Afia Manicato is your introduction to this alternative version of the Caribbean where Cursed pirates sail the seas and the Inquisition terrorise whomever they please. She’s one of the Cursed, a person who died and was somehow brought back, now with the added benefit of having a cool power that is in some way related to how they passed on. In Afia’s case, she has a sword rammed through her chest which she can rip out and use to teleport to enemies, a useful ability for someone who likes the pirate life and finds plenty of people standing between her and the treasure.
The game opens with Afia hunting for the Red Marley, a living ship formerly captained by the now-deceased Mordechai. The ship has been captured by the Inquisition and its crew of Cursed are at risk of being snuffed out thanks to the Inquisition’s various Rites. Rumours of riches hidden by Mordechai have brought Afia to the Marley, though, and once it’s freed she’ll need to resurrect the crew one by one through the use of Black Pearls and Soul magic so that they solve Mordechai’s riddle and grab the gold.
If it all sounds a bit heavy on the made-up names and weirdness then you would be right, but Mimimi does an excellent job at getting you up to speed and comfortable in their amazing world. Talking skulls, living ships, crazy religions, and undead pirates with magic powers sounds like the kind of thing my fantasy-loving brain would come up with, and I’m here for every minute of it. I’d love to see more of this world, its history and its people which makes it all the more devastating that Mimimi are closing their doors. Still, what Mimimi has left us with is an entertaining yarn brimming with cool characters, humour and adventure.
Like in Desperados 3 the ability to save and reload in seconds is a massive part of the experience. Save scumming isn’t just encouraged, it has been cleverly woven into the story itself, providing a plot-based reason for being able to rewind time and undo mistakes. You see, it’s the Red Marley herself who is capturing these moments in time and unleashing past ones, a powerful ability that has served her and her crew extremely well. In fact, the God-like viewpoint from which you control your crew of 3 on missions is explained as being the Marley watching from afar. I love it when developers attempt to marry mechanics and story like this, and Mimimi takes it a step further with a fantastic mid-game plot twist that I won’t spoil for fear of being keel-hauled – suffice to say, it’s really cool.
The non-beating heart and cursed soul of Shadow Gambit is the crew of pirate misfits, three of whom you get to take on almost every mission. Take Quentin, for example, his skull is made of solid gold and can be tossed to lure greedy guards to their deaths. His fishing rod can be used to snatch up bodies to hide in the treasure chest on his back, or it can yank allies over walls and up cliffs. Pinkus, a former nobleman with a rather puffed-up ego, has the ability to possess guards, letting him ambulate around a fairly large area freely or even chat with other guards as a means of distraction. Ship cook Toya is an assassin turned chef who can not only perform fast kills but can teleport from any distance to a special item he can drop or attach to guards. Or what about Gaelle – The cannon strapped to her back can be used to launch enemies and allies alike across the map. She’s particularly effective when partnered with Quentin because she can blast Quentin up to a high point where he can then bust out his fishing rod to yank everyone else up there. And then there’s my favourite, John Mercury, the Scottish lad with an anchor strapped to his back. With his best friend in tow (a fish named Sir Reginald) John can enter the Below and drag enemies down with him, immediately hiding the body.
In total, the game offers up 8 characters who all feel unique and interesting, completely changing up the dynamic depending on the combination you field. Sure, you could argue that some of their powers are actually quite similar, like several variations of teleporting or noise-based distractions, but I found enough differences to justify each member of Red Marley’s crew. You’ll likely wind up with favourites, too, which is why there’s a system in place called Vigor. Basically, Vigor is used to buy a big upgrade for each crew member that radically powers up their main skill, like John being able to hide allies in the Below as well. Filling up the Vigor bar is slow which is why Mimimi smartly made it so that unused crew members accrue Vigor. If you take them on a mission you get the Vigor, encouraging you to use different characters rather than just stick with the same trio.
Games like this typically don’t spend too much time getting to know its characters, so I was pleasantly surprised that Mimimi tried to give each crew member a solid sense of identity. Between missions, you hang out on the Marley and there are optional little side-quests that are mostly focused on some goofy antics, like Toya meeting a weird fish that wants to become his apprentice for a secret mission, or Gaelle setting up a poetry slam to cheer up a sad skeleton. The meatier experiences come later when each crewmate gets a few specific missions addressing past regrets, filling out some of their backstories regarding how they become Cursed and such. It really helps to flesh out the crew which is important because some of them don’t have much flesh left.
Enemies are scattered around the place with heaps of overlapping cones of view designed to ensure that if one of them is taken down the others will see it. At any time you can select a guard to see that cone of vision, too, with hatched lines denoting where it’s safe to crouch-walk through. You can also drop a little marker where dotted lines will indicate what guards can see it and when which is very handy for plotting some shenanigans.
