato, you're given a welcome amount of freedom in how you shape your adventure. Your first order of business, for example, is reviving the rest of The Marley's undead crew, who have all fallen foul of the tyrannical Inquisition, a religious order who's taken it upon themselves to shake out every last cursed skeleton from the Timeless Shores' copious closets.
To bring these seven sacks of bones back to, err, life, you'll need to steal into the Inquisition's encampments and rob back their all-important Black Pearls, as well as other items dripping in Soul Energy, to perform the necessary resurrection rituals. There's also the small matter of a mysterious riddle left behind by The Marley's former captain, the infamous Mordechai, whose hidden bounty guarded by three powerful Relics has also caught the ear and attention of chief inquisitor Ignacia. As you go about collecting this trio of treasure types, Ignacia and her forces will hound you at every turn, which forces you to carefully plan routes of attack to get to your goal unseen.
Ignacia makes for a wonderfully evil arch-nemesis in Shadow Gambit, and the 30-odd hours you'll spend thinning her hordes of patrolling followers never fails to be delicious and devilish work. If you've played one of Mimimi's games before, then the art of slipping through sight cones and noise radii to reach your objective will feel like pulling on an old comfortable shoe. Enemies might be spread across larger canvases this time, but their routines and well-covered look-out posts feel just as fiendishly constructed as they were in Desperados 3. Picking away at the cracks to lure stragglers into unseen corners with well-timed flute bursts, golden skulls, crackling sticks of dynamite and good old-fashioned coin tosses remains as thrilling and mentally stimulating as ever.
But Shadow Gambit's greatest trick is how these larger play spaces feel new and different every time you visit. Sometimes a simple change in the time of day is enough to cast these spaces in a new light - literally, in the case of night time torches and campfires you'll want to avoid, but the evening also brings in freshly-rotated guard clusters as well. Most missions, though, will draw you to specific sections of an island, meaning you could feasibly visit just, say, a third of it without having to interact with the rest in a single mission. Medal hunters will no doubt be tempted further afield, but keeping the action defined to small pockets makes this feel very much like Desperados 3's carefully portioned-out social spaces and hostile zones, just writ large on an island - only here, everywhere is dangerous and there are no safe spaces.
There's so much variety to be found here, too. For example, one of the later locations is a sandy islet littered with broken-up ships and a beautiful, half-exploded lighthouse standing on a hill in the centre. It's as eye-cathing as any of Desperados 3's big set pieces, but that's not even the most interesting thing about it. Sure, one mission will see you visit that lighthouse to find the Black Pearl within it, but another will see you rescue an altogether more peculiar crew of pirates from a heavily guarded compound to the west - a moment of such delight that I can't wait for you to see it for yourselves. Another will see you scale the carved-up hull of one of its shipwrecks to the east to fire a bunch of letters out of a cannon, while a further one still will see you chasing down a long lost pirate rival whose ghost keeps possessing different members of the Inquisition around the entire island. Now picture that kind of variety across half a dozen odd islands, and Shadow Gambit's rinse-repeat tasks of 'collect Black Pearl, collect Soul Energy, collect Relic' become imbued with so much more than what you see on the mission screen.
It's an impressive feat to have so many distinct areas feel like they belong in the same, cohesive space, but that's merely the turn in Shadow Gambit's wider magic display. The prestige is achieving exactly the same thing when you've also got the choice to pick which crew members to take with you. So many 'approach things in any order!' games end up feeling vanilla and generic when they're designed to accommodate every possible player choice, but Shadow Gambit regularly served up tasty, truly one-size-fits all puzzle scenarios that I could really sink my teeth into - even when I actively chose the same island three times in a row to see if I could make it become boring. Taking a fresh trio of pirates forced me to think differently about familiar locations, and it kept each mission feeling fresh and exciting.
Obviously, the crew members available to you in earlier missions will be largely dictated by who you decide to revive first, but there are no real wrong choices here. They're all fantastic fun to play with, and their magical-leaning skillsets set your mind alight with possibilities. My personal favourites included the flute-wielding, teleporting chef Toya, the aforementioned Gaelle (who can shoot friend and foe alike across huge distances with the cannon she lumbers round on her back), and the void-diver John Mercury who can sink beneath the floor with his magical anchor and spring up for the kill like a bearded shark.
But they all have their own merits. Afia and her Blink-like sword stabs were also in regular rotation, as was doctor Suleidy who can conjure extra cover with her fast-growing plants and enchant foes to leave their posts with her magic seeds. Disgraced aristocrat Pinkus, on the other hand, can possess and impersonate soldiers with a puff of his large pipe, while treasure skelly Quentin can lob his golden skull to create distractions and use his fishing rod to trigger environmental kills from afar, such as knocking down crates or pulling down ladders to open up new routes. And while you can, of course, choose to take out enemies one by one, the larger nature of these island spaces lends itself much more effectively to teeing up co-ordinated takedowns using every member of your party in tandem. These were always my favourite moments in Desperados 3, so it's great to see so many plentiful opportunities for them here in Shadow Gambit.
It's a wholly successful experiment, is what I'm saying, and swapping Relic-hunting for even more personalised crew Trials in the latter stages of the game (because every riddle has to have a stage two, don't you know) just rounds off an already very complete package. Heck, some of my favourite moments from Shadow Gambit take place right on the ship itself, which acts as your hub between missions. Here, each member of the crew has their own little sidestory to follow - Toya teaches an important lesson to a strung-up fish; Gaelle cures a skeleton's sadness by having a poetry jam… They're all quite daft and throwaway compared to the complex cerebral machinations of the main missions, but their witty scripts and heartfelt story moments all pull together to paint an even fuller, more vibrant picture of this affable gang of ruffians. They're extremely good hangs this lot, and are easily Mimimi's most winsome lot yet.
Backed by that scene-stealing twist I mentioned earlier, and Shadow Gambit: The Cursed Crew is simply an extremely good time from start to finish. It's not only a highly satisfying strategic stealth game in its own right, but its ruminations on memory, the past lives and decisions of its pirate crew, and the way it reckons with its own in-game act of forging and preserving new memories all point to a studio at the peak of their powers. This is a game to be treasured, and the only thing I could wish for now is to turn back to the clock so I can experience it all over again from the beginning.
This review was based on a review build of the game provided by developers Mimimi Games.