There are some things that the world could just do without. Flared trousers, for instance. Civil unrest, that’s one for the list. Spiders, arguably. Wasps, certainly. But close enough to the top of my list that it could reach out and brush that hateful apex with spindly fingers is the Chance to Hit mechanic. And look, I get why it exists. I understand its inclusion in the world more than flared trousers, I’d say, but by Christ do I hate it with a fiery vengeance. And The Lamplighters League, from Hairbrained Schemes and Paradox Interactive, seems to be built on it.
Soldiers in real life miss shots, even highly trained marksmen. And sure, sometimes luck is just a factor and you might whiff a perfectly clear shot because you misread the wind or were too busy getting stuck on the scenery, but there were moments during The Lamplighter’s League when there would be nothing between me and my target but three feet of empty air and I would still somehow miss. Seriously, we need a better mechanic than this, people.
And it’s a shame, because this mechanic is kind of indicative of the major problems holding this game back from greatness. To wit, it’s downright mean-spirited at times. On the surface it’s a tale of derring-do in the vein of The Mummy or Indiana Jones, but beneath that surface it just wants you to fail, ostensibly so you can learn from the failures but really think it just wants to hurt you and laugh. Maybe I’m still sore from all the missed shots on percentages north of 75.
It’s set in the 1920s, where a mysterious explorer named Locke is recruiting scoundrels and criminals to rebuild the Lamplighters, an Extraordinary Gentlemen-style group of daredevils who will help him enter the ancient Tower at the End of the World before three rival factions known collectively as the Banished Court. As you recruit more antiheroes and take on more missions, three Doomsday Clocks will slowly tick away. If any one of the three fills up completely it’s an instant game over.
So far, so XCOM, right? Well that’s the idea. The Lamplighters League is a turn-based tactics game with an emphasis on teamwork and squad composition. There are ten ne’er-do-wells to recruit, split into three categories: Saboteurs can pick locks and lay shock traps for the enemy; Sneaks move quieter and can perform instant takedowns outside combat; and Bruisers are melee-focused and can knock down crumbling walls to reveal new areas and secrets. The best teams will utilise all three classes, but you’re not forced to do so. You’ll want to spend a decent amount of time each mission picking off patrols and locating traps and hazards you can use to your advantage.
Most missions allow you to bring three Lamplighters, with the exception of special heists that allow you to bring four. Learning which characters do what and how best to synergise certain abilities is crucial to survival, as the difficulty ramps up pretty fast. For example, some characters are able to automatically mark enemies, increasing the chance to hit (supposedly), and other characters have bonuses against marked targets. So you want to use each character in a certain order. You don’t have to use all action points at once either, so you can move with one, shoot with another, then move the second and shoot with the first. It’s a pretty malleable system. There’s no save-scumming here either, really, as reloading an encounter will scramble enemy types and placement and you can’t save at all during combat.
Missions are spread across the globe, and present a mix of small-stakes infiltration jobs such as recon missions, supply runs, assassinations and sabotage attempts, and larger objectives such as heists or attempts to take down any of the three Scions who lead the factions of the Banished Court. There are also recruitment missions, where you must get behind enemy lines and exfiltrate with a freed captive. These can be new operatives who join the Lamplighters or Allies who provide special services at Locke’s hideout. Each mission will move time forward a week, allowing you to send idle agents on recon missions behind the scenes, but will also advance or rewind the Doomsday Clocks depending on which missions you undertake.
The Lamplighters League does a great job of introducing its many, many mechanics and systems through the early missions of your first playthrough. Whether in normal or easy difficulty, the first half-a-dozen missions are very manageable, drip-feeding information and new enemy types at a steady pace. However, once you’re past a certain point, the difficulty hits an upwards trajectory and keeps on going.
