Shadow Gambit: The Cursed Crew Review – Pirates of the Scare-ibbean

The Dishonored games are some of my absolute favorite games of all time, and the same could be said for the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy for movies. I don’t know if Shadow Gambit: The Cursed Crew has effectively communicated that its world is a perfect meeting of these two things in the marketing, but to me, that’s the seller. While it is slow to get started and doesn’t offer the variety of options that Dishonored or Hitman does, Shadow Gambit is a smart meeting of tactical strategy and stealth with a dose of immersive sim and an outstanding aesthetic. And you get to be an undead magical pirate assassin, so there’s that.

Shadow Gambit sets players in a world of strange magic, cultists, curses, and plenty of booty. Argh! You’ll take control of Captain Afia, who has been cursed and is a living skeleton that neither lives nor dies. After the Curse of Lost Souls traps her crew in an undead nightmare, Afia gathers black pearls from around the Lost Caribbean Islands to revive her crew one-by-one. But stay on your toes, ye bilge rat! The Inquisition, a dangerous cult harnessing magic under the guise of God’s direction, is hunting the Cursed Crew and won’t stop until you’re all in Davey Jones’ locker.

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Controlling multiple characters in a stealth game is new to me, and adds a great layer of strategy.

You may have noticed that Shadow Gambit is not shy about its Pirates of the Caribbean inspiration. This is for the best, as the world of highly strange magic and darkness would be hard to immerse oneself in without it as a reference. Afia and her crewmates make their way through the chain of lost islands, taking out powerful figures in the Inquisition, rescuing hostages, finding information, and trying to find a way to break the curse once and for all.

Before each level, you can choose up to three crewmates to take with you. Each one has a set of different powers, some of which are suspiciously similar to Dishonored, but again this is a nod, not a rip-off. In isometric view, the way these powers like Blink and Stop Time work is completely different to their inspiration, and the tactical nature of the game puts it at a much slower pace. There are also a few RPG elements present in Shadow Gambit, but it’s mostly just you deciding which crew members and which powers to upgrade first with your XP; it’s fairly inconsequential.

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We’ll have to take out the guards before going for the Custodes.

You’ll choose a launching point on an overhead map of the island you’re visiting and be given clear instructions on what your next mission is. This is very helpful if you’re not super into the story, which I wasn’t. While the aesthetic, premise, character design, music, and theming is perfect, I’ve found Shadow Gambit’s story to be very simple and lacking. It’s enough to frame the gameplay, but I found myself skipping cutscenes after a few hours. One extremely cool feature is that if you roll the mouse wheel to zoom out the view enough, it smoothly transitions into your paper map with a big black X on your destination. Then you simply roll the mouse wheel back down to transition back into the game. I wish more games had this instead of clicking a button to open a map, because it greatly adds to the immersion.

The journal entries mark what your next objectives are to progress, but it’s entirely up to you on how to approach them. While Shadow Gambit doesn’t have true immersive sim-levels of experimentation available, it does at the very least allow you to approach your obstacles in a variety of ways. I was a bit disappointed at how few options there were to interact with the environment; for instance, I saw a crate hanging above a guard, but when I shot it with my gun it didn’t fall or even react. I had to walk over to the rope and hold down left click to undo the knot, and that was the only way to activate the trap.

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I’m summoning!

I want to commend some of the powers that Shadow Gambit has presented, especially the ones not seen in the Dishonored games. Suleidy has the ability to toss a seed that instantly creates a bush that can be used for hiding. Creating cover that blends in with the terrain is great, and in addition if you drag a guard’s body into the bush it’ll consume them instantly. The bush can also be used for blocking sight lines, confusing guards and more. It’s easily my most used power and super versatile.

I also love the designs and names of the enemies. First of all, when guards spot you, they shine an iron light your way while investigating. As an undead, this light burns you and removes a hit point with each passing second (you start with 4 HP). This is a fantastic and fresh way of doing stealth, because even if you’re not seen and confronted, if the light hits you while guards are investigating you’ll take some damage. All hits are instant kills in Shadow Gambit, whether you’re a player or an NPC, and this once again really works. No messing around trying to hide again after being seen.

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I can’t believe I trusted the glowing green skeleton man.

Much like Dishonored, Shadow Gambit boasts a quick save and quick load icon right on the HUD and encourages you to save scum and reload dozens of times at each obstacle. In fact, a giant green bell appears when you complete taking out a guard or sneaking to a new area to remind you to save scum. Any fan of Dishonored knows it’s all about try and try again, figuring out that perfect combination of powers, planning, and movement to execute the plan. Shadow Gambit definitely scratches that immersive sim itch for me just a bit, making a plan and expertly executing it.

I should mention too that Shadow Gambit is not an easy game on its default difficulty. Guards are perceptive and move around a lot, so it’s important to have that game sense of where all your pirates are at every second. While there is no grid, this game absolutely retains that tactical strategy element of challenging your ability to think about multiple possibilities at any given second.

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Toya has a very cool ability to lay down a teleport marker and blink back to it for a quick assassination.

I played Shadow Gambit on my PC with an RTX 2060 Super and Ryzen 5 3600, keeping it at 1440p/144 FPS on ultra settings the entire time. I had zero tech issues, and didn’t encounter a single bug, glitch, or frame rate drop. I am very impressed with performance. Shadow Gambit is built for MKB controls and feels very smooth that way, so I urge you not to use a controller if possible.

Shadow Gambit: The Cursed Crew is probably a better isometric variant on Dishonored than last year’s Weird West, made by ex-Arkane Studios developers. As a stealth and tactical strategy game it excels, and at its best moments it gives me a little bit of the kick that I so desperately miss from immersive sims like Hitman and Prey. While I found the story exceedingly boring, the consistent theming and art direction more than make up for it. I wish there was a little more freedom by way of a physics system in Shadow Gambit, but as it is I think stealth and strategy fans are in for a chilling and beautiful adventure. Yo ho, yo ho, a pirate’s life for me!

Nirav played Shadow Gambit: The Cursed Crew on PC with a code provided by the publisher. The game is also available on Xbox Series X/S and PlayStation 5 on August 17, 2023.


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