Reviews

Hard West Review – Things Ain’t Easy In The Wild West

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Platforms: PC
Reviewed On: PC
Developer: Creative Forge Games
Publisher: Gambitious Digital Entertainment
Singleplayer: Yes
Multiplayer: No

As pitches for videogames go, XCOM with cowboys, demons and other supernatural goodness isn’t a bad one. Hell, I’d fund it. Hard West sets itself firmly in the weird western pulp-genre while also grabbing itself some of that lovely turn-based combat that made XCOM: Enemy Unknown so popular among the more die-hard gamers seeking a challenge. The end result is certainly flawed in a few key areas, but the mashup is a fun one. Hard West brings a few good ideas to the table, then almost manages to slip and put itself through that table, but ultimately comes out unscathed, a tad sheepish and ready to shoot any varmint in the face.

Hard West starts off with strong determination to make itself feel different from other games by ditching the single story approach and instead tells several stories that intertwine around a central character named Warren, starting off with a father and son mining gold in order to get back on the Oregon trail, moving on to an inventor trying to discover the source of madness and then progressing through a few others as well, each typically lasting around two hours or so. The quality of the writing is certainly hit and miss, especially some of the text which can be almost physically painful to read, but the mixture of cowboys and the supernatural creates a compelling world that helps mask some of those problems. The music was handled by Polish composer Marcin Przybylowicz, the same man responsible for The Witcher 3’s score, and he manages to capture an unsettling, lonesome tone that neatly combines the two genres. The overall atmosphere is indeed pretty good, the art style focusing on a hand-drawn look packs in a reasonable amount of detail, selling this odd world as a real place, at least until somebody’s gun clips through a wall. The entire thing is narrated by none other than Death himself, the voice supplied by a fine actor who is the highlight of the entire plot, dropping his lines with a sardonic, dry tone.

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One immediate problem is that the game is a bit crap at showing you how certain things work. Take the ricochet ability, for instance, which lets you bounce a bullet off of metallic surfaces before embedding it in someone’s skull. It’s a cool ability, for sure, but the game never tells you how to actually use it, until you happen to notice that some surfaces have a little yellow glow indicating that you can ricochet shots off of it. Thanks, Hard West. The tutorials actually forget to mention quite a lot which can cause some mild frustration, but as always if you’ve been playing games for a while you’ll pick everything up quickly.

Out in the field Hard West’s core mechanics form a simple and quite familiar turn-based strategy game – You place your posse of goons into cover with a click of the mouse and attempt to flank the enemy for better shots, with one or two successful bullets to the face usually being enough to put down all but the very toughest of foes. Everybody gets two actions points every turn to use, with actions like moving and reloading taking up a single point, so by using up both you can sprint a good distance across the battlefield, but could potentially leave yourself vulnerable by doing so. Most guns when fired will end the turn – although some don’t, allowing two shots per turn- so taking a shot at an enemy is typically the last thing done. Actually taking that shot is governed by a number which indicates how likely it is you’ll actually hit the target. Apart from that there’s really not much more to the combat, as Hard West seems to forgo many of the basic abilities typically seen in the genre, so there’s no options for hunkering down, for example,

An interesting twist to the formula is luck, which works in conjunction with the cover system and range to determine when a character gets shot and how much damage they’ll take. Like XCOM and other games within the genre when you take aim at someone a percent chance of hitting them is displayed based on a variety of factors. However, luck also works its way into this; if a characters luck meter is high then the bullet is more likely to sail past them, but if it does fly by then their luck drops and thus they become more likely to get shot.  Being in cover mitigates the amount of luck lost with every bullet that goes whistling past a characters face, so its good to stick to solid walls unless there’s a sound tactical advantage to be gained from moving to less protected areas. Actually getting shot, though, increases luck. If that wasn’t odd enough your special skills and abilities are all powered by luck as well, with some taking a considerable amount to utilise, so by activating a powerful ability your more likely to take a bullet on the next turn, forcing you to consider . It’s a unique twist to the genre, as far as I’m aware, one that brings an extra layer of strategy into battle. It can create weird situations where being receiving a glancing blow that deals a measly one damage is almost a good thing because with the increased luck you can unleash a devastating ability that turns the tide of battle. It also means that it’s worth taking shots that are never going to hit simply to deplete the enemy’s luck meter and make future hits more likely, while also punishing you for not constantly attacking and pushing.

A shocking surprise is the lack of any sort of Overwatch ability, a staple of the genre. For those of you who don’t know what Overwatch is, it’s essentially a skill that allows a character to take a free shot at the first foe that moves through their line of sight during the enemy turn, usually with a hefty penalty to aim designed to stop the ability being too powerful. Essentially this skill is to penalize simply running across open ground in order to get within a space or two of a target and then blast them at close range, while enabling defensive play for when you’re outgunned or struggling with wounded troops. Hard West has opted to forgo this, the developers stating that the intention was to keep players aggressive rather than hunkering down and abusing Overwatch. It’s a fine idea, but in practice I quickly got fed up of enemy AI appearing from the fog of war, sidling up to my posse and blasting them in the face for an instant kill. The problem is even more frustrating because quite a lot of enemy characters DO have an overwatch style ability that triggers if you get close to them, thus it’s perfectly okay for them to run right up to your characters and shoot them, but not okay for you to do it. It makes advancing difficult, too, because if you misjudge distances while trying to close up the enemy will simply waltz up to your character and shoot them.

