Gun smoke and brimstone
Hard West has often intrigued us with its premise since being announced earlier this year. Warsaw-based developer CreativeForge’s gritty frontier western has been pitched as something of a supernatural cowboy take on X-COM’s tense tactical strategy formula. Having shot my way through countless dusty desert towns and demon-infested quarries I have to say the sentiment mostly rings true, though the game does a solid job of transcending mere imitation of Firaxis Games’ winning formula to craft an adventure that’s both intriguing and immensely satisfying based on its own merits.
Hard West puts players in the well-worn cowboy boots of Warren, a young man whose life is changed dramatically during a disastrous trek west on the Oregon Trail. After a series of horrifying events unfolds around him involving bandits, demons, and crazed occult-happenings, Warren’s life is changed forever as he sets off for revenge across a gritty, supernatural backdrop of the familiar American frontier. The heart of Hard West’s gameplay revolves are tense, tactical skirmishes against posses of sharpshooting gunmen, megalomaniacal crime lords and unspeakable demonic entities. Much like its aforementioned inspiration, XCOM, Hard West puts a heavy emphasis on smart, cover-to-cover movement and flanking your enemies to get the upper hand. As players control Warren and his compadres, you’ll find success comes from finding the best cover for any given engagement as you wait for the opportunity to strike.
True to its name, Hard West is a true challenge – even for genre veterans. The enemy bandits and hellspawn you’ll encounter on your quest for revenge are all crack shots, and going into any given encounter guns blazing is almost certainly a recipe for disaster. Paying close attention to your given percentage chance to hit your target, available luck points and the amount of ammunition you have chambered in your equipped weapon is key, as even the best laid plans can go up in gunsmoke if you’re not fully aware of Hard West’s combat system’s many intricacies. While it seems like a lot to get a handle on, thankfully it’s pretty easy to manage due to a clean user interface that displays all of your available actions, ammo, and other information readily available. Rather than mire each of your party’s permadeath-prone compatriots under a mountain of useless abilities, you can collect ability cards and allocate a handful of them to each party member, offering a welcome level of fluidity to the way you customize your posse. These skills range from ricocheting shots to hit hard-to-reach targets, increased drop rates for rare firearms to bolster your arsenal and other handy stat-boosting abilities to give your team an edge in combat. All in all, Hard West does a very solid game of creating an engaging, high-tension combat system that feels both challenging and instantly satisfying.
Sadly, while Hard West offers a solid foundation for tailoring your party to your liking, it fails to capitalize on this by making your sidekicks feels largely expendable in more ways than one. Firstly, as mentioned before, permadeath’s specter looms heavily in Hard West, and one bungled move can wipe your teammates out for good. Another issue that makes each of your traveling companions feel even more arbitrary is the game’s approach to storytelling itself. Hard West’s story is divided into eight separate brief vignettes, each with their own key players. That said, even if you manage to keep any of your party members alive it’s incredibly difficult to feel attached to them in any appreciable way. In the end, they simply feel like added guns in a game that isn’t shy about tossing the player into the fire with little to no backup.
Hard West’s storytelling is delivered through a dark, graphic-novel inspired narrative that does a good job of fleshing out the game’s hellish world. Comprised ofover the course of 40 missions, you’ll find a lot to do in Hard West’s dreary Weird West world even outside of the main campaign. Using a mining contract, players can survey mines for lucrative stores of gold, venture out on various sidequests to assist the local townsfolk, and even barter with shopkeeps by trading arms, tobacco and other commodities for valuable ability cards, healing items and high-end weaponry. Many of these side quests unfold through a series of text-based, RPG-lite dialog choices, with key items and resources lending additional options to expand your list of opportunities. While they’re perfectly serviceable, you can’t help but wish they were a bit more substantial.
Quite unsurprising, the presentation in Hard West is suitably dark and foreboding. Set against the backdrop of tumbleweed-swept prairie towns and derelict estates, the game’s visuals are moody and inhospitable. Rendered in a gritty, cel-shaded aesthetic, the game’s world and characters have a graphic novel feel, which fits the game’s fantasy western tone quite well. Additionally, the many different gunslingers and demons (who are pretty much just flaming, horned humanoids) you’ll encounter in your bloody quest for vengeance all feature solid and varied animations. While Hard West won’t push your PC’s graphics card to the test, it runs smoothly and looks just fine, so no complaints there. The music and sound effects on the other hands, are simply fantastic. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt composer Marcin Przybyłowicz has done a stellar job yet again, providing a wide array of soundscapes that perfectly capture the oppressive mood of the game. From the haunting guitar melodies that accompany the overworld map to the dramatic percussion that punctuates the battlefields, Hard West’s soundtrack is superb. The sound effects themselves are impressive as well. From the guttural bellows of your demonic adversaries to the crystal-clear gunshots that penetrate the dusty air, Hard West’s chaos is an aural delight. This level of quality also extends to the game’s voice acting, in which the game’s narrator, Death himself, steals the show.
Despite the game’s somewhat staccato pacing due to its segmented main story, Hard West manages to deliver a very solid tactical gameplay experience wrapped in a deliciously campy Wild West package. Developer CreativeForge has done a commendable job of melding the tried-and-true strategy formula of XCOM with some interesting RPG and occult elements, and the finished result is a game that feels both fascinating and instantly familiar. It’s not perfect, but in the end this supernatural spaghetti western hits its mark.
Final Verdict: 4 / 5
Available on: PC (reviewed) ; Publisher: Gambitious Digital Entertainment; Developer: CreativeForge Games; Release Date: November 18,2015; ESRB: “M” for Mature ; MSRP: $19.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a review code for Hard West provided by the game’s publisher, Gambitious Digital Entertainment.