The Western is a genre that has fallen into obscurity in modern pop culture. We are a long way from Clint Eastwood gracing the screen as the Man with No Name in the sixties, back when the Old West was at the height of its popularity. Sure, you will get the occasional revival of gun-toting cowboys in cinema and video games (Red Dead Redemption, for instance), but they are no way near as well-visited as the worlds of fantasy and sci-fi.
It’s very refreshing, therefore, when a game that is inspired by classic shootouts in old dusty saloons and stars tough, no-nonsense Cowboys is released. Hard West, the new RPG-inspired strategic shooter from developers Creative Forge Games, is such a project. It features tactical, turn-based combat (similar to the XCOM series), taking the player through a story of revenge, betrayal, and the occult. It sounds like a fun premise, and the game has some strong ideas going for it, but it lacks the solid execution needed for it to stand out in a month full of monumental releases.
Hard West follows several characters experiencing tough times in the violent, unforgiving era of the Wild West. There are eight chapters, or “scenarios,” to play through, several of which follow a linear story while others branch off to explore the interlinking journeys of other unfortunate souls. The main story arc follows a man named Warren, hell-bent on avenging the death of his love, Florence. His thirst for vengeance is helped somewhat by a mysterious stranger who seems to have granted Warren some supernatural powers.
The game’s core missions take place in some very familiar settings. The developers were definitely going through a checklist of all the locations associated with Westerns when coming up with the level design. You shoot your way through run-down bars, abandoned railway tracks, seedy brothels, and dilapidated mansions. All of them are presented in an isometric view, and while the graphics are far from jaw-dropping, they are good enough. The game also sounds great, featuring a soundtrack by Marcin Przybylowicz of The Witcher III: Wild Hunt fame. The score uses instrumentation commonly related to Westerns, such as classical guitars and horns, but is also given an appropriately sinister edge in the form of unsettling choral chanting.
The combat that makes up the bulk of the game is well thought out but sorely lacking in some much-needed variety. Each turn, you are given two action points for each of your posse (there are power-ups that extend the amount of AP allowed, but the standard is two). Using these points, your character can move in an indicated space, the size of which is determined by their movement stat, or they can shoot.
When you choose to shoot, you are given the probability percentage of your bullet hitting its target, as well as how much damage it will do. The maximum damage a gun can inflict is reduced depending on whether your victim is under full cover, half cover, or no cover. You will discover pretty soon that, on the game’s harder modes at least, you will need to make sure your posse is constantly guarded by some form of cover, as failure to do so can very quickly lead to them becoming a bullet-ridden snack for the vultures.
Luck also plays a big part in the gameplay, but not as you know it. Your luck meter assumes a role similar to magic points in an RPG, in that it can allow the character to perform special attacks when it is full. Higher luck points will also mean that the character is more likely to dodge a bullet, but doing so will deplete their luck so that they might not be as fortunate the next time. Having luck as a main component fits the theme well, and it adds another level of strategy to the proceedings, helping you gauge whether or not you should take certain risks with your characters.
Another interesting idea is that opponents become invisible if they are not in the group’s field of vision. Even though you are given a God-like top down view of the world, if your characters can’t see an enemy, then neither can you. However, you can see any shadows they cast. This introduces a level of caution when advancing through the level, especially when you are about to enter a room or building for the first time and are not sure if a gunman (or gunwoman) is waiting in a corner ready to blow your head off. You are forced to carefully backup against a window and scan every room, instead of charging through and mowing down everyone in sight.
There are some other features present in the game that I really like, particularly how the developers have brought some classic RPG features into the hardened, boozy world of the Wild West. My favourite is how the character skill trees are presented, taking the form of a poker game.
Throughout the game, you will earn different playing cards that each represent either a new ability or a stat boost. These include things like the ability to activate demonic strength, a cannibalism card that allows you to dine on your deceased fellow combatants for extra health, and the Golden Bullet, which guarantees the character a direct hit no matter what is obstructing their line of sight. These can all be assigned to your current posse in the scenario you are playing via the character screen.
