According to Harebrained Schemes co-founder Mitch Gitelman, I was the first non-playtester and developer to play the Shadowrun Trilogy team’s newest strategy game, the pulpy 1930s Lamplighters League. Looking up at a screen at the Xbox loft in San Francisco during GDC 2023, I was engrossed by the blend of real-time stealth and XCOM-like turn-based combat, and I was grinning from ear to ear the whole time.
When I figured out you could wait safely in long grass for a patrol to walk past explosive crates surrounded by oil – with all the enemies, interactables, and items placed randomly in each level – and took out four guards at once, I laughed. I later found out that Gitelman and the rest of Harebrained Schemes cheered behind me as they watched this happening, because I’d just unwittingly proved something the team had been worried about when showing off their newest game for the first time; Lamplighters League absolutely rules.
On top of getting an hour of hands-on time with Lamplighters League myself, I also sat down for an interview and hands-off showcase with both Gitelman (left) and game director Chris Rogers (right), who took me through a mid-game mission and showed off the in-game systems. Both were probably as hungry as I was while waiting for lunch, but it didn’t stop us from getting down to brass tacks with the recently revealed Lamplighters League.
If I’m being deliberately reductive, Lamplighters League immediately made me think of the Firaxis XCOM reboot: the UI and visual language were instantly familiar, and a few mechanics from throughout the series, especially XCOM 2: War of the Chosen, appear in this rip-roaring 1930s pulpy adventure.
That’s not to say Lamplighters League isn’t original, it’s actually incredibly unique and sure to be a Game Pass marvel, but if you’ve played XCOM before you’re sure to feel right at home straight away, that’s for certain.
How Lamplighters League seamlessly lets you move your agents and scope out an area before a fight in real-time is brilliant. You can set up traps, pick off enemies, and put each character in their perfect position before going loud and entering turn-based combat. You might be able to do a mission fully in stealth mode or weave in and out of stealth and turn-based combat instead though, and this level of freedom makes Lamplighters League a truly dynamic experience.
There’s a certain amount of risk that comes with the preparation phase being in real-time as well, forcing you to be extra careful before going loud, but this gives Lamplighters League a really distinct feel compared to the gameplay loop seen in similar turn-based strategy games.
Unlike XCOM though, the ten agents you can take out on missions (three at a time, four for the bigger heist missions you can prep for) are all fully-realized characters that interact with each other in both narrative and gameplay in completely different ways. You’ll start with the same three, but Gitelman tells me “the next time you play you’ll get to choose your starting agents,” which provides a completely different experience from the very start.
One of my favourite agents was Fedir, a Russian strongman that acts like a tank class. His abilities are all about taking the enemy’s attention and turning his own damage into a benefit, but he’s also very superstitious, and these aspects of his character let him rub up against other agents both in and out of combat, calling any of the other agents with occult powers a “witch!” at a moment’s notice.
The experience can also differ greatly on each map. That story I told you before about the patrol and explosive crates isn’t guaranteed, as the enemies, objects, interactables, and items are all procedurally generated on mostly predetermined playspaces. Just the Lamplighters League tutorial alone was such a joy for me to play because these character and map systems work so well together, and I’d only scratched the surface.
Lamplighters League isn’t only about the micro experience of taking your agents through levels though, as a more macro experience of upgrades, unlocks, and an XCOM-like world map is also at your disposal.
There are three houses after the game’s titular Tower At The End of The World (with the extra-long subtitle invoking the serialised Indiana Jones vibe of the game), and their bosses will travel around the world map causing chaos. “If they fill their meters all the way up, you get one chance to try and knock them back down,” Rogers tells me as he enthusiastically points at the world map, “otherwise, the game’s over.”
If this sounds like the War of the Chosen XCOM 2 DLC, it definitely plays out like it, creating constant pushback from the game’s three factions that aim to keep you on your toes. You can actually attack these three factions directly as they move around the map to keep them in check, alongside sending your own agents not on missions to do supply runs, both of which should keep the three cultic factions in line.
Despite all the XCOM comparisons I’ve been making, Lamplighters League still has its own strategy game DNA. I really enjoyed seeing how you could find yourself in near-defeat situations and manage to plan your way out, as each character ends up with such a breadth of abilities they can use in conjunction with their team and the environment. The more you know each agent inside and out, the better you’ll play, and you’ll also get more out of their narratives too.
I said as much to Gitelman, who looked pleasantly surprised by this thought and even giddier than at my first play session on that incredibly windy San Francisco morning.
“This is the thing that I adore about this game,” Gitelman says with a smile. “You can get into these really hairy situations and if you use your characters well in combination – switching between them, using their AP, using your special abilities – you can improvise your way out of this stuff, and it feels like an action-adventure movie.”
Harebrained Schemes want the narrative, world, characters, and gameplay to be intrinsically linked in Lamplighters League, drawing you deeper into the experience by making the turn-based strategy and over-arching story feel as close as possible. While this sounds like a very difficult task, I certainly felt it working in my limited time with the game, so I asked Gitelman how the team pulled it off.
“What we do is develop a character concept based on a trope, like something obvious, we need a big guy, right? Okay, we’ve got a Russian hitman. We tell that to the design team, and the design team says, ‘Okay, what is this guy? You know, when he takes damage, he gets in rage, we’ll make that part of his character.’ And so now he’s a rageful character. And it goes back and forth like that,” Gitelman explains. “It’s a very collaborative, very iterative process, and they start prototyping the character’s abilities. As they do that, we realise ‘Oh, wait, we can build that into their character background’.”
If I’ve got you hyped for Lamplighters League don’t worry, the strategy game is set for release sometime this year with a day one console and PC Game Pass launch planned, too. It’s one of my favourite games I saw at GDC, and could very well be an absolutely massive hit when it releases later this year.