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It’s a problem, but not a game breaking one because thankfully Hard West does have a number of other cool abilities that help redeem it. Take for instance giving a character the transfusion and cannibilism cards. When used in combination they let character can swap health with an ally that’s been heavily wounded, and then run around the battlefield literally eating corpses to regain health. There’s also a cool, if heavily underutilized, system where you can spot enemies by their shadow and then shoot them through cover, provided the material is thin enough for bullets to pass through. Other sweet skills include Golden Bullets that can pass through any material and has a 100% chance of hitting and an ability that lets characters turn invisible when standing in shadow, plus there’s plenty of other supernatural stuff, too, such as turning into a demon. Rather than employing a skill tree system where individual characters are leveled up all available skills are controlled using a card system where you earn playing cards that sport different abilities and them assign them to your roster. This means that no one character is locked into a specific role as you can always swap out the cards they are carrying. There’s some extra depth to be found in using cards to form traditional poker hands to provide even more boosts, some a pair of aces will increase movement, for example.

You can also acquire extra gear and weapons to equip, with each character capable of taking two guns and three pieces of equipment into combat, such as amulets that increase total luck capacity, health kits, shaman’s pipes, stun grenades and more.

A slightly odd design decision is that enemies don’t trigger when first spotted, which is to say that when you come across one on the map they don’t head straight for cover, rather they’ll stand in the open, often letting you get a free shot provided you didn’t spend all available action points. Also missing is a Hunker Down style skill that lets heavily wounded characters take up a defensive stance, typically with a penalty to sight radius or such. Again, this feeds into Hard West’s desire to have players remain aggressive rather than letting the enemy come to them.

Another interesting idea is the setup stage that you encounter at the start of certain missions. In these your characters holster their guns and can calmly make their way through the level, provided they don’t raise the suspicion of the enemies by walking into their cones of vision. Foes can even be subdued while you carefully position your troops for the best possible start to combat. This can make the difference between victory and defeat as these missions tend to be crawling with bad guys, so ensuring you’ve got a strong starting position is priority. In one early example the goal is to free a prisoner, but the very same key can also be used to lock the doors of the main house, stopping a number of enemies giving chase when you escape, meaning you only have to kill the guards in the outer courtyard to win.

Outside of the turn-based combat Hard West sets out to differentiate itself further by letting you click around an overworld sprinkled with locations that change depending on which part of the story you’re playing through. In the first chapter, for example, you can roam the map mining for gold in order to get back on the trail to Oregon, while the second scenario introduces a strange mechanic in which you can go slowly insane due to the spreading Madness by taking too many risks. The second scenario also features blueprints that can be spent to construct new items, instead of buying stuff from traders. These small, additional mechanics are appreciated. On this overworld map there’s plenty of decisions to be made, potentially getting your posse wounded and such, or rewarding you with powerful bonuses. Some of these come obviously; pressing too far into a cave in search of treasure results in injury, but other times consequences are nearly impossible to see coming. It’s a nice idea, except that almost all of your choices feel inconsequential, and almost all of them are nothing more than illusions of choice.  The developers attempt to carry this them through to the combat missions where dead characters are simply gone forever, although story critical character’s deaths result in a game over screen unlike something like XCOM where everyone is expendable. Secondary characters tend to get replaced quickly, though, so you won’t feel their loss. Indeed, it’s hard to form a connection with any of these characters, primary or secondary, thanks to the writing, and because each scenario forces you to leave behind any gear and characters  there’s no sense of continuity. Thinking back to XCOM: Enemy Unknown I loved every soldier, which was what made their deaths feels so tragic, but here people fell in combat and all I could think about was how that was one gun less.

Hard West is a generally challenging game, and the save system is unforgiving, auto-saving after every decision or before every battle to ensure that you don’t just load up a previous checking in order to swing the odds in your favor. On the one hand its nice to be forced into dealing with the fallout of your own decisions, but on the other hand because you usually can’t see what sort of fight you’re getting into knowing whether you’re prepared or not is damn near impossible, so being stuck in a level where you are entirely outgunned and don’t have the manpower or equipment to deal with it is common. Still, the game is never completely unfair, and even a seemingly impossible situation can be overcome with just the primary story characters with enough perseverance.

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Okay, actually, that’s a lie because sometimes the game IS completely unfair. Enemies charging in and shotgunning you is the prime example but we’ve already talked about that. There are a few other glaring issues that stem from glitches and design decisions that need addressing. Bullets going through walls and enemies making clearly impossible shots crop up more than they should. Sometimes you’ll find yourself wondering what the hell is going on behind the scenes, too, as shots that look awkward and hard to pull off will have a 100% chance of success while standing a few feet away from someone with a perfectly clear line of sight may somehow be given a mere 10%. This is the luck system at play, but frankly common sense should trump luck in these instances. Losing a combat scenario because somebody missed a seemingly unmissable shot just isn’t very fun. Likewise being told a shot was impossible when it clearly wasn’t, as proven by enemies managing it, was annoying. The camera has no fine adjustment and is frequently crap at letting you judge angles, so there’s going to be a lot of situations where you believe yourself to be safe and aren’t. Finally I experienced two hard crashes and a few graphical bugs.

So wrapping up Hard West brings some nice ideas to the table, even if they don’t entirely work, and there’s a solid turn-based strategy game underneath it all that should satisfy that XCOM itch. And yes, I know I keep referencing XCOM, but seriously, Enemy Unknown was bloody awesome, so I remain unapologetic. With such a low price-tag Hard West is a steal for fans of the genre looking for a tactical fix. It doesn’t set the world ablaze with its brilliance, but does kind a small fire with its competence.

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