Hard West – Review

Title   Hard West
Developer  CreativeForge Games
Publisher  Symbid
Platform  Microsoft Windows, Linux, Mac OS
Genre  Strategy, Role-Playing
Release Date  November 18, 2015

If, like me, you prefer to watch movies without knowing much about them, then From Dusk ‘Til Dawn probably took you by surprise.  It started off similar to a Tarantino movie, where it was all about characterisation and subtle exposition.  You’d learn about those on show based on what they said, how they reacted, and how others reacted to them.  Before long, you knew that not everyone was as bad, or as good, as you had first thought, and that somewhere along the way, a table or two may end up turning.  Then, out of the blue, fucking vampires.  Vampires everywhere.  And when Tom Savini turned up, you knew that shit was about to get real.  From what was once a character-driven road movie grew an offbeat schlock-horror that blindsided those who went in knowing nothing.

Hard West, by CreativeForge Games, is the videogame embodiment of From Dusk ‘Til Dawn.  Touted by many as a Wild-West-based X-Com-em-up, I went into it thinking it would be just that – a simple case of “here’s your squad, there’s a town that needs help, pick your loadout and go“, but it’s far from it.  Take a look at the tactical screenshots, hit percentages, or loadout screen, and, sure, you’d be forgiven for thinking that someone had merely slapped a Stetson and spurs on the crew of the Skyranger, yet the developers clearly wanted to take a sidestep from that tried-and-tested approach and offer something a little more avant-garde to seasoned strategists.

First of all, it’s grim.  Really grim. Granted, the threat of a global alien invasion isn’t exactly the stuff that Disney’s dreams are made of, but the opening scene of Hard West is just about as dark as you can get – as though Ed Gein were left in charge of directing Finding Nemo.  It immediately sets the tone and assures you that not only will this not be a walk in the park, but you really shouldn’t even set foot in the park at all.  The story is told in the form of a flashback, and narrated by Death himself, who is played beautifully by Dave DeAndrea and is by far the highlight of the entire presentation, but it’s not just the narration that adds the dark tone; it is a genuinely sinister tale of corruption, deceit, murder, and intrigue.

As has become the trend of late, the unfolding story is set against a backdrop of parallax imagery so you’re not left missing any of the story because you’re focusing too much on the scene.  As the story progresses, so too does the dark foundation on which it’s built, and this may actually be its undoing.  While the idea of taking the Wild West setting and injecting it with macabre undertones is something relatively untouched, at least as far as video games are concerned, I couldn’t help but feel that it was perhaps too much, too soon.

By the time you’ve reached the half-way point of the first story branch (there are two, by the way, along with a single off-shoot which unlocks later), it’s gone from being ‘quite dark’ to being downright hellish.  Bandits make way to demons.  Priests are swept under the saloon floorboards and satanic cultists are wheeled out by the dozen.  As much as I adore horror and the macabre, I feel it has to be done well in order to work and this was just shoe-horned in unnecessarily.

Removing the oddly placed storyline for a moment, the underlying game is solid, if a little linear.  In the map screen, the role-playing element plays out where your current situation is dictated to you and decisions have to be made about which direction you take yourself.  This, on the surface, wears the mask of a choose-your-own-adventure book where every possible option is made available to you and gives the impression that you are in full control of your destiny.  The reality, sadly, is that you’re stonewalled for a good portion of this and most of the decisions will result in no change whatsoever and simply send you back to the initial choices while something mundane and seemingly unnecessary is reported.  Once you do make the pre-determined ‘correct’ choice, however, the next stage of your journey will unfold.

With each new step, a fresh area of map will become uncovered and settlements will appear where once was only dust.  It’s then up to you to decide which of these you visit first, but there is no sense of free-roam at any point.  Sure, you can re-visit any existing settlements until they’re once again closed off to you, but these tend only to be areas where traders dwell; the other, more interesting areas, will immediately become mere set pieces once they have served their purpose, never to return to them again.  This means that the veil of freedom is very quickly torn down and the linear nature of Hard West once again prevails.

In the beginning, for example, the option to mine for gold in certain areas is opened up and you have to advance your character’s skills in order to use the various mining methods by exploring each mine to see how much each of the three methods will cost.  In some cases you’ll get a decent return, while others may cost so much to mine that the results yield no profit, and with every successful expedition your tax payable to the local hoods increases. This is the first glimpse of free-roam gameplay where you can dart across the map and visit each mine as you see fit, yet this rather interesting facet is quickly whisked away once you complete that particular area and never again presents itself.  Considering it was a very valid aspect of the Wild West, and introduced a new layer to the game, it was a surprise to see it disappear without warning and further reinforces the linear nature of the game where you can only do whatever the devs want you to.

Whenever you venture into an area where a bandit/cult encounter is about to take place, the loadout screen appears and it’s up to you to provide enough gear for your posse in order to ensure success.  There may be scenarios where certain characters must remain alive for the duration, and your choice of companions is dictated by the story itself so at one point you may have a posse of four well-armed men at your disposal to take on a town of miscreants yet, without real warning, your next face-off may have you on your own or with a single companion who you happened to bump into only a few short moments before.  It all makes for a very disjointed experience and you’re never quite afforded the opportunity to become attached to anyone, which means that death is practically inconsequential from an immersive point of view.

One aspect of the loadout area which appealed to me was the inclusion of poker hands.  Along the way, you will be awarded with various items and traits, from disease through to gold, trinkets through to playing cards.  These cards come with their own special abilities which, when placed within a poker hand, activate a multiplier bonus.  Some cards may increase accuracy while others offer the ability to ‘scream’ at all enemies within a specific radius and knock hit points from them.  Others provide simple benefits such as increased movement speed or a health boost.  The beauty of this is that, if you play it properly and don’t just randomly drop cards into slots, the characters can become more interesting in battle situations.

The flip side to this is that the weapons don’t make much difference in battle, no matter how far you advance in the storyline.  After having purchased virtually every weapon and enhancement on offer, there wasn’t much difference in gameplay other than the number of hit-points per shot were marginally better than from weapons picked up earlier in the game.  Other than the odd boss-type enemy here and there, most could be taken down by a single shot with five or six damage.

Despite all its flaws and inconsistencies, however, there is something quite alluring about Hard West.  There may be points where you’ll roll your eyes at how far CreativeForge Games expect you to stretch your imagination and forgiveness, but it probably won’t stop you from playing through to the end and enjoying the journey, and that’s ultimately the strength of Hard West – it’s a great concept where the devs made some odd choices, but nothing detracts from the fact that the tactical arena is solid, the card-loading aspect works well, and they’re doing something that nobody else has done with the Wild West.

  • Familiar battle arena, which works well
  • Inclusion of poker hands for ability cards in loadout
  • Solid graphics
  • Fantastic narration - excellent voice acting
  • Interesting spin on the Wild West genre
  • Too disjointed in places
  • Very linear, with only the illusion of choice
  • Difficulty doesn't really ramp up over time

If you've come to Hard West because someone told you it was X-COM set in the Wild West, you may be pleasantly surprised, but you may also be very disappointed. The premise is solid, if bleak, but the illusion of choice is quickly overtaken by the linear nature. Ultimately, however, the journey itself is enjoyable and the tactical aspect makes for a very pleasurable, and typical, experience. If you can look beyond the David Lynch approach to consistency, you'll likely have a great time.

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