With games like Starfield, Tears of the Kingdom, and Baldur’s Gate 3 all coming out within a few months of each other, 2023 feels like the year of the crowd-pleaser. If you weren’t looking for them, you may have missed the parade of more niche but equally incredible indies springing to life at the same time. And one recent entry into this year’s roster of overlooked but unmissable gems may even be the last of its kind.
It’s not often that you see one developer practically own an entire genre, but it’s a thrilling thing to see the same team hone an idea to perfection. At the same time, it means the existence of your favorite genre may rest with the fate of a single developer. Shadow Gambit: The Cursed Crew is the culmination of nearly a decade spent perfecting one type of game, and a farewell to Mimimi Games at the height of its powers.
Mimimi is also responsible for 2016’s Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun, and Desperados 3 — which built on the series’ previous two games from the now-shuttered developer Spellbound. From Shadow Tactics to Shadow Gambit, Mimimi’s stock-in-trade has been a unique type of stealth game they call real-time stealth strategy, a genre that also includes Commandos and very little else.
Played from a top-down perspective, Shadow Gambit gives you a crew of three sneaky pirates and sets you loose on sprawling maps filled with trigger-happy guards. It’s the same formula Mimimi has been working with for years, but this time, a fantastical premise sets the developer free in a way its historical settings never have before.
In the world of Shadow Gambit, the undead are commonplace, as is the occupying colonial force of the Inquisition. Shadow Gambit centers on Afia, an undead pirate who forges a pact with a sentient ship to hunt down a treasure belonging to said ship’s former captain.
Named the Red Marley, the ship lends the assistance of its crew, every member of which is both cursed and blessed with supernatural powers. There’s Suleidy, who can pull convenient cover out of thin air; Pinkus von Presswald, who can possess guards; and Gaëlle, who can scoop up enemies and allies alike and fire them out of her cannon. That one feels a little less magical, but it’s still extremely satisfying.
By the end, you’ll have eight crew members to choose from for each mission, each with wildly different but complementary skills. You’re free to mix and match as you choose, building a team that will synergize just right for each mission.
While each mission plays out in basically the same way — swoop in, eliminate all the guards in your way, and reach your objective before they know what hit them — they all feel like unique puzzles. You’ll not only be visiting some diverse locales over the course of the game, you’re also facing a wide range of foes both mystical and mundane.
Every stage in Shadow Gambit feels like an intricately crafted puzzle box. Guards’ sightlines and the geography of each level work to necessitate a slightly different approach every time, and that approach varies a lot based on who you bring with you. Even the most seemingly impregnable fortress can fall to your tactics if you just find the right way in and start dismantling it piece by piece.
Even with supernatural skills at your disposal, sending a crew of rotting pirates against the entire Inquisition is tricky business. Fortunately, Shadow Gambit is the perfect game to play after honing your quick-save abilities on Baldur’s Gate 3. It actually makes save scumming an in-universe power, cleverly recasting it as the ability to defy fate. Saving and loading are just as much part of your arsenal as any other power, which encourages quick decision making and experimentation over laborious planning.
Shadow Gambit is a triumph of clever level design and inventive abilities, but it’s the small details that make it shine. You can pause at any time to perfectly synchronize attacks or ping a location to see exactly who has it in sight. Guards’ sightlines are also clearly delineated, so if you wander into danger, it never feels like you didn’t have enough information to make the right choice.
Design details like that come from a developer operating at the top of its craft, but unfortunately, it’s also Mimimi Games’ last hurrah. The developer announced in late August 2023 that Shadow Gambit will be its last game, citing the increasing personal and financial burden of working in a genre that’s not a guaranteed seller. If there’s a better example of why seeking out and supporting lesser-known games is important, I can’t imagine what it would be. For now, it’s a great time to check out Shadow Gambit — it may turn out to be the best stealth strategy game ever made.