The Wild, Weird West
Enter Hard West, an RPG turn-based strategy game of revolvers, riches, and schemes born of the Devil himself. Built similarly like other turn-based titles such as XCOM: Enemy Unknown and the more-recent Wasteland 2, Hard West differs because of its few mechanics and Western aesthetics. Instead of invading aliens or scavenging the post-apocalypse, Hard West builds its gritty, noir-like tone through its shanty desert towns mixed with occult rituals, crossroads promises, and a cast of characters molded to almost every cowboy trope in existence. Unfortunately, that’s where the game’s interest peaks, as Hard West is a shallow half-cup of Wild West adventure and buried potential.
Hard West’s campaign is broken up into eight scenarios. Half of the scenarios in the campaign follow an interesting and cohesive story from beginning to end; the rest of the chapters, while all loosely tied together, simply exist in their own little narratives. The lengthier scenarios regarding Warren, his father-turned-undertaker, and their curse of bad luck spells the better moments of the campaign. Warren’s story is spread throughout several scenarios rather than a single one, so the characters in his story and their motives develop much more naturally than protagonists of the other chapters. The final scenario of his tale even has multiple endings. Developers CreativeForge Games were ambitious in crafting multiple stories and different perspectives, yet Hard West falls short in delivering a fulfilling tale throughout its campaign. The weird Western game definitely tackles interesting concepts such as pacts with the Devil, defiling Purgatory, and the idea of fate versus free will, but these themes never evolve beyond their initial moments.
Walking into Hard West, it’s difficult not to be captivated by the look of the game. The denizens and deserts of Hard West are cel shaded from here to Tucumcari. The clay abodes, dry streets, and dingy saloons are all warmly wrapped in a bright and slightly cartoonish hue. The graphics style is simple but effective in reflecting the bare-bones nature of barren cowboy towns and ranches surrounded by vast plains. Oddly enough, the cel shading pairs nicely with the darker cult aesthetics of the game. Whether players are gazing at empty gallows or demon princes and lava-infused rivers, Hard West paints a colorful, simple image the Western genre can be proud of.
The sound design, save for one outstanding nuance, is very average; guns sound like they should, the ominous hum of the background does a sufficient job of looming around players, and the grunts and groans of fallen friends or foes are believable. The narrator’s voice work, on the other hand, is superb. Death himself narrates the sad tales of each scenario; his voice both warm and cold, tempting yet distant, and truthful and raw. The voice actor expertly delves into the dichotomy between life and death, favoring neither, but always present and ready to guide the player. When Death solemnly delivers the line, “You’re as good as dead,” it’s easy to believe the rough, twangy whisper is directed at you. The narrator holds together the campaign and guides the player through, a difficult task considering the story mode may already have a hard time engaging players.
Hard West has no problems crafting an identity through its graphics and its unique Western aesthetics. However, the game does suffer an identity crisis in regard to its gameplay. There’s not much wrong with the execution of combat per se; like other turn-based games, player characters have two actions per turn in which they may move, shoot, reload, or use a special skill. Damage and hit percentages are affected by weapon types, cover, and a character’s personal stats. CreativeForge Games even implemented a luck system that depletes and regenerates in combat, further affecting hit percentage and specific skills. The tactics and strategy of this Western title are no doubt fun and challenging, but they feel shallow as there is no real sense of character progression, which is the real problem with Hard West’s gameplay.
First, players can only make changes to their characters through ability cards. Each card has a unique active or passive ability that can be equipped and switched between all characters when unlocked. Sadly, most of the extra characters in a party are uninteresting bullet-sponges who get the leftover ability cards only for the card’s minor boost. Not to mention, ability cards reset after each scenario. So after a player earns a majority of the cards in one chapter, they have to earn them once again in the next.
At constant war with itself, Hard West is torn between being a straightforward turn-based game and a turn-based RPG. Were Hard West the latter, the combat would have definitely felt more involved, as players would have a choice in what kind of character they build. Instead, players, in most combat sequences, are given characters whose stats are interchangeable and dependent solely on the weapons they have and the ability cards attributed to them.
In between combat, players will spend the majority of their time traversing a map. Objectives are laid out, and player choice during these map segments bring about superficial consequences. Poisoning an enemy watering hole before jumping into combat will make the bad guys weaker in the next encounter, but by doing so players may have missed an opportunity to search for better weapons. Much of the map section is risk versus reward for players. Although it’s also a nice reminder of the breadth of a campaign, the map segment does have its set of problems. There were several times when Hard West gave nonsensical objectives after a major moment; for example, after one character visits a shaman to lift a curse, the very next objective read, “Buy twelve bags of tobacco.” The game gave no mention of how the character went from being cursed to becoming a tobacco spendthrift in a matter of seconds. Hard West also changes up its map segments throughout different sections. From one chapter to the next, the map gameplay shifts from a normal map into a more hands-on survival simulator where players have to keep an eye on their food and other resources. Managing resources definitely adds an extra layer to this part of Hard West, but it comes at the cost of inconsistency, as each section changes how the map segment progresses. It would have been more streamlined for players to have a consistent map system.
Discussing Hard West without mentioning XCOM: Enemy Unknown is difficult because Hard West has enough style and cowboy charisma to have its own identity. However, when the narrative falls short and the gameplay delivers a shallow experience, then it’s easier to say this turn-based title feels like a lackluster clone of the alien-oriented XCOM. The campaign dabbled in extremely interesting concepts, but never really took off from there. It’s sad to say that Hard West’s only shining moments are the Devil/Western aesthetics and Death as the narrator. There’s so much potential for a Western game filled with demons, vengeance, and promises with the Devil himself. While I do hope CreativeForge Games reloads their revolvers and takes another shot at visiting the universe they’ve created in Hard West, this title is just another turn-based strategy game headed for the gallows.