There’s a game title for you. Say it out loud: Hard West. Rolls of the tongue, don’t it? Lot of consonants condensed into two measly syllables. You probably heard Sam Elliot’s voice reading it. Might as well have “motherfucking” thrown in between.
Its conceit is fairly simple: Hard West wants to be a tactical cover-based turn-based shooter within a Weird West setting. For the laymen among you, “weird west” is a term used for a setting closely resembling the Wild West (I’m going to say “west” a lot today, sorry) but with a sci-fi, paranormal, occult or fantasy element added in. Think the Jonah Hex comics, or even the dreadful Wild Wild West film from back in ’99. CreativeForge Games certainly had a tall order ahead when they pledged to give us Weird West X-COM. I’m a huge fan of supernatural themes mixed into the mundane and I loved the X-COM reboot, so to say that I was a bit excited for this game going in would be a bit of an understatement…
Hard West: Windows [Reviewed], Mac OS
Developer: CreativeForge Games
Publisher: Gambitious Digital Entertainment
Release Date: 18 November 2015
Price: €24,99 [Disclosure: Game copy supplied by Developer/Publisher]
Hard Hard West
I’ll spare you all the useless details and start from the premise that if you’re interested in Hard West you’ve probably played or are at least familiar with X-COM. It plays very similarly to the alien shooter game we all know and love. You control a party (posse) of several cowboys and gals and have two action points per turn. More often than not you will use one to move from cover to cover and one to shoot at your enemies. There are also abilities that make one aspect of your attacks more effective, but come at a cost. This is the gameplay of Hard West at its most basic and also where the similarities to the current genre flagship stop.
Enter the luck mechanic. Luck, essentially, is a stat used both as a resource for special abilities and as a way to cheat death. Most characters’ health hovers around the 4-5 HP mark which is also where the average weapon damage usually stands. I feel this design choice was made in order to more closely reflect the Wild West thematic of brutal one shot kills where the quickest gun wins the fight. Cover still contributes a bit to a characters’ chance to hit, lowering it as cover gets better. However, even full cover will not negate damage completely. Most weapons have fixed damage values for a normal hit, hit against half cover and hit against full cover (which will usually incur one hit point worth of damage). The only sure-fire way to hit an enemy is to flank and/or get in point blank range. Luck serves to delay the aforementioned one-hit kill for a while. Essentially, a character with a full luck bar has a chance to completely avoid being hit at the expense of luck points equal to the “to hit” chance of the opponent. Conversely, being hit refills your luck bar, ensuring you live to fight another round.
Cheech is about to smoke this bastard
One can also use various environmental items, such as well lids and basement doors to create cover, or even use the sun’s casting of shadows of one’s enemies in order to locate them and fire without line of sight through softer materials, such as the cloth of a tent. Abilities are usually incredibly powerful but have a high luck cost, or can only be used on a turn where the player elects not to move. Some notable examples are the shotgun’s “Cone Shot”, the iconic “Fanning” (whereas a gunslinger uses one hand to repeatedly cock a revolver, firing several shots in quick succession), the “Golden Bullet” which can target any enemy whose position you are aware of and guarantees a hit, ignoring all cover and obstacles and my personal favorite: “The Ricochet” which allows you to bounce a bullet off one or more metal objects in the level, in order to hit enemies around corners or hidden behind cover.
Abilities are granted by equipping poker cards that are collected over the course of a campaign. Before each combat mission you may equip each member of your posse with up to two weapons, two consumable items and one equipment item, each with various effects that boost stats or grant abilities. You may also equip a hand of cards on each of your posse members. Cards usually grant abilities but can also give passive effects. In addition, forming a poker hand such as a pair, straight or flush will also grant additional bonuses to your character.
I’ll just go all in.
Hard West is more than just a series of combat encounters, however. The game is framed by several “scenarios” which are essentially story campaigns built around a central character. A few of them focus on Warren, a young man whose family has fallen on hard times and is out to seek his fortune, but constantly meets obstacles to overcome. What is interesting is that each campaign tries to do something new in both overarching mechanics and theme. At the beginning of each scenario you get to choose your difficulty level, whether to turn on persistent injuries and ironman mode. I played the game on the hardest difficulty level and found it challenging enough. Even punishing at times.
Say what you will about Hard West, but it aims to live up to its name. Injuries are handled in an interesting manner. Whenever a character sustains massive damage, there is a chance that they gain an injury which severely impacts their effectiveness. However, completing a mission from start to finish with an injury active will grant it enough time to heal and reduce its negative effects, while also granting permanent positive effects as your character is stronger for the experience. Ironman mode I don’t recommend for your first playthrough, however. What it means is that having an essential (story-wise) character die in combat will make you restart the entire campaign (roughly 2 or 3 hours per, and 5 or so combat missions). It’s a nice challenge mode to have, but your characters are highly fragile and your progress could be essentially erased in a matter of seconds making for a frustrating run (or twelve).
