By | August 11, 2023
The Lamplighters League may be about to tear up the XCOM rulebook

The rest of the RPS Treehouse can be completely absorbed by Baldur’s Gate 3 at the moment, but the main thing that has been on my mind for the past few weeks is stealth strategy game. Primarily the extraordinarily excellent Shadow Gambit: The Cursed Crewbut also Harebrained Scheme’s upcoming turn-based tactics ’em up, Lamplighters Leaguea game I’ve been quietly looking forward to ever since it was announced earlier this year.

Specifically, I’ve played through a handful of missions from the middle of The Lamplighters League’s campaign, to get a handle on the full roster of agents and their unique skill sets. It continues to be as stylish as opening mission that I played in May, but I’m not going to lie. I’ve had quite a bit of whiplash straight from Shadow Gambit going into this, but even if I’d come in fresh and green, I don’t think even all my years of tactical gaming and XCOM-liking would have been enough to prepare me for how damn hard is it.

A woman with a gun prepares to shoot at a target inside a museum in The Lamplighters League
Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Paradox Interactive

In its defense, there’s definitely an element of being thrown into the middle of the campaign cold here, and I’m 100% missing the familiar muscle memory that would undoubtedly help me see better synergies between its ten-strong cast of characters. I also can’t tell you exactly which of its three difficulty modes I played on, as the save file I got simply shows up as “Custom Difficulty” in the load menu rather than Explorer (new to tactics games) Options , Adventurer (familiar with tactics games) or Survivor (tactical game veterans) you get when you start a new game from scratch.

Fire engulfs several fighters in The Lamplighters League
Literally everything burned during this mission, including my agents. | Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Paradox Interactive

I suspect that what I’ve been playing has leaned pretty heavily on the survival scale, as the custom game settings default to their combat and metagame (ie world map) both set to Hard, so it’s entirely possible that I’ve been thrown in real the depth here. Unfortunately, there’s no way to change your difficulty setting mid-game, or revert to the custom rules you might have set for yourself, so I honestly can’t say one way or the other here.

I hope what I have played is But more Survivor than Adventurer, because if it’s not, hoo boy, this is going to be a lot harder to love than I first thought. Part of that I think is because during many of my early mission attempts I tried to play it as an XCOM-like. For example, before heading into battle in Lamplighters, you’re presented with a large world map and tons of possible mission types. Each is associated with one of the three evil factions seeking to take over the world, and completing missions will push back the dials of their special Doomsday Clocks. It’s game over (potentially) when one of those bells gets full, and the game emphasizes that you can’t keep all three bells away forever – you’ll have to make calls and make decisions about your priorities as you race to open up its titular Tower At The End Of The World by collecting four magical end stones.

The Lamplighters League world map
The world map shows how you’re doing against each faction’s progress, and choosing a mission will show you how much it will reduce the clock’s progress by (see the white band on the Nicastro and Marteau clocks). | Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Paradox Interactive

So far so XCOM. Likewise, as you may remember from mine first hands-off demos already in March, Lamplighter missions are divided into two sections. You start off in a real-time infiltration mode where you can get a feel for the map and where your target is, and you can use your limited set of takedown attacks to take out a couple of lagging guards along the way if you’re stealthy enough. I only had two of these per agent in this preview, so you won’t be able to sneak the whole thing. Eventually, the only option left for you will be to enter turn-based battles.

However, you can use your infiltration moments to your advantage by splitting up your group to get them into useful positions before the action starts, hopefully setting the board up for a quick and easy win. When I played the opening level it seemed to work like a treat to hunt behind decent cover and lean into those years of XCOM-ing. Enemy numbers were manageable, adding some pressure, but not too much, so I naturally assumed the rest of the game would follow suit.

Several enemies surround the player in a museum in The Lamplighters League
They say to play dirty, but come on, 13 vs. 3 isn’t a fair fight no matter what tactics you try to take… | Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Paradox Interactive

But after getting soundly defeated in every mission I’ve attempted so far, losing all three of my agents in the process (which is pretty awful in Lamplighters, since they’re removed from the game on death, not so much in a sense, but you have to fight to get them back later in the game), I’m starting to think that the early assumptions may have been wrong, and that I may need to learn some of my XCOM drills to appreciate this better. When I started playing it more like a heist game, for example, playing defensively in combat but still actively moving forward towards my objective instead of turtleing in one place, I had a bit more success. I still only made it through my teeth, as the sheer number of enemies I had to fend off was, to put it mildly, terrifyingly overwhelming.

The three agents you bring into each mission are all very capable in their own right, but even my favorite speedy trio of two-shot man Eddie, sneaky evasion master Lateef, and healer Ana Sofia just aren’t enough to effectively handle (in one mission, at least ) 14 other gun birds alone. Fourteen! It wasn’t really even an exception either, as other quests were just as crowded, throwing six, nine, even ten bodies at me at once in a single encounter, all of which had as much health as my lot (if not significantly 15-20 level armor rating to boot), and all of which can seemingly do twice as much damage per attack as well. In short, if I let even two or three of them get anywhere near me, it was effectively off, both for the first agent and the one I would send in to “stabilize” them afterwards to bring them back to life . Agents can hang around for three turns before really taking it in The Lamplighters League, but when your enemies are so aggressively capable of wiping you out, even losing one for a single turn can be fatal to your chances of success.

Several enemies surround two downed agents in a desert in The Lamplighters League
Needless to say, this one didn’t end well either… | Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Paradox Interactive

As I said, making an effort to always move forward helped to some extent, but even this is how Lamplighters should be played, I worry that taking this kind of approach also completely misses the point of it being a turn-based tactics game in the first place. If the best chance you have is to simply defend, take pot-shots, and not really engage (or at least not as much as you would in a traditional strategy game like this), what incentive is there to try new strategies and agent combinations ? It doesn’t seem to be conducive to experimentation, because there simply isn’t the bandwidth to try anything.

Admittedly, many of your agents’ abilities aren’t focused on pure damage dealing. Rather, most of the extras you can unlock by spending your universal pool of skill points are focused on buffs, debuffs, and passives, and many of them link well with other agents in your crew, or at least can be used in tandem to get more critical hits when using your attacks. There’s definitely depth to be enjoyed and exploited here, but when, say, Shadow Gambit’s crew can work together in almost any combination and still be a fun time, I feel like Lamplighters gravitates towards very specific combinations being good, while everything anything else is just asking to shoot you in the foot. Hence the whiplash.

A man in a pilot's jacket fires two guns inside a museum in The Lamplighters League
God bless you Eddie, you did your best… | Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Paradox Interactive

In short, I need to spend more time with The Lamplighters League, and especially more time with it from the beginning, and hopefully on a more pleasant difficulty setting. I’m still quietly hopeful for its October 3rd release, but I may also have to hold my hands up in soulsian-like defeat if what I’ve played in this mid-campaign turns out to be just another day at the office in its Adventurer setting. I’d like to think there’s a more approachable game here – just as the opening mission seemed to suggest – because, hey, I’m not against retraining my brain and trying new things! I’ll try anything if I know what a game expects from me. But if you think this is just another XCOM lookalike, you could be in for a pretty rough ride. I will hopefully report back soon, closer to release.

#Lamplighters #League #tear #XCOM #rulebook

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