About 10 years ago I spent a summer obsessed with a Quake 3 mod called Western Quake 3. For 6 weeks I spent most waking hours shooting down cowboys on speeding trains and in one street towns. The bots were of questionable skill but that didn’t matter to me, I just loved using a revolver and the sounds and the world. Since then I’ve craved more wild west in my games. Gun tried it’s best and wasn’t bad, it just wasn’t good. Red Dead is the obvious option and whilst an amazing game and story, it just wasn’t quite “Wild West” enough, it was set late in the era where people, as hard as it is to believe, had become more civilized and industry and cities were taking over the plains and deserts. Well now we have Hard West, a game that tries to bring strategy to a normally chaotic scenario.
Hard West from CreativeForge Games takes many of its cues from XCOM and more recently Shadowrun Returns. You from an isometric view must control your team and take out the enemies or complete objectives in a turn based manner. If combat arises you must consider cover and fields of view, each location you can choose for your character to go to gives you a full, empty or half full shield to show how much cover you are going to be provided with. With limited actions available to you and your team you must consider each step with great depth before confirming if you’re hoping to survive.
Tying all of Hard West together is a series of stories, some featuring the same cast of characters others having players come and go for a short time. All featuring the same dross, person makes deal with someone they shouldn’t have, person trying to survive in harrowing conditions or someone looking for someone; all featuring some aspect of supernatural encounters. A major issue is that each story is a reset for all abilities, items and cards collected. Sometimes this makes sense, you’re a different character, but in the situation where I was carrying a character from the first to the second chapter I was intensely frustrated at just losing the awesome guns and cards I had assigned.
Whilst at its core Hard West is a straight turn based shooter where basic tactics will get you through there are numerous quite fascinating concepts added to the product to give it a slightly different edge to many other games in its style. Firstly there are playing cards, each one provides a buff, but if you assign them to your team members in an order that matches a poker hand you will get an even bigger buff. This provides a great risk reward in terms of buff management and occasionally means you have to change how you were directing a character before. On top of the cards there’s also a consistent character status. If a character gets shot in the back in one mission they will for the next few have a reduced movement range due to their spine being screwed. However, if you keep them alive with this curse of reduced speed and spine then they’ll get over it and get a bonus to aiming as their upper body will be steadier. Finally during combat you have luck, starting at 100% each time someone shoots at you and misses your luck goes down meaning if you don’t deal with that opponent or run away you’ll inevitably get a bullet in your cheek.
The basics of gameplay can be a lot of fun, combat is as deep as you want it to be, if you’re tactically minded you could get a lot out of Hard West. Each character gets two action points, either both for movement or one for movement and one for shooting. Frustratingly firing your gun always ends your turn, as such there’s no fire a shot then run for better cover. Also factor in reloading taking an action and you really need to be playing a few turns in advance. All of it can be greatly satisfying when everything comes together successfully. On the flip side when the opponent seems to get special treatment you can’t help but want to punch the game in the face repeatedly. Opponents are granted attacks of opportunity if you pass close by but the player is not, opponents go invisible when out of line of sight but they always know where the player is hiding. Things like this remind you it’s a game and pulls you out of the experience.
I had numerous technical problems getting Hard West going, according to their Steam Forum I’m not alone. Repeated hard crashes on launch and on many occasions the game bugged out on me. For example I found a point in a mission where I was saving someone from cannibals that if I got the prisoner to stand in a particular space at the end of their turn the game wouldn’t progress and I was forced to restart the mission losing 30 minutes of progress each time.
In terms of design the game hits all the notes its reaching for. The sound and general aesthetic of the world really will draw you in and the droll tones of the narrator fit perfectly with the atmosphere, it’s just a shame that more often than not what he’s saying is a load of old toss. The story is tied together with choose your own adventure optional dialogues, not exactly needed or wanted from the majority of players I have to assume.
When you’re playing Hard West it’s easy to lose 5 hours of your day in one stretch. The game has the potential to be really deep if you want to go down that path but with progress being taken away at the end of each story there seems little reason to go out of your way to explore or really become attached to characters other than viewing them as a resource. Hard West creates a fascinating world and system for you to use, but then snatches it away just when you’re wanting to deep dive into it. Adding a skirmish mode or having a longer story campaign with the same characters and progress would add so much to the player experience. Rather than letting the playing find the shiny whilst panning for gold, you’re left with 8 stories worth of blue balls.