You’re encouraged to sneak as much as possible, taking out enemy patrols in free-roam before you engage them and switch to turn-based mode. At first – in fact for several hours – this works fine, but soon the game just starts throwing enemy types at you that are immune to take downs and can see right through stealth. You’re always heavily outnumbered, sometimes three or four to one, and there are multiple teleporters present in most combat areas that will beam more enemies in after a certain number of turns that you can neither switch off nor destroy. Before long, I found that The Lamplighter’s League just became too stressful to fully enjoy.
Now, I’m not saying it’s completely one-sided. Each agent is a powerful force to be reckoned with, especially when you’ve spent plenty of skill points on them to boost their stats and abilities, or you’ve outfitted them with gear and consumables that can massively improve their damage output and mitigation, speed up their cooldowns, or lower their stress accumulation, but you’re always so heavily outgunned that misusing a skill or misreading the battlefield can be devastating.
Missing shots or taking hits creates stress, and if you suffer a stress break the Agent will become far less effective in combat. Enemies can suffer from it too, so you’ll need to make sure you exploit it as you go. It’s an interesting mechanic but again, it feels like one more thing to hold you back, which The Lamplighters League seems to prioritise, even at the expense of the game being fun. Victories are always satisfying and there are always multiple ways to approach a problem, especially given how diverse your agents are, but by the halfway point every victory is a hard-fought slog and I was really pining for the more easy-going challenge of the early game.
That said, there’s a lot of scope for replaying the game. It’s somewhat randomised in terms of the order in which you’ll unlock agents. Bruiser Ingrid, Sneak Lateef, and Saboteur Eddie are the canon starters, but you can tweak this in the options when you start a new game. No agents are useless, and every one has a selection of incredibly useful skills. Eddie, for example, can use his Signature Skill to hit every single enemy within a given area. Ana, the Rebel, can heal allies in a large area. The Alexandrite can summon illusory allies that deal damage and draw enemy threat away from your team. Celestine can poison enemies with a thrown dagger. Each of the ten is unique, and each works superbly with the others.
They have a lot of character too. They’re all fully voiced and will converse during missions, or you can watch them interact at the hideout. The voice acting is strong, the writing is great, and the story itself does its level best to invoke tales of adventurers like Alan Quartermaine. Each of the three primary villains is a larger-than-life cliché: Nicastro is a mysterious princess who commands creatures of the deep; Trace Marteau is a Tesla-like industrialist; and Lord Strum is a ruthless military leader who wants to build an army of super-soldiers. Each possesses a rare reagent that Locke needs to construct a device to defeat them, which forms your primary list of objectives.
Among the feathers in your cap are the magical cards of the Undrawn Hand. Tied to the acceptance of Fate and the themes of destiny and the occult, these cards can be equipped to provide passive buffs or selectable skills in the battlefield. Some create elemental hazards, others may heal an ally or provide a bonus to stress reduction. Add these to the frankly ridiculous number of resources you’ll need to gather (Supplies, Intel, Aether, Medicine, skill points, Seric Steel, plus one or two I’m forgetting) and there’s a lot to get your head around.
You may also find yourself fighting with the camera in The Lamplighters League, which can snap behind walls during combat, or the AI of your characters, who’ll sometimes forget to duck and stand in plain view, or else get stuck on the scenery and spotted. The controller support is also iffy, occasionally refusing to recognise commands unless you switch to mouse for a second, which is irritating but not game-breaking. I didn’t have many problems with technical performance beyond a little stuttering here and there, usually when saving. I did also play for several hours on the Steam Deck, where the game performed admirably on medium settings and locked to 30fps.
As adventures go, The Lamplighters League really works, but prepare yourself for a steep challenge going in. The characters are fun and the set-up is charming if unoriginal, but I got so hung up on the difficulty that it was hard to fully enjoy it and I had to really force myself to keep going at a few points. And even though the difficulty is purely by design, I couldn’t help but get stressed out while playing. If that level of challenge is your bag, you’ll have a great time with The Lamplighters League. If not, then the easy charm, fun writing, and likable characters might just be enough to win you over anyway.
Good selection of skills
Some interesting ideas
Difficulty ramps up fast
Chance-to-hit is a real pain
AI can be very iffy
Some technical hiccups