Succeeding in Shadow Gambit is much like untying a tricky knot: find the right piece and a little tug will unravel the whole thing. Grab the wrong bit and you’ll probably end up with a tighter knot. As I played the game it wasn’t unusual for me to spend 10 minutes just staring at a section of the map, figuring out what bit I needed to pull on to make it all come apart. That might mean a chance to lure a guard into a quiet corner, or a small gap where a sneaky pirate can saunter through. It could also mean dousing a flame so that John can walk past unseen, or using Teresa’s crossbow to eliminate a sniper while Afia’s time-freeze skill ensures a guard can’t spot the crumpling body. There’s a lot of pleasure to be gleaned from figuring out these puzzles, each one as satisfying as the last. One of my favourites is using footprints to lure a guard into an environmental trap.
That isn’t to say you can’t take a bolder approach, mind you – the Marley’s powers and the speed with which saves can be reloaded mean you can go in guns blazing without consequences. But while you can do it, Shadow Gambit: The Cursed Crew really does want to be a stealth game first and foremost, and who are we to argue with the undead? But sometimes a messy situation does require a messy solution.
If you get spotted or a body is found an alarm is sounded and reinforcements will flood the area. This is where the AI falls a little flat because in my experience they’ll mill around for their designated 30 seconds and then return to their patrols. Again, to their credit, Mimimi has written in a narrative reason as to why the Inquisition follow very strict paths and are so willing to return to them, but it doesn’t counter the fact that hiding from searching guards is pretty easy. These guys aren’t going to be winning any awards for the best Hid and Seek players.
I wouldn’t have minded a little more enemy variety, too. There are officers who can’t be distracted and special Prognosticators who require two crewmembers to take down, but overall the variety is a little thin, especially for a campaign that runs about 25-30 hours. Yup, you heard that right: this is a chunky game with an even chunkier endgame if you enjoy chasing fun challenges.
A lot of the time the solution requires multiple guards to be terminated in tandem, a tough task when you’re wrangling three characters at once. That’s where Shadow Mode comes in, letting you queue up actions for each character and then executing them with a single button. It’s immensely satisfying to sit back and watch as your crew works in unison to eliminate threats and drag corpses into bushes. While you can only queue movements and a single action you can activate Shadow Mode again after the initial commands are followed, too, so once you get better at using it there’s a lot of room for more complex stuff.
The controls do occasionally fail the game, though, at least on console. It’s very easy to target the wrong thing, especially in the heat of the moment. You can swap between objects like ladders, doors and more using the RS but when you’re working with a small gap of just a few seconds frantically clicking the stick is cumbersome. It’s not a huge problem, just one that indicates Shadow Gambit: The Cursed Crew feels best on PC.
Mimimi took a different approach to their level design this time around, swapping from the more bespoke levels and set pieces of their past games to islands that you revisit over and over. The smaller ones only house a mission or two, but the larger ones will see you and the crew return a couple of times with the idea being that you’ll choose a different landing point and chase different objectives. One island is covered in greenery that makes up a living being known as Dreadvine, another features a magically exploded lighthouse and another still is a giant Inquisition prison. There’s plenty of variety in the scenery as well as the missions, like rescuing another pirate crew from their fate at the hands of the Inquisition. A lot of games shoot for the idea of letting players approach things in whatever order they want, but Shadow Gambit succeeds where others routinely fail, especially in that you can unlock the crew in any order you like.
Mostly, this idea of bigger play areas works pretty well and Mimimi obviously put in a lot of work to account for all of the crew’s differing skills. Playing through a mission with one set of characters is very different to tackling it with a fresh trio of troublemakers, and they’re all worth using, making it a real joy to return to an island with a different gang. Talking to other people and watching videos make it clear that the way I tackled missions was very different to how they did. But the new design philosophy does mean that levels can’t make the most out of each set of abilities and that Shadow Gambit lacks any big, cool setpieces unlike a few of Mimimi’s previous titles.
For those who like to wrestle the most value out of their games that they can, the adventure doesn’t end at the final mission. You can go back and replay every mission from before and collect a whole bunch of challenge coins, with the reward being a secret character becoming playable once you hit 85% completion. I hit that mark in order to get the Platinum trophy and had a blast doing it, but the extra character fell a little flat, in my opinion. Plus, by the time you reach a high enough completion, I’m not sure you’re going to want to spend much more time playing anyway.
I wish I had access to the Red Marley’s powers because this is the kind of game I would love to go back and experience afresh. It’s so tightly designed from end to end, smartly tying in its gameplay mechanics with its story in ways I think a lot of other games could learn from. While I think some players might prefer the structure of Desperados 3, the supernatural pirate theme, big environments and excellent characters make Shadow Gambit: The Cursed Crew the best game Mimimi has ever made, and a fantastic way to wrap up their career.
Yo ho, it’s the pirate’s life for me.