There’s a twist, however, as additional bonuses can be gained from forming actual poker hands when you allocate the cards. So, for instance, giving a character a pair of aces would improve their movement, and giving them a full house will greatly increase luck. It adds an extra level of thought to how you assign the characters their skills and is sure to be appreciated by any poker fan.
Although Hard West‘s core gameplay does feature these clever qualities, I found that it wasn’t enough to make the game stay compelling throughout all of its missions. The main problem is that there isn’t enough variety in its mission objectives or its level design. A pattern quickly emerges where you are dropped into a map and ordered to clear all of your adversaries one by one. I’ll admit that there is something satisfying about landing a hit on an unsuspecting foe from the other side of the building with a scoped shot, but there are only so many times you can do it before the thrill wears off.
While the game does try to change the circumstances—one mission you are interrupting an execution, another you are defending your home—they all ultimately amount to carrying out the same process. When I had just completed two of the eight scenarios, I already felt boredom setting in; I felt as though I had experienced most of what the game had to offer. You take cover, aim and shoot, advance, and then repeat, continuing to move your group around like pawns on a board.
And that touches on one of the main issues with the game as far as the story is concerned—all the characters are just pawns. Nothing but lifeless, insignificant figures being moved around a chessboard. None of them, despite the game’s best efforts to give context and motivation to their missions through nicely-illustrated comic-book style cinematics, ever come off as being interesting. The cliched tales of bloodlust and making deals with the Devil felt so tired that hardly any of them held my attention.
I had a similarly apathetic attitude towards the characters; companions came and went without me realising, being gunned down in one mission to be replaced by another generic face for the next. It doesn’t help things that from the top-down isometric view, all the characters look interchangeable anyway. The game also fails to make its villains feel truly intimidating. The demon characters that eventually come into play, who all look like a hillbilly version of Tim Curry’s Prince of Darkness from Legend, fail to offer a formidable challenge. They are just slightly stronger versions of regular enemies.
The overworld segments in between the missions are undeniably dull. You take control of a cow skull icon, representing your posse, as you simply guide it from location to location as the game unfolds its narrative through large amounts of text. It is here where the game’s choice mechanic is put into play, but the choices seem so minor and ultimately ineffective that it’s very hard to ever care.
You are tasked with having to read through boxes and boxes of lifeless writing as the game tries its best to make you care about the story, occasionally having multiple responses presented to you. Throughout my playthrough of the game, there was never a time where I felt that what I chose ever had an impact on the gameplay. Sure, there were times where choosing to go down a dangerous looking path got my character injured, impeding his stats in battle, but I could then just go and have him instantly healed at either a church or a campsite, so I never felt there was any real risk involved.
The gameplay in these segments, which take up a lot more time than you would think, basically amounts to the mission objectives telling you to “move across the map and click on this location. OK, now move over to this place and click here.” Activities like mining and hunting, which are compulsory in some of the scenarios, are done by constantly clicking a text option until you strike lucky, then repeating this process until you have gained enough provisions to be able to progress.
There are some very small puzzles that are worked in as well, but they are too few and far too easy to ever provide a sufficient amount of variety. Of the two that I can remember, one involved putting a story in order while another has you deduce, using various descriptions, which is the right grave to dig up for a reward. It’s all disappointingly simple. In fact, the overworld sections would seem completely redundant if it weren’t for the fact that you require them for buying support items and new guns, as well as earning more playing cards for your characters’ skills and abilities.
Hard West has some good ideas behind it, and there are certainly things about it I admire. Overall, however, I would be lying if I said I enjoyed my experience with it. I found the gun-fighting gameplay fun at first, but it soon struggled to sustain my interest past the second or third scenario. The choice system isn’t diverse enough to encourage multiple playthroughs, and the combat system is too repetitive to barely recommend it the first time round. Fans of tactical, strategic combat may find more to love, but this tale of blood, bullets, and cowboys left me cold.
This review is based on the PC version of the game.
Hard West has a strong concept and is fun for a while, but because the core gameplay soon becomes monotonous, along with having some awful overworld segments, the game is difficult to recommend.