Developer Harebrained Schemes are no stranger to the turn-based strategy genre. With the cyberpunk Shadowrun Returns series and mech-fighting Battletech under their belts, the seasoned team is back again, this time with an alternate 1930s setting where the nefarious Banished Court is hellbent on taking over the world. With a new real-time stealth component and a story that is part Indiana Jones, part noir detective story, Harebrained Schemes isn’t just sticking to their tried and true turn-based combat with The Lamplighters League and the Tower at the End of the World. I’ve spent dozens of hours battling evil with my ragtag band of misfits, and I’m here to tell you that Harebrained Schemes may have another hit on their hands.
The Lamplighters League Story
The Banished Court is attempting to breach the Tower at the End of the World and harness the magic held within - the Bright Storm - to take over the world. The Lamplighters League successfully defended the Tower from assault once before, with all but the mysterious Mr. L paying the ultimate price. Who do you turn to when saving the world from tyranny goes wrong, and the best of the best are all dead? For Mr. L, the answer is the best of the worst - rogues, cutthroats, and scoundrels will have to do. That’s where you come in. Starting with just three fresh recruits, you must build a team of unscrupulous mercenaries to take on the Banished Court’s three Scions, traveling the globe to thwart their progress however you can.
Gameplay is broken up into weeks. Each week begins with a recap of the previous week's action, followed by a dialogue between your group and Mr. L. Through these conversations, you’ll see the blanks in the story filled in. Each agent comes with their own personality, and they don’t immediately buy into Mr. L’s accounts of the occult hook, line, and sinker. However, as the story is fleshed out, so are the backgrounds and personalities of your agents. You’ll soon find yourself becoming attached to the agents at your disposal, making their lives and deaths in the upcoming missions just as important as their skills.
Once the dialogue finishes and the story is advanced, you can prepare your agents for the next mission by assigning new skills, crafting, and equipping new gear. All these actions are powered by the limited resources you have gathered by completing missions, so you have to be thrifty and spend wisely. Do you buff up only a few Lamplighters or try to keep your group balanced?
While most of your agent and base progression are standard fare - each character has their own unique abilities and skill tree, allies like the weaponsmith Danys Belfort and healer Mother Amina have trees to unlock gear and passive bonuses, and so on - the Lamplighters League also taps into the occult through the Undrawn Hand. This seemingly blank deck of cards is a relic used by the Lamplighters League to change the fate of its agents. After completing heroic acts in the fight against evil, aka completing a mission, one or more cards will reveal themselves to your team.
The Undrawn Hand is a neat way to add random perks and buffs to your characters and can often create new synergies with your current abilities. It is a little too random, though. The cards you receive are random and come with various perks and power levels. The cards can only be applied to the agents that completed the mission, making their usefulness a bit of a crap shoot. Although only being able to apply cards to your active agents is in theme, with the deck only revealing itself to those engaged in the battle against evil, it is harrowing when a card perfect for a different character is drawn and has to be discarded. On the upside, all discarded cards produce Ink, a resource that can be used to upgrade your character’s cards back at your stronghold.
Fighting Evil One Mission At A Time
With your group buffed up, it’s off to the world map to plan your next action. Hotspots of enemy activity are marked across the map, and you must choose one of these primary missions as your main focus for the week. However, there’s more to mission choice than choosing the largest reward. As you are trying to collect the four keystones to unlock the Tower, the three Scions are continuing their preparations to gain access as well, which is represented on the world map by three Doomsday Clocks. You can only undertake a single primary mission each week, so the remaining missions will go unchecked, allowing the Scions to advance their Doomsday Clock.
Whether you're sabotaging some equipment, stealing some documents, or simply assaulting a stronghold, each of your options will directly affect a Scion's Doomsday preparations. Each victory robs the associated Scion from progressing their clock, and completing more difficult missions can even turn the hands backward. Every mission on the world map will advance a Doomsday Clock depending on how difficult it is, so you aren’t able to just sit back and soak up easy wins; the more challenging missions you skip will rapidly advance a Doomsday Clock.
To make matters worse, Breakpoints will be reached as each Doomsday Clock advances. Breakpoints mark a critical milestone for the Scion and unlock new powers you will have to face in upcoming missions. If one of the Scions completely fills their clock, their perverted vision of the world is unleashed, and it’s game over. You must constantly weigh your team’s needs against the Scions’ progress. Focus too much on hunting for allies or picking easy missions with a high resource potential, and the extra powers from the Breakpoints could easily offset any positive effect of your completed missions.
Mission choice isn’t all doom and gloom, though. Periodically, you will be able to choose a mission that will include an encounter with the Scion themself, and defeating the Scion will not only keep their Doomsday Clock from advancing, it will reset their Doomsday Clock to its previous Breakpoint. Furthermore, agents not assigned to the primary mission can be sent out on side quests each week to gather Intel, search for supplies, or run down leads on potential allies. Some side missions only uncover another tip to follow, with the end reward only revealed after multiple weeks. These side missions are similar to companion missions in many MMOs, where the character is sent off to complete their job in the background while your main group tackles the primary mission of the week.
When Push Comes To Shove
Each mission begins in a neutral starting position and then advances through a primarily linear map to your primary objective. Along the way to your target, you will find some consumables to aid you in your fight, plenty of lore points to enhance the story of the Lamplighters League, and an overwhelming number of enemies. Some of these enemies will guard secondary objectives and can be skipped entirely if you don’t think the risk is worth the reward, but what’s the fun in that? At the heart of any turn-based strategy game is combat, and you’re going to see plenty of fighting in the Lamplighters League. But Harebrained Schemes has ensured that brute force isn’t the only way to tackle a mission. This go around, they have added some stealthy options to your repertoire.
