I don’t think anybody will scoff at me for saying that there are too few Wild West video games being made these days. Call of Juarez had something going for it, but the series’ arguably best game got forgotten extremely quickly. Red Dead Redemption isn’t even available on PC, making it irrelevant on my platform of choice, and whatever indie pops up from time to time falls into obscurity faster than you can say ‘Minecraft.’ Hard West is here, then, to hopefully make itself memorable by offering a game set, not in Wild, but Weird West instead. In case you need a short explanation of what Weird West is, it’s basically Wild West combined with Lovecraftian horror, lots of demons, some steampunk, voodoo, magic and other assorted paranormal occurrences. There’s a lot going on here, so even before delving into the review you’ve got to admit the setting got you interested at least a tiny bit, right?
As much as I enjoy playing turn-based strategy games, even I have to come to terms with the fact that very few of them actually manage to get the combat feedback right. Either the attacks don’t have any oomph to them, or the combatants are too stiff to imagine them fighting, or perhaps the combat module is overall so badly made that you just skip as many fights as you humanely can. Luckily, this issue is never present in Hard West. Not only is there just the right amount of hit feedback between each shot that connects, but the whole thing also comes together in a way that can only be described as masterful.
Without spoiling much – because some of the storylines really are well-made – the game works on the principle of a bunch of smaller campaigns that get unlocked as you accomplish certain things or finish those you already have unlocked. There’s a bit of characterization present here as well, muddling the decision making when it comes to deciding who you can trust and who may well betray you further down the line. All of the missions, however, have in common one detail, and that is Death, who is the game’s narrator, no less. Again, I was surprised by the amount of depth present here, especially in the game’s map-trawling mode, so I would like to keep the spoilers to myself as much as possible, but expect some good stuff to be found in Hard West. There are a fair few of these campaigns to be found – some short, some lengthy – all of them important in the overarching plot.
There are two modes of play in Hard West, one of which is the traversing of the in-game world in a manner that’s extremely reminiscent of the one featured in, say, Wasteland 2. Upon finding a point of interest, you can decide what happens next, which adds a role-playing schtick to the game. The real deal gets kickstarted once you enter combat, however, and that’s when Hard West switches to the familiar overhead view where the characters player is in control of have to duke it out with what is usually a whole bunch of nasty mooks attacking them.
The tactical mode will spawn the players in a situation they’ll surely be accustomed to – one that’s fairly similar to what one can expect while playing any of the XCOM games to date. A large level is rendered, enemies are spawned, and the “heroes” have to complete the objectives while keeping their sorry hides in one piece. TBS-lovers will be accustomed to almost every element of gameplay here, but there are certain novelties to be found in Hard West. The luck system, for example, dictates just how high are the chances of a certain character to be shot. With each consecutive shot that misses them, some luck gets negated, thus increasing the chances of the next shot hitting its mark. This may not mean much on paper, but in practice it significantly lowers the chances of the impossibly annoying RNG-based failures to happen. While the shootouts may be the standard cover-and-potshot fare we’ve come to expect from the genre by now, the ability to deflect bullets off’ certain environmental objects comes in handy when there are mooks behind some impenetrable cover.
Additionally, if you fight during the day, sometimes you’ll have the opportunity to see your foes’ shadows and thus engage them from relative safety – through the wall. Then there are the dozens of unique weapons to be found scattered around the campaign, some dropped by special “boss” enemies, some found lying in the dirt and some in shops. Each character can equip two firearms and several items such as healing salves or shrapnel grenades, allowing a fair deal of customization in what is usually a linear and closed-off experience. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, mind you, it’s just that there are almost no randomization elements to be found in Hard West. An additional alleviation to this lack of randomness comes in the form of equipable cards, which allow the character who equips them a certain effect. It may be a supernatural skill or just a stat boost, but they’re all useful and come in handy when a shot needs to ricochet off’ the cooking cauldron. Combining them is fun, and may bring up some unexpected bonuses when you least expect them – experimentation is key in this respect.
Hard West is built on Unity 5, but looks feels and runs quite well all the same, showing just how malleable an engine that is. The graphics have a cel-shaded quality to them, and no matter whether you’re trudging through the muck in the local marsh or having a showdown at noon in one of the towns scattered about the game world, Hard West looks really good. The soundtrack fits the atmosphere perfectly as well, and ranges from depressive to more upbeat undertones, depending on what’s going on in any given situation. I have, however, experienced some slowdowns on my machine, so if you’re not sure whether the game will run or not, I would suggest a degree of caution just in case. Then again, Steam allows refunds these days so giving the game a go is easier than ever.
All in all, there’s a lot of content to be found in Hard West. The developer mentioned something along the lines of 15-16 hours, but I can see the game going way above that easily. Especially if you enjoy replaying some missions with mutators such as Ironman, or on a higher difficulty. Everything I’ve just said comes together in a game that’s as wonderful as its setting is brutal. Mind you, there’s no randomness to be found here, so you’ll have to decide for yourself whether that’s a good thing or not. Other than that, Hard West is one of the easiest recommendations I’ve ever had the chance of giving.