Xbox Game Pass Just Released the Most Innovative Turn-Based RPG of the Year
A match made in heaven.
Sometimes, all it takes to make a game that feels new is to mush together two things that already exist. That’s the course that The Lamplighters League takes, and for the most part, it succeeds in making its real-time stealth/turn-based tactics lovechild soar.
Developer Harebrained Schemes is best known for its excellent trio of Shadowrun tactical RPGs and 2018’s also-great Battletech. Those games feature dark stories that dive into political conspiracies in worlds thick with decades of lore. Their tactics sides are equally intimidating, requiring bold strategy and the ability to read complex battlefields to succeed.
The Lamplighters League is nothing like that. Presented with clean, cartoonish art, it’s an Indiana Jones-like adventure tale about saving the world from an unambiguous band of occult evildoers. Similarly, it tones down the intensity of its tactical combat compared to Harebrained Schemes’ other games. It’s not necessarily an easy game, but one that’s much simpler to grasp for players who aren’t already experts at the tactical RPG genre.
But The Lamplighters League has greater ambitions than being “baby’s first TRPG.” Rather than operating as a straightforward strategy game, it adds elements of real-time stealth. At the start of each mission, your team is free to roam the map as they please, unencumbered by strict turn order. Every character has their own abilities for navigating the world and dealing with enemies in this “infiltration phase” of the game, determined by how The Lamplighters League’s 10 agents slot into three roles. Saboteurs throw shock mines and pick locks, Bruisers knock down walls and trample groups of enemies, and Sneaks can clamber up walls, hide more easily, and take down foes with silent strikes.
Stealth is nowhere near as complex as it would be in a dedicated real-time stealth game, like the recent, fantastic Shadow Gambit: The Cursed Crew. The most enthusiasm I can really muster for it is to say it’s serviceable. But what makes The Lamplighters League’s stealth work is how it flows into combat.
At any time, you can change from real-time to turn-based mode with the push of a button — or, if you get sloppy and a guard spots you, you’ll be forced into it. Stealth sections aren’t so much about knocking out guards as they are about setting up for battle. You can pick off a few stragglers with stealth takedowns, for example, but even more importantly, you can position your whole team to make their first round in combat count.
Levels in The Lamplighters League are littered with traps and potential cover. With good positioning and proper timing, you can spill oil around a group of guards, set it ablaze with a ranged shot, and knock out approaching reinforcements in melee, all in your first turn.
While stealth feels a little undercooked, the tactical combat is solid. Once you recruit a few more agents to join your starting crew of three, picking which to send out on a job becomes crucial. Some agents excel in direct combat, others in manipulating enemies and providing cover for allies. No matter who you take, it always feels like you have more interesting options at your disposal than simply attacking to whittle down health meters.
The Lamplighters League has a fairly slow start. With just three agents by the end of the first mission, your options are limited. Plus, the game takes its time laying out core mechanics and introducing its world. After the first few hours, though, it opens up in a way I didn’t expect from the intro.
Most surprising was its strategic layer, where you’ll purchase supplies and choose missions from your home base. Every move you make advances the Doomsday Clock, which tracks your enemies’ plans and empowers them the longer you spend running missions. As your foes grow in power, so, too, can your agents, thanks to the Undrawn Hand. This mystical deck of cards grants bonuses at the end of each mission, and changing up your playstyle to make the most of them adds a fun, unpredictable twist to each outing.
The Lamplighters League isn’t the best stealth game around, nor is it the best tactics game. But its unique marriage of the two offers something that no other game does. Strategy fans looking for something new will find it in The Lamplighters League, but it may be even better for newcomers looking for a slightly gentler on-ramp to the demanding turn-based tactics genre.