Ever since the makers of Desperados 3 and Shadow Tactics announced their brand new squad tactics game, I've been dying to get my hands on Shadow Gambit: The Cursed Crew. While Mimimi's previous games took place in mostly grounded historical settings, Shadow Gambit is about magical undead pirates hunting for mysterious booty and fighting a persecutive Inquisition. This shift into the supernatural is quite the change for Mimimi, which creative director Dominik Abé tells me was partly to challenge themselves as designers, but also so players could have a bit more fun with how they approached its plentiful stealth encounters.
"One thing we wanted for sure was that we had something that's not grounded in a realistic setting," Abé tells me. "That was a requirement for all the pitches we did internally, and that's because we wanted to improve on the gameplay. We were restricted by realism, so that was a core pillar. It had to be something fantasy, or sci-fi or something non-realistic."
Shadow Gambit is a strategic stealth game in which you'll be captaining a band of pirates around the Lost Caribbean, sneaking into enemy encampments, stabbing unsuspecting guards in the back, and making off with your treasure undetected. Each crew member comes with their own set of unique abilities, and combining them to create ingenious, perfectly executed takedowns is all part of the fun.
During its conception stage, the ideas for Shadow Gambit came thick and fast, Abé says, and it was their lead writer who eventually struck upon the idea of pirates. Abé is keen to cite pirate games such as Monkey Island being bigger inspirations here than, say, the blockbuster film series Pirates Of The Caribbean, but he also says he was surprised by just how few pirate games there actually are these days. "You think there must be like 1000 pirate movies and 1000 pirate games and then you look it up and you’re like, 'Oh, there aren't that many,'" he laughs. "For children, it's a core fantasy for playing and the toys and stuff, but there’s not so much as I would expect to be out there in movies and literature."
Abé sees this as a positive, though, saying there are "still a lot of things to explore" in the pirate world despite the inevitable comparisons to Jerry Bruckheimer's mega films. Some of the marquee locations we'll be exploring, for example, are quintessential pirate territory, such as the shanty town that lead pirate Afia visits in the game's opening. But there will also be a Treasure Island-style setting, Abé tells me (which was "quite hard because it's pretty empty, the classic Treasure Island," he concedes) as well as a sea fortress and a ship graveyard.
"It wasn’t easy to come up with very original settings or locations," he admits. "That was quite a struggle, but I'm happy with some of the things we haven’t shown yet, and I think they'll push the boundaries there."
Of course, part of the challenge stemmed from their own decision to create more open-ended locations this time, rather than bespoke scenarios like they did for Shadow Tactics and Desperados 3. "Blowing up a bridge was something we couldn't do in this game, because we have these locations we wanted to reuse," Abé explains. "That doesn't work well if you want to visit it, like, four times. That was what we had to rethink most."
There are still distinct areas within its larger islands, I should stress. In my recent preview, for example, an island known as Iron Bay had a foreboding prison to the north surrounding an open volcano vent, an open-air library to the east and some swampy docklands to the south, with different missions focused on different parts of the map. But Abé also confesses that their lack of 'blowing up a bridge' moments may end up making Shadow Gambit's islands feel more "generic" as a result, and he speaks candidly about the challenges they faced in recreating those more bespoke and memorable moments that defined their previous games.
"Something like [Desperados 3's] wedding scene, we can’t pull off that easily right now [in Shadow Gambit]," he says. "In the beginning, this openness has this drawback that it's a little bit more generic, I would say, with you revisiting these locations. But we try to work against this with, for example, the witchy island where you see this giant plant hat and the island is like a living plant. We've tried to have ideas that work with the structure of the missions."
He also points to the character missions that will define Shadow Gambit's later stages as being another opportunity where they could create "a tighter connection between story and objective". Unlike Shadow Gambit's regular missions, where you get to choose your landing party of pirates to take with you, these trips will require particular crewmates to be present, allowing Mimimi to be "more personal and specific in our design," says Abé.
Some of these character missions will be solo endeavours, Abé continues, while others will let you have more crewmates along for the ride. But whatever combination of characters you end up bringing with you, Abé hopes they’ll be entertaining, to say the least. "Sometimes [they’re] maybe too playful," he laughs. "Some are rather weird and strange missions, but I think they'll be fun."
I still think there’s plenty of Mimimi’s trademark playfulness to be found in their regular missions as well, simply because the chance to bring whoever you want with you opens up a tantalising number of possibilities to set your mind alight. But designing for this number of variables was another thing entirely, Abé says.
"In the beginning, it felt quite risky, but we really wanted to take that risk," he explains. "We tested a lot. I think if it had been bigger, we would have needed permanent testing feedback teams or something like that. I don't know if we test a lot compared to other companies, but for us, it was a project where we knew, 'Okay we have to test a lot,' so we'd get team feedback."
These groups consisted of Mimimi veterans, newer Mimimi devs who had less experience with their work, as well as trusted players from their wider community – and after a year and a half of back and forth, Abé says they finally had something that felt like "it's working."
"That was a big relief," he says, "because that moment could have been like, now, with only two months ago or something. Sometimes it's like that. You don't know until the end if it's going to work out. But I think now for over a year or something, we've known the core is working and now we really have to tweak and polish it."
Abé and his team have also worked in incentives to encourage players to switch up their strategies, too. This takes the form of Vigour, which lets characters earn more experience points if you haven't used them in a while. It was a "concern" that players would just use the same three crewmates all the time, Abé explains, but they also found during their testing that if players just gave some crewmates a chance, then they’d become surprisingly fast favourites afterwards.
"We saw players feeling comfortable with three characters, and then they would just test another character for like, five minutes, and be like 'Oh that's not powerful,' and they wouldn't change. […] Then we were like, 'Okay, play with him for another half an hour,' and then they’d come back saying, 'Okay, this is the best character!' We had that so many times, which is super cool, I think."
Some characters did receive vital tweaks based off this kind of feedback, though. "John Mercury was very powerful in the beginning," Abé remembers, "and then all the other characters got more powerful, so he was then lacking something and we had to rebalance them. Another was Gaëlle Le Bris, the cannoness. She felt very weak for some players. She didn’t have a melee attack, as she’s more like a support character. She works super well with the team, so we actually changed the most on her tutorial."
Most tutorials in the game take place after you resurrect your latest crew member. Before you take them into battle, you’re given the option to get to grips with their new skillset in the TARDIS-like bowels of your ship, the Red Marley. Every one I tried during my preview only had that particular character present, but Abé says they needed one more for Gaëlle’s "to make players aware of more powerful playstyles".
As our chat draws to a close, Abé says that Shadow Gambit “definitely feels like the biggest leap” the studio’s taken so far. The alterations they’ve made may “change the core of the game a bit, but I think it’s in a very positive way,” he says. “Now it’s more like a dynamic challenge box, whereas before it was a lot more like a puzzle box game."
Does this mean Mimimi will continue making open-ended stealth strategy games going forward? That remains to be seen, Abé says. "To be honest, it's something that we're really looking for feedback on. I personally would like to stick with that, but you learn a lot as well. For example, the next game might have a more linear structure, but it could also have more openness than we did before because now we're confident with it." He also doesn't rule out returning to a more realistic setting after Shadow Gambit either, although what that might be is anyone's guess right now. Personally, I've very much enjoyed diving into this strange new world of Mimimi's so far, and I hope we get to splash about here a little while longer before lifting anchor and coming back to reality.