Hard West Review

There’s an old adage that says a cowboy should never place a hat on his bed for fear of inviting bad luck and misfortune into his life. It’s a simple superstition, of course, but one that illustrates the relationship between Western frontiersmen and the otherworldly.

Hard West, like many other pieces of Western fiction, deals in tragedy and superstition. Instead of calling on well-known beliefs like the aforementioned hat or an upright hanging horseshoe, however, Hard West goes one step further by invoking the unholy and the occult, mixing a traditional Western setting with demons, supernatural abilities, and dark deals at long-forgotten crossroads. Hard West stands with one spurred boot planted in the realm of tactical turn-based games, while the other boot – the one with the sulfur stench – stands beside the devil himself.

Perhaps the best part of Hard West is that it takes pleasure in its alignment with the dark side. The game is packed with forsaken characters and bleak situations, which creates an atmosphere that can ensnare players and keep them engaged throughout the game.

Within moments of starting Hard West’s campaign, the familiar elements of its Western setting give way to the supernatural horror that informs the rest of the player’s experience. A woman, the mother of our protagonist and the wife of a man later dubbed “Undertaker,” is found beheaded during the game’s tutorial mission. It’s a shocking discovery, but the knowledge that the act was committed as some kind of unholy bargain between outlaws and the devil, sets the tone for the rest of the game.

The following eight scenarios are an interconnected series of vignettes that rotate between the perspectives of a few different characters, each narrated by a literal representation of Death. Warren and the Undertaker make up the main narrative arc – which revolves around a deal with the devil for a chance at revenge from beyond the grave, and a trip to purgatory to save a damned soul – while the other scenarios feature revolving casts. The game attempts something different in the story department by weaving shifting points of view together, but in doing so, it leaves too many holes in the overall narrative. Players are expected to take Death’s narration as the be all end all of the story, but it can be difficult to keep up with all of the jumps in logic between each chapter.

Hard West’s twenty hours are divided up between story-specific combat missions and overworld exploration. They’re two markedly different parts, but the game’s combat is much more of an enjoyable experience. Borrowing liberally from the likes of XCOM and Shadowrun, players move each character in their party individually with the goal of outmaneuvering enemy units. Character have two usable action points per turn, providing for both movement and attack points. It’s standard strategy stuff mostly, with the exception of the luck stat.

Luck functions as a resource in Hard West. Visible alongside a character’s health display, luck determines if a character takes damage from an enemy attack and also governs ability usage. Because of how quickly characters can be killed – usually within two or three shots – keeping an eye on each party member’s luck is the key to surviving any given battle.

In addition to luck, Hard West’s skills and abilities elevate combat past the point of XCOM emulation. Throughout the game, players can acquire different playing cards. Each of these cards correlates to a battle skill. Ranging from ricocheting bullets, to cannibalism, and the ability to become invisible in shadows, Hard West’s skills fall right in line with the supernatural tone of the game. They also add a new layer to combat, giving players plenty of options when it comes down to defeating the legions of gun-toting enemies that populate each map.

It’s also worth noting that Hard West goes the extra mile by giving players a few different ways to handle each challenge. Most missions begin in what’s called a “setup” phase, where players can move each party member a short distance without having to fear enemy fire as long as they avoid their cone of vision. The setup stage allows for some stealthy maneuvering, where savvy players – or ones who specialize in stalking their foes from the shadows – can get the upper hand before a bullet is ever fired. These pseudo-stealth segments are never mandatory, but they can be a welcome diversion.

The overworld sections of Hard West are the game’s biggest problem. When not in combat, players are free to roam around each scenario’s map. There are numerous locations that litter a given map, including taverns, ghost towns, and abandoned mines. During the first chapter or two, the overworld exploration seems like it could be something special, as it allows players to interact with locations and characters in a manner similar to a “choose your own adventure” game. The branching story paths can lead players on an expedition for cursed riches or leave them crippled and maimed after making a bad decision, but it quickly loses its luster. Because the overworld sections lack any form of manual saving, it’s entirely possible to make a poor decision and wind up grossly underprepared for the next mandatory battle.

Additionally, because of how poorly the game handles saves and checkpoints, it’s easy to lose the motivation to explore Hard West’s various haunts. Most of the overworld locations have interesting things to uncover – like cannibal farms and native tribes that possess knowledge of a demon’s secret lair – but because of the constant threat of potentially hampering your success in the next battle, it’s often too much of a risk to explore outside of the mandatory locations.

Hard West is not a game without ambition. The unfortunate problem is that it’s a game hampered by its own vision. For everything that the game does right, like its attention-grabbing setting and supernatural atmosphere, it’s bogged down by the slow pace of overworld exploration and less-than-stellar storytelling. Luckily, Hard West’s combat is deep enough to carry the slack, especially with the number of devious skills players can use to wage supernatural warfare.

Raymond Porreca is a freelance writer from Philadelphia, PA. Follow @rayporreca on Twitter for more video game-related ramblings.