Developer: CreativeForge Games
Publisher: Gamibitious Digital Entertainment
Release Date: Nov 18, 2015
Hard West had all the right ingredients that got me excited about its Kickstarter campaign: tactical XCOM combat, Western setting, supernatural elements, choice-driven gameplay. The end result is something of a mixed bag, mostly due to its shoestring indie budget and odd campaign structure.
Hard West mostly tells a classic Western story of revenge. Warren loses his parents, then his girlfriend, then his life (life was rough back then, man). He’s given a second chance with a not-so-subtle Deal with the Devil, and begins his quest for vengeance. Also an ill-conceived quest to bring back his dead girlfriend.
Now I said “mostly tells” because that story represents only a fraction of the total campaign. And here we come to the crux of my issues with Hard West.
The game is divided into eight individual scenarios: two campaigns, plus an additional prologue scenario. However, even these campaigns star different characters and stories. Warren’s story, for example is told in only half of his actual campaign. The other half focusing on his father, who becomes a badass cursed mercenary called the Undertaker.
A second campaign starts off only tangentially related to Warren’s story. A scientist researches the odd demonic activity happening in our corner of the Western world (and appears to be attributed to a meteorite, which I presume is a nod to Night of the Living Dead). Each subsequent scenario in that campaign spins off the previous one, with a new protagonist and posse. At one point you even kill the protagonist of the previous scenario, which is a neat twist.
The way these scenarios can intertwine the characters can be really cool. But I quickly realized it’s a way to maintain the balance of the game.
Each scenario has its own overland map filled with events and choices that grant you various advantages or injuries. Sometimes you might even gain or lose party members. Each one also has its own unique gameplay hook, with varying degrees of success. In one you have to feed and maintain your crew; in another you manage your character’s limited premonitions to grant you advantages.
No matter how you performed in each of the 3-4 hour scenarios, you’re stripped of everything and begin anew in the next one. There’s a real lack of progression in the game. There’s no leveling or experience.
Skills are tied to equippable poker cards, which is an appropriately thematic touch. You can mix and match them on any character, but this has the disadvantage of making nearly every character completely interchangeable and forgettable. And thanks to the Luck resource, I rarely had a chance to ever use any skills anyway.
So, the combat. The tactical combat is really fun. Each scenario has 3-5 combat encounters, sometimes even back to back. The level designs are big and filled with large two story houses and forts you can fortify or infiltrate.
The XCOM comparison is completely apt. Each character has two action points you can use with a combination of moving, shooting, and activating abilities.
Partial and full cover exists, and is even more important than XCOM as cover actually reduces the amount of damage you take. Flanking becomes absolutely critical, though is sadly one of the few tactical options you ever have.
The Ricohet skill is by far the most useful – able to paint a deadly path of bullets around corners to hit foes deep in cover. It’s so fun I wish it was just a standard ability on everyone, rather than a single equippable skill.
Guns come in the familiar Western sizes of rifles, pistols, and shotguns. However due to the supernatural, “Weird West” setting you see increasingly outlandish and crazy weapon designs, like shotguns with a dozen barrels or a single-shot Bonehand Rifle that pretty much kills anything in one hit.
Performing certain tasks or milestones in a scenario unlocks these unique weapons for future scenarios, though you still have to purchase them. It’s a neat idea, but it also means you end up using the same really good weapons over and over in the later scenarios.
The combat shines when you have enough allies to pull of some Clever Girl Velociraptor in Jurassic Park flanking maneuvers. Get in a standoff shootout with someone on a balcony, and sneak in another character into the house to blow them away from behind with a shotgun. It’s a fun tactic that the AI will absolutely use against you as well. No XCOM-style overwatch system exists, but annoyingly the AI gets a free shot if you get too close to them from the front.
It does feature the Concealment mechanic recently seen in XCOM 2. In most scenarios the enemy starts off non-hostile, but with a cone of sight like a stealth game. You can maneuver your forces around to grab map objectives or get in the best possible spot before starting combat. It’s very time-consuming but satisfying when you can murder several enemies right at the beginning.
Successfully dodging a shot drains your Luck (I think by the percentage chance of the shot). Characters often have 100-150 luck, while a decent shot could drain 60 luck in a single blast. Most skills cost luck to activate. Really good ones, like damaging everyone in range or firing a guaranteed shot, cost a lot of luck to activate. If you’re getting shot at all your luck is pretty much nil.
In reverse, getting hit restores your luck. Hopefully you’re in cover and not taking much damage, because health is always very low, around 10 for each person. It’s bad to get hit, therefore you rarely have enough luck to work with. The Luck balance feels a bit out of whack, but I still never had much of a problem on Medium difficulty, even when vastly overwhelmed.
Despite its limitations I enjoyed the combat. Each map is a lot of fun to traverse. There’s no fog of war but enemies will be hidden unless you can sense them nearby. Many battles have varied objectives, such as holding out in a fort for a certain amount of turns, freeing imprisoned potential allies and quickly escaping, or activating machines around a laboratory while an army bears down on you.
The overland map portion of each scenario feels heavily randomized with each choice you make. Without a proper save system (think Shadowrun Returns‘ autosave only) you have to live with whatever comes. None of them are devastating and overall I found it well-balanced on Medium difficulty, but many of the scenarios’ unique hooks felt underdeveloped and mostly inconsequential.
The main focus definitely lies in the combat, and it works well. The Western themes are fun and well-realized in both the gameplay and the writing – especially the sardonic narrator Death. The “Weird West” setting combines many familiar Horror tropes with Western ones, and the ending is appropriately dark and messed up. Worth playing if you enjoy XCOM-style tactical combat, but be prepared to forgive its quirky flaws.
- Effective XCOM-style cover-based tactical combat
- Large, well-designed maps with a fun variety of objectives and tasks
- Unique “Weird West” setting combines Horror and Western themes
- Supernatural Western setting also allows for lots of goofy, cool guns, as well as more diverse combatants (like, uh, women)
- Ricochet is fun as hell
- No manual saving, but you can restart each combat level
- Individual scenarios break up any sense of progression and advancement
- Most scenarios’ unique gameplay mechanic are largely inconsequential
- Most skills cost way too much Luck to ever use
- Characters mostly feel interchangeable