Platforms: PC, Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One
Here’s the bad news: you’ve already lost. The Banished Court, a cult controlled by shady industrialists and demon worshippers, has found the Bright Storm, the source of all magic, with which they could reshape reality itself. Worse, the heroic Lamplighters League, a secret organisation of special agents who once kept the Court at bay, has fallen. The good news, though: there’s still a chance to save the world. A new generation of Lamplighters, one formed in desperation out of mercenaries and thieves, may be able to disrupt the Court’s operations enough to buy time to disrupt their plans.
You’ll do that through a mix of XCOM-style turn-based strategy and real-time exploration & stealth. It’s a fascinating mix, and one that, in hindsight, seems bizarre that more games haven’t experimented with before now, as it works incredibly well. The combination results in massive mission maps that have more to offer than a single, lengthy tactical battle. Instead, you might skulk around to pick up enemy intel or supplies without being seen, dodge enemies to rescue an ally or new agent, or engage in a series of smaller turn-based battles as you make your way across the map, picking off enemies in smaller groups. Each mission eats up a week of in-game time though, so you’ll need to choose where to deploy and which of the Banished Court’s three houses to disrupt carefully – if any one of them achieves their nefarious goals, it’s game over, for you and the world.
Set in an alternate 1930s, the influence of pulp adventure novels and movie serials weighs heavily on The Lamplighters League, but filtered through a modern day understanding of that material that’s further skewed by the looming presence of the Indiana Jones series. Both feature globe-hopping treks, mystical macguffins to liberate, and plenty of fascists to punch, but Lamplighters does it with an even more roguish flair thanks to its cast of reluctant recruits. If there’s a Jones in the mix at all, it’s Pelham Locke as a Connery-esque Henry Jones Sr. figure, last survivor of the original Lamplighters and the one responsible for gathering the new crew.
Weaves a gloriously pulpy adventure with high stakes and higher thrills.
The characters you’ll actually be controlling could have been pulled from the pages of pulp fiction-era darlings Amazing Stories or Weird Tales – think femmes fatales and brave adventurers; flighty mystics and deranged super-scientists; two-fisted brawlers and supernatural savants. Thankfully though, they’re all given genre- and stereotype-busting twists by developer Harebrained Schemes. While recruitable Lamplighters all fall into one of three classes – melee focused Bruisers, disruptive Saboteurs, and infiltration-oriented Sneaks, each class bolstered by their own way of taking out enemies before getting into a tactical battle – their designs and play styles often defy archetypal convention.
For instance, while svelte ex(?)-spy Ingrid might, at a glance, be presumed to be a Sneak, she’s actually a Bruiser, capable of dishing out huge amounts of damage up close and chaining together final blows that can see her punch out an entire field of enemies. Burly World War I vet Eddie, meanwhile, looks every bit the Bruiser, but is instead a Saboteur with a predilection for guns (he’s American), who can keep distant enemies at bay while also being able to pick locks outside of battle. Later characters mix things up further within their classes, such as mind-controlling, poison wielding Célestine, a Sneak whose play style feels completely different to Lateef, the first Sneak you’ll gather, who emphasises pistol shots and overwatch manoeuvres in combat. There’s a great delight in mixing skills and roles to build the perfect team with which to dominate a map.
The combination of strategy and stealth also means each mission can evolve in dynamic ways. At one point, a turn-based skirmish against a mere two members of the Banished Court’s forces escalated into a battle against a dozen when a final blow knocked the last grunt into earshot of his allies, who responded in force. Conversely, mastering the stealth aspects allows you to potentially break up one vast map into a series of smaller battles, whittling enemy numbers down, before dropping into tactical mode for more precise attacks or to handle bigger squads. Similarly, being able to split up your team in real time allows you to tackle objectives freely, such as breaking a Sneak off to clamber up some vines only they can scale to reach a collectible, or having a Bruiser break down a wall to open up new routes for the whole team. Getting to grips with each Lamplighter’s skills can significantly affect how you progress through each mission – and there’s even a touch of low-key deck-building worked in on top, with mystical tarot cards to be equipped to your heroes, adding to or modifying their abilities.
Sadly, The Lamplighters League lacks one key aspect of any great stealth game – the ability to move and hide the bodies of felled foes. It undermines the stealth mechanics when remaining enemies will always be tipped off when they see one of their allies who you so deftly took down, triggering an area-wide alert and a massive confrontation.
Worse, those same massive mission maps that otherwise so impress for their potential for exploration and area control also seem to be too much for the game to actually handle. Pop into Recon Mode, a nifty feature allowing you to scope out the terrain from overhead, and the game absolutely chugs, vomiting frames like one of Célestine’s poisoned victims. That’s when you can see anything at all though – in turn-based mode, the camera would often position itself behind rocks or walls, blocking the view of important moments. On PC (version tested), the game would also sometimes decide to not recognise controller inputs, forcing an awkward reach for the mouse to click on the icon or object that wasn’t responding to button presses, or refusing to actually aim targetable attacks.
The lack of technical polish is a real shame, as The Lamplighters League is otherwise a fantastic evolution of the turn-based strategy genre. It weaves a gloriously pulpy adventure with high stakes and higher thrills, all elevated by great voice acting and rousing music throughout. Hopefully, performance can be improved through post-release patches, as the constant bugs take the gleam off what could be a real gem.