I like them odds
The way the game plays between combat missions is very reminiscent of an interactive novel, with you moving a token from location to location across a map and choosing how to approach the various encounters. Each different scenario has you accumulate your resources in a different way. You may buy gold digging permits and try your luck as a prospector as Warren and his father, be an outlaw and damage the mysterious Masked Man’s properties or even research and invent items as the scientist Solomon DeLeare.
As stated in the introduction, thematically, Hard West tries something very different, for a video game, and elects to explore more occult and paranormal elements of the Wild West. Thus, without spoiling too much, you may encounter cannibals, devil worshipers, a charismatic and mysterious man offering you power and greatness in exchange for your soul, wicked spirits, vivid nightmares and cosmic horrors, all presented by an excellent narrator (on par with what we’ve heard in Bastion).
Obligatory “There’s gold in them thar hills”
I went into Hard West expecting to be blown away. It had all the ingredients necessary for something that would have left me gaping in awe. Its execution, however, while definitely more than adequate, leaves some to be desired.
Aesthetically, the game looks great. It’s presented isometrically and opts for a slightly cel-shaded look which gives it the tiniest bit of a comic book feel. The ambiental effects and the lighting are elaborate and you can tell that the art department really wanted to drive home the spaghetti western atmosphere. In addition to the lights, shadows and dust particles each gunshot is incredibly satisfying, my only complaint being that it was hard for me to choose whether to pay attention to the short gush of blood expelled by my opponent, or the smoke trail left behind by the barrel of my six-shooter. And if it seems that I’m praising the graphics too highly, rest assured that I’ve only done it so that I can now express my utter disappointment over the opportunities it missed. There are no cinematic moments in Hard West such as there were in X-COM. The camera never drops at shoulder-level to show you, at least briefly, what the action looks like from your character’s point of view and I feel like it’s very much a shame.
Killing the mentally challenged. Medical approaches from a simpler time.
There are few complaints on my part as far as the sound is concerned, however. The sounds themselves are in line with what you’d expect, but the narration and music really take the cake. The narrator I already mentioned a few paragraphs ago. He’s so good that I can not help but be dismayed whenever Hard West has me read a text box by myself instead of having the narrator do it for me. If you’ve imagined Sam Elliot speaking as I’ve told you to at the beginning of this review, and you can somehow splice him together with narrator from Bastion you’ll get a pretty good idea of what he’s like. The soundtrack was created by Polish composer Marcin Przybyłowicz who was also the music director for The Witcher 3. His work in Hard West is eclectic, ranging from western country and rock music with electronic and industrial elements, to tracks evocative of Ennio Morricone’s collaborations with Sergio Leone and even crossing into classical symphonic music with choir chanting when the situation demands it. The music easily does half or more of the atmosphere building in Hard West.
It’s good that the sound and music design are so atmospheric, because the story, or rather the narrative, I’ve found to be a bit lacking. It’s hard to explain my sentiments in regards to the story without spoiling it. Suffice to say that it’s well-meaning and I see very well what it’s going for, but it never quite gets there. Whenever the narrator isn’t there to drive the story bits home, a text box shows up explaining the situation and, clumsiness-in-delivery aside, it always seems to be in a hurry to get back to the game parts. Some may appreciate this, but I was expecting a bit more world-building in a game that aims to be part interactive novel. Paradoxically, while it seems to be in a hurry to get the story bits over with, it takes forever to get to the paranormal elements which should be the central theme of the game. I played one entire mundane scenario and one vaguely lovecraftian one (which had a disappointing straightforward ending, as opposed to the twist I was expecting) before finally getting to the more bizzare themes of the Weird West.
Kill me once, shame on me. Kill me twice? I don’t think so.
The gameplay I take no particular issue with. It is what it is: a different animal than other systems I’m accustomed with. Not superior or inferior in any way. Sure, I’d like to have something akin to the Overwatch reaction shot mechanic in X-COM, especially since the enemies seem to have at least a proximity-triggered version, but the hardest part for me was adjusting to the predictable nature of the combat. There is little RNG to speak of in Hard West and even veterans of the genre might have a bit of trouble adjusting to it. Positioning is now more important than ever, damage being fixed in value and using no dice rolls. It may be a bit bland in the beginning, but as you discover new weapons and abilities, you can customize your play style more and more. One thing the game lacks is some sort of in-mission save or checkpoint system. You’ll find yourself repeating a tedious and virtually risk-free portion of some missions over and over again simply because you messed up one small thing later on in the encounter and one of your main characters died.
Hard West is a flawed game and I’ll hazard a guess that at some point during development, the Kickstarter money ran out. It is, however, clearly a labour of love from the developers and whatever they managed to put into the final cut of the game has undergone a serious polishing process. If the developers did indeed mean for the game to be more than it is it hardly ever shows. If you’re a fan of westerns, turn based combat or just looking for something to tide you over until X-COM 2 comes out, I’d definitely recommend giving Hard West a good hard look.