The Lamplighters League might be about to rip up the XCOM rulebook

The rest of the RPS Treehouse might be fully engrossed in Baldur’s Gate 3 at the moment, but the main thing that’s been on my mind for the last couple of weeks is stealthy strategy games. Primarily, the exceedingly excellent Shadow Gambit: The Cursed Crew, but also Harebrained Scheme’s upcoming turn-based tactics ’em up, The Lamplighters League, a game I’ve been quietly looking forward to ever since it was announced earlier this year.

Specifically, I’ve been playing through a handful of missions from the middle of The Lamplighters League’s campaign, getting to grips with its full roster of agents and their unique set of skills. It continues to be just as stylish as the opening mission I played in May, but I’m not gonna lie. I’ve had quite a bit of whiplash coming straight from Shadow Gambit into this, but even if I’d arrived fresh and green, I don’t think even all my years of tactics playing and XCOM-liker-liking would have been enough to prepare me for just how gosh darn difficult it is.

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

In its defence, there’s definitely an element of being chucked into the middle of the campaign cold here, and I’m 100% lacking that familiar muscle memory that would no doubt 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 was playing on, as the save file that was provided to me simply comes up as ‘Custom Difficulty’ in the loading menu rather than the Explorer (new to tactics games), Adventurer (familiar with tactics games) or Survivor (veterans of tactics games) options you get when starting a new game from scratch.

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

I suspect what I’ve been playing has been leaning quite heavily into the Survivor end of the scale, as by default, the Custom Game Settings have their combat and metagame (that is, world map stuff) both set to Hard, so it’s entirely possible I’ve been chucked into the real deep end here. Unfortunately, there’s no way to change your difficulty setting mid-game, or revisit those custom rules you might have set for yourself, so I honestly can’t say one way or the other here.

I hope what I’ve played is more Survivor than Adventurer, though, because if it isn’t, then hoo boy, this is going to be a lot harder to love than I first anticipated. Part of that, I think, is because for a lot of my early mission attempts, I was trying to play it like an XCOM-like. For example, before you head into combat in Lamplighters, you’re presented with a big world map and lots of possible mission types. Each one is associated with one of the three evil factions trying to take over the world, and completing missions will push back the dials on their particular Doomsday clocks. It’s game over (potentially) when one of these clocks becomes full, and the game stresses that you can’t keep all three clocks at bay forever – you’ll have to make calls and decisions on what you prioritise as you race to open up its titular Tower At The End Of The World by collecting four magical keystones.

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

So far, so XCOM. Likewise, as you may recall from my initial hands-off demo impressions back in March, Lamplighter missions are split into two sections. You begin in a real-time infiltration mode where you can get a feel for the map and where your objective is, and you can use your limited set of takedown attacks to take out a couple of straggler guards along the way if you’re stealthy enough. I only had two of these per agent in this preview build, so you won’t be able to stealth the whole thing. Eventually, the only option left to you will be to enter into turn-based combat.

You can use your infiltration moments to your advantage, though, splitting up your group to get them into useful positions before the action kicks off, and, hopefully, setting up the board for a quick and easy win. When I played the opening level, hunkering down behind decent cover and leaning into those years of XCOM-ing seemed to work a treat. Enemy numbers were manageable, adding a little pressure, but not too much, and so I naturally assumed that the rest of the game would follow suit.

Several enemies surround the player inside 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 and take… | Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Paradox Interactive

But having been roundly defeated in every mission I’ve tried my hand at so far, and losing all three of my agents in the process (which is quite dire in Lamplighters, as they get removed from play on death, not so much in a permadeath sense, but you’ll have to fight to get them back later on in the game), I’m beginning to think those early assumptions might have been incorrect, and that I might need to unlearn some of my XCOM exercises 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 toward my objective instead of turtling in one place, I had a bit more success. I still only managed it by the skin of my teeth, though, as the sheer number of enemies I had to fend off was, to put it lightly, frighteningly overwhelming.

The three agents you take into each mission are all very capable in their own right, but even my fast favourite trio of two-shot gunman Eddie, sneaky evasion master Lateef and healer Ana Sofia just aren’t enough to effectively deal with (in one mission, at least) 14 other gun-toting goons by themselves. Fourteen! That wasn’t really even an exception, either, as other missions were similarly crowded, chucking six, nine, even ten bodies at me at once in a single encounter, and who all had just as much health as my lot (if not significant 15-20 level armour ratings to boot), and who could all 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 lights out, both for that initial agent, and the one I’d send in to ‘stabilise’ them afterwards to bring them back to life. Agents can hang on for three turns before truly carking it in The Lamplighters League, but when your enemies are so aggressively capable at wiping you out, even losing one for a single turn can be deadly to your chance 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 the effort to always be moving forward did help to a degree, but even if 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 engaging (or at least not as much as you would in a traditional strategy game like this), then what impetus is there to try new strategies and agent combinations? It doesn’t seem conducive experimentation, as there simply isn’t the bandwidth to try anything.

Admittedly, a lot of your agents’ abilities aren’t focused on pure damage-dealing. Rather, most of the extra ones you can unlock by spending your universal pool of skill points are geared around buffs, debuffs and passives, and many of them do link up nicely with other agents in your crew, or at least can be used in tandem to help land more critical hits when you do use your attacks. There’s clearly depth to be enjoyed and exploited here, but when, say, Shadow Gambit’s crew can work together in pretty much any combination and still be a fun time, I feel like Lamplighters is pulling towards very specific combinations being good, while anything else is just begging to shoot you in the foot. Hence the whiplash.

A man in a pilot jacket fires two guns inside a museum in The Lamplighters League
God bless, you Eddie, you tried 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 agreeable difficulty setting. I’m still quietly hopeful for it ahead of its release on October 3rd, but I may also have to hold up my hands in Soulsian-like defeat if what I’ve played in this middle section of the campaign ends up being just another day in the office on its Adventurer setting. I want to believe there’s a more approachable game in here – just like the opening mission seemed to suggest – because, hey, I’m not averse to re-training my brain and trying new things! I’ll give anything a go if I know what a game expects of me. But if you go in thinking this is just another XCOM-like, you might be in for a pretty rough ride. I’ll hopefully report back soon, closer to release.

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