What would pop culture be without undead pirates? A certain entertainment giant wouldn’t have a classic franchise on its hands. And the idea of skeletons and curses on the open sea probably wouldn’t be as widely accepted. But gaming has always had great pirate stories. From Guybrush Threepwood to the Sea of Thieves, there are a myriad of swashbuckling tales told in different genres. It is very surprising then that we don’t have many stealth-focused strategy games in the vein. This is where Shadow Gambit The Cursed Crew comes in.
Shadow Gambit: The Cursed Crew is a stealth strategy game that fully embraces the idea of save scumming to the point that it is a central pillar of the game’s story. Players are first introduced to the ambitious, yet wide-eyed wandering pirate, Afia Manicato. She’s on a quest for fame and fortune and she knows that getting on the good side of the infamous crew of the Red Marley is part of building her legend. And so is putting down the Inquisitor that’s been on the heels of the lost & damned.
Joining her on this little venture is the crew of the Red Marley. These misfits all have stories to tell. More importantly, they are the key to finding Captain Mordechai’s fabled treasure.
At its core, Shadow Gambit is a stealth game. But unlikely other games where save scumming is almost looked down upon, you are actively encouraged to save often and reload as many times as you want until you get that perfectly coordinated split-second multi-kill execution. This is done via memory capture. Memories are saved with a press of a button. Marley then stores those memories to be unleashed at a later time. It’s literally sanctioned save scumming and I absolutely love it. Memories being a central plot point to the story is icing on the cake.
All the pirates under the player’s control have two active abilities. Now don’t go selling them short just cause they don’t have a dozen unique skills to dominate enemies. Instead, they are all meant to synergy with every other ability on the team. Just like your powers over save states, you can press a button to freeze time and have all members of the team use their abilities at once. I can tell you from experience, that there are few things as satisfying as watching your entire team kill a room of enemies in the time it takes for someone to blink an eye.
And it doesn’t matter who you have on the team. One way or another, it’s going to work out. In fact, the game gives you a reason to have a rotating roster of active members. Crew not chosen on the current mission will generate more Vigor. This resource is used to upgrade crew mates. Bringing them on the next mission will grant you extra vigor after the mission ends. It’s a great way for you to not stick to favorites and have them be on every mission. (Yes, I’m taking shots at Xcom. We all have that one super soldier that we’d sacrifice entire squads for just to keep alive.)
Anyway, it also really helps that the game provides you with all the tools necessary to win encounters. You can see enemy vision cones, pan the camera around to see who’s lurking around the corner, and a top-down aerial view of the whole map with all the locations of both enemy and ally.
There’s not much in the way of enemy variety in Shadow Gambit. You have enemies that will move to investigate anything remotely suspicious. Enemies that won’t move no matter what gets their attention. And then enemies that’ll require teamwork to properly kill. This isn’t a knock on the game by any means. Enemies are arranged in very specific ways and there’s an order in which they need to be tackled. Finding a solution with what you have on hand makes you feel like the smartest strategist to ever live.
“Five of Marley’s Crew Assemble.”
The story centers around a mythical treasure left behind by a pirate named Mordechai, the previous captain of the Red Marley. Things have been a little rocky since the captain met his end at the hands of the Inquisition. Afia steps in as a guiding force and uses the treasure as a carrot to keep everyone’s interest in line. But they are bound by a sense of loyalty to the captain. Seeing the treasure fall to a bunch of zealots is unforgivable in their eyes.
The game really opens up after Act 1 and the reviving of a third crew member. You have more choices about where to go and what leads to pursuit. You’ll still want to pick up more crewmates, but they’ll come as you progress your quest. By the end of Act 2, you’ll have enough to make two whole teams and a chance to strike back at the Inquisition. And we’re only just warming up.
The pacing in this game is excellent. You are constantly switching between missions that earn you Soul Energy and Black Pearls, the resources you need to revive crewmates back to active service. You can learn more about the crew and earn some points by doing Crew Tale objectives on the ship. It’s not much but I really enjoyed listening to their stories and how they fit in with the rest of the crew. And all the while, we’re inching ever closer to the treasure at the end and all the consequence that comes from chasing after it.
One of the things that took me completely by surprise was the fact the game was fully voiced in every scene. I was expecting some scenes to be voiceless in some places since it follows VN (visual novel) conversations. But that wasn’t the case at all. The art is vibrant and while it draws much from the undead pirate aesthetic, it does enough to stand out.
I don’t have much to complain about Shadow Gambit. More on little nitpicks that I picked up over the course of the game. The most annoying are the edge cases that invalidate certain actions. Pinkus is the prime offender. If an enemy is a hair outside his maximum range, he can’t do anything to them. Something similar happens to Gaelle too, but in her case, it’s like you lose the ability to kill after upgrading her ability. All I wanted was for her to load people into cannons faster, I didn’t know it came at the cost of losing an ability.
Shadow Gambit The Cursed Crew hits all the right notes when it comes to a stealth strategy game. It would have been an okay game even without the memory shenanigans regardless. But that simply wasn’t going to cut it. It’s clear that the developers wanted this title to be of the highest quality possible. And it shows. Shadow Gambit is a solidly entertaining game that has the same level of awareness as Guybrush breaking the 4th wall. I can’t recommend this game enough if you are into stealth strategy games.
Shadow Gambit The Cursed Crew – Review
Almost perfect if not for the nitty-gritty. If it’s quite there but not enough to push the boundaries, it’s still an awesome game.
Interesting cast of characters
All conversations are fully voiced
A nice spin on save scumming as a central mechanic
One of the better stealth strategy games to come out in a while
Some edge cases that make certain actions inconsistent
Needs more clarity when it comes to one time upgrades