You begin each mission in real-time mode. As you move your agents across the map, you will eventually come across areas with a high concentration of enemies. Before going in all guns blazing, you can use your more stealthy characters to provide some reconnaissance. You’ll be able to track enemy patrol patterns, identify bottlenecks and environmental hazards to use to your advantage, and possibly cull the herd of enemies with a well-timed Takedown or two.
Each member of your party has a special Takedown ability that is only accessed during the real-time phase. Sneaky characters like Lateef can sneak up behind most enemies and perform a one-hit, one-kill maneuver, while other agents can use traps or brute force to take out multiple enemies at a time.
All of these Takedowns must be performed at the right time because the rest of your enemy force isn’t oblivious to the action around them. Each enemy has a well-marked area of alertness, and moving through or making noise within this area can alert them to your presence, even if they can’t see you. Making a small commotion may just put them on a higher alert, but too much activity and they will begin an active search of the area.
You can switch from real-time mode to turn-based combat once you have finished your recon, taken out any targets of opportunity, and positioned your team as you see fit. You could even sneak around the enemy and skip the encounter entirely if you dare. Of course, one not-so-stealthy move could have the entire enemy force looking for you, and once they spot you, it’s game on, no matter what.
Combat occurs in rounds, with your team going first, followed by the enemy. You will invariably be outnumbered, especially if you don’t use Takedowns to remove some opponents from the fight. Each of your agents has a unique set of deadly skills at their disposal. Some are masters of hand-to-hand combat, while others utilize ranged weapons. Other agents are more tanky, and some wield mystical powers. You can also use the environment in your efforts. Like most turn-based tactical combat, you can take cover by positioning your agent behind walls and other obstacles. And, of course, there are multiple types of barrels, generators, and other environmental hazards to blow up when enemies are within the blast area.
You always face overwhelming odds, so tactical thinking is necessary for success. Throwing a single melee-focused agent into a group of enemies without any buffs or debuffs is a sure recipe for disaster. At the same time, a well-orchestrated attack can leave your team unscathed, even when going up against a large group of enemies.
If an agent does take enough damage to reduce their hitpoints to zero, they will become incapacitated. You only have three rounds to have another agent bandage them up and get them back into the action. Fail to do so, and you can kiss that agent goodbye. Assuming you can get the fallen agent fixed up and back into the action, they will fight at a limited capacity. Once the mission is over, they will return to your stronghold in a weakened state and must rest for a week or two before being sent out on a new mission.
Harebrained Schemes has added Stress, another game mechanic to their combat for The Lamplighters League. Agents and enemies alike accrue stress every time they are attacked, and some characters have abilities that will add additional stress on top of the base attack. When a character's stress meter is maxed out, they endure a Stress Break. For the enemy, this means they will attempt to flee, and your agents can incapacitate them with a single hit. Your agents' Stress Break isn't quite as bad as the enemy's, but a Stress Break will reduce a Lamplighter’s action points by 1, and they can gain a curse from the Undrawn Hand that will persist beyond combat and hinder them in any future endeavors until it is cured.
Items, consumables, and abilities can all be used to add outgoing stress and reduce or remove incoming stress. Ensuring an agent has methods to manage their stress is just as important as their lethality in combat. You are always fighting against unfavorable odds, and although your agents can come out of their first few fights unscathed, the difficulty ramps up quickly. Stronger foes can be immune to specific abilities or takedowns, and you'll find yourself facing adversaries with their own mystical abilities sooner rather than later.
With the variety of combat styles available, a good assortment of enemies, and the added Stress mechanic, combat in The Lamplighters League is fun and rewarding. The only real issue I found was in the enemy AI. The enemy does a good job of using cover and swarming an individual agent when in close quarters, but this falls apart when you get some space between you and your opponent.
Enemy gunners often fire from extreme distances, making their shots mostly ineffective. Even worse, all enemy types will ignore the need for cover and make a beeline for your group, ending their turn spread across the map and out of cover. This makes picking off single targets easy, and a few rounds of an attack followed by a retreat leaves the enemy force depleted without any real threat to your group. This is only exacerbated in the game's later stages when some of the more powerful enemies can significantly outpace the rest of the troops, effectively making them prone to the swarm attacks that you can put your agents into with poor tactics.
Harebrained Schemes have done an excellent job of continuing to do what they do well - turn-based strategic combat - while adding some new game mechanics to expand the scope of combat. They have also done a fine job creating a set of unique characters for The Lamplighters League and injected some personality into the characters without flooding the gaming experience with too many extended cutscenes. Learning the traits and motivations of each character added to the experience, and I found myself more attached to this group of agents than I generally do with the generic Rifleman I and Rifleman II units of other titles.
The real-time stealth aspects of The Lamplighters League add a new level of complexity to the combat missions. Between the ability to perform Takedowns during your exploration and the chance of everything going FUBAR and leaving your group out of position, the scope of the real-time phase goes far above the typical move and recon segments of other turn-based games. I wish the same depth would have been added to the base building components.
The only other flaw to the combat of The Lamplighters League is the limited camera control. Strategic combat requires a good overview of the battlefield, and with the lack of any camera zoom or control over the viewing angle, you are stuck with a static isometric view of the fighting. You can rotate and scroll the map, but keeping track of a large map without any extra controls is cumbersome. It’s not enough to turn me away from recommending The Lamplighters League to any avid turn-based combat fan, but it is definitely a big miss.