Seattle-based developer Harebrained Schemes certainly knows its way around a turn-based RPG. The twelve-year-old studio has given us the fantastic Shadowrun series of games, a series which recently made the leap to Xbox consoles, as well as the excellent Battletech which, for now, remains a PC-only deal.
With this proven track record within the genre, we've been feeling fairly confident about the team's latest offering, The Lamplighters League. Set in an alternate version of the 1930s, this is a super-stylish turn-based strategy effort that sees players pit their wits against The Banished Court, a shadowy cult who are one step away from world domination. Muhahahaha! Etc. The Lamplighters are a bunch of heroic scholars who have fought the Banished Court throughout the ages, always stepping in to stop them where needed. However, these heroes have now been mostly lost due to the Great War, and so they must now rely on a backup bunch of misfits - that's you! - to save the world.
It's a cracking setup, a real Saturday morning serial affair that mixes Indiana Jones with a hint of H.P. Lovecraft, and it's all carried along by a cast of likeable characters and an art style and setting that really nails the overall tone. Your band of misfits take on the Banished Court's thugs in wonderfully detailed jungles, temple ruins, snowy fortresses and so on, and all of these locations allow for real time exploration, letting you hoover up collectible items and and resources before getting your team into position and engaging the enemy in combat.
You'll start the game with just a handful of misfits to your name, and each of them provides a set of distinctly different skills to use to your advantage. Lateef, as an example, is a master of sneaking and misdirection who can create a clone of himself to temporarily take the heat while you scurry off to flank your foes. Eddie, meanwhile, is a saboteur who specialises in blasting baddies with his guns, laying down fire that spreads across a large arc and can damage multiple targets, or using dual-shot to get an extra hit in on a troublesome adversary.
All of the usual bases are covered here with a whole bunch of heroes, around about ten at launch, that give you a ton of options to tool around with. Running side missions from the game's world map allows you pinpoint the location of new recruits, and you'll then follow up with a rescue mission to get them out of whatever trouble they're in before they can join you at the team's hub camp.
If it all sounds highly familiar, well, at its core it is. This is turn-based combat that takes a lot of its cues from the likes of XCOM, with all of the overwatching, flanking and manoeuvring that fans of that franchise have come to expect. However, The Lamplighters League also adds its own ideas to this mix. The biggest of these is the game's tarot cards, which allow you to customise your units with passive buffs and brand-new abilities. Each of your heroes has three card slots to toy around with, and the cards that you find during missions — you'll need to do plenty of exploring to pinpoint the motes of light that hide them — as well as those you're rewarded with as you progress, give you lots of options with regards to how you flesh out your team to suit your style of play.
You can take a character who specialises in melee, such as Ingrid, and use your tarot cards to increase her armour and HP so she can stay in close quarters for longer, give her boosts to moves that allow her to hit and run, sticking it to enemies then hightailing it to the nearest cover, or add entirely new skills to her repertoire. There really is a lot of flexibility here, and combined with skill trees and an array of perks to get busy unlocking, you've got a game that gives you plenty to play with in some highly stylish arenas. Items and enemy placements are procedurally generated too, so there's replayability built in.
The Lamplighters League is also reminiscent of some of, the sadly now shuttered, Mimimi Games output in how it allows you to freely explore areas, gather resources and recon before diving into confrontations. What's here doesn't ever reach the genre-defining highs of the likes of Desperados 3, Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun or the more recent Shadow Gambit: The Cursed Crew (and to be fair not much does) but it's decent, and has plenty of its own smart tweaks and twists, as well as some clever AI to pit your wits against.
As your adventures progress there's a very decent narrative to dig into as well, one that's populated by highly likeable characters, and the fact there's not just one but three(!) doom clocks on the world map — each one pertaining to a different evil faction within the Banished Court — keeps you more than on your toes. Harebrained Schemes manages to stretch you thinly whilst avoiding the finnicky resource management that sometimes threatens to turn these sorts of games into a micro-management chore rather than a good time. You'll need to watch the doom clocks carefully, and make sure to select missions appropriately to have their threat indicator slide backwards in order to stay on top and save the world. No pressure!
There's a nice sense of escalation here too, starting out with simple missions that task you with stealing an item or nabbing some intel, before the game layers on more mechanics and gets you involved in planning and executing more complex heists designed to scupper the Banished Court's progress.
Overall then, we're fans of The Lamplighters League's core gameplay, it's a solid take on the genre that combines the usual turn-based shenanigans with smart tarot card mechanics and plenty of style in its setting and cast of characters. If everything was as it should be we'd be looking at an easy recommendation here we reckon. However! As things stand right now, this isn't possible due to some fairly egregious performance issues.
We've had two reviewers on this one, for the written and video versions of our review, and whilst one of us has had a slightly better time than the other, we've both had our fair share of issues. Framerate problems are constant and set in pretty quickly, there's plenty of stuttering as you move around areas, graphical glitches are not uncommon, and between turns we've had the game idle for ages as the AI decides what it's going to do next. There's been multiple crashes back to our console's home screen, alongside instances of the game hanging and needing a reboot. The devs have also flagged up problems with conversations not being signposted properly back at base camp between missions on Xbox and there's also a save file issue at present that the team are working to fix. Generally the whole thing feels a bit like it's been rushed out the door, and that's a shame.
There are updates due to drop at launch, and we're hopeful these will take care of most of the issues (issues which persist in both performance and quality modes), but for now what we've got here is a very good game that's hamstrung by performance problems and a handful of bugs. It's never fun to lose progress in this type of turn-based strategy effort, but that's where we're at right now and it's frustrating.
The good news is that The Lamplighters League is launching on Xbox Game Pass, so if you're interested — and turn-based strategy fans should be — then you can jump in and see how you fare until the issues are rectified. For now though, we can only score what's in front of us and unfortunately we just can't heartily recommend this one in its current state. There's a good game here, and we look forward to being able to adjust our score accordingly once its problems have been resolved.
The Lamplighters League is a stylish and smart turn-based adventure from a team that absolutely knows its way around this sort of tactical action affair. There's plenty to like about this game's melding of XCOM-styled combat with a tarot card system that gives you lots of variables to play with as you build out your team of misfits and rogues. However, as things currently stand on Xbox, there are some fairly notable performance issues here that drag the experience down from one we'd love to recommend to something that's a harder proposition in its current form. With a few patches in place you're looking at another decent addition to Xbox Game Pass, but for now we recommend hanging back and waiting for these Lamplighters to receive a little more polish post-launch.