Well howdy, partner. Y’look tired. Been riding long? Pull up a seat by the fire, pour yourself a whisky, and I’ll spin you a yarn that’ll make your chin-bristles quiver. It’s a tale o’ men and monsters, of gunplay, of confusion and setbacks, of hell-bound damnation, and of redemption. And I ain’t just jawin’ about the plot.
I’m going to stop talking like that now because I am very bad at it.
I backed Hard West when it was originally on Kickstarter, promising a mix of XCOM-style turn-based tactical battles and a Fallout style overworld, married together with a Weird West setting combining cowboys and cultists. Or at least, that’s the impression I got.
From memory, the part that had me convinced (and I will fully admit that I may have read into the pitch what I wanted to read, and my memory is far from flawless) was talk about how only a few shots would kill, and a lot of the combat focus would be on cool tricks, like spotting a lurking foe by their shadow and then ricocheting a bullet off a bell to take them down. I mean, come on. That sounds amazing.
The end result is rather less than amazing, but I haven’t regretted backing Hard West for even a moment of the 20-odd hours I spent playing it. Even when it pissed me off.
Undoubtedly, the star of the show is the setting. The Weird West is something that’s horribly underrepresented in gaming (I mean, there’s Silverload and… uh…) and that probably adds more than a little to the joy of Hard West. This is a horror-styled variant of the Wild West, where cowboys, bandits, saloons, and prostitutes with hearts of gold deal with the Devil, clash with cultists, cavort with cannibals, mingle with madness, and pick up powerful artifacts of Mesoamerican deities.
I’d have loved to have seen some zombies, werewolves, and vampires in there (although the former is alluded to at least once), but I’m perfectly happy with the central theme being the Devil’s machinations, with occasional implications of ancient abominations and terrifying Things in the shadows.
Cleverly, there’s next to no voice acting throughout, which is a serious plus. Hammy voice-overs and crap acting could’ve ruined the sheer style of the world; instead, the only voice you’ll hear is that of Death, the narrator, whose gruff Southern twang brings back memories of Bastion‘s own superb narration. I suspect this might be a budgetary thing rather than a deliberate choice, but it works out as a positive.
What I wasn’t expecting is how the game actually functions, because I was expecting more of a single-scenario game with a big world. Instead, Hard West is divided into eight scenarios, four of which follow the primary story of Warren and his father – cursed and set down a dark path by the Devil – while the other four are side scenarios, offering a more detailed look at some of the other characters that crop up and the events leading up to (and running alongside) Warren’s story.
As mentioned before, each of those scenarios has two parts: an overworld, which has you visit locations and make Choose Your Own Adventure-like decisions which impact the way the scenario plays out; and the tactical combat, which kicks off whenever a fight breaks out.
I like the overworld stuff. There are no manual saves so decisions really do feel important in terms off how you handle situations, and there’s often risk/reward involved. Searching that shipwreck might get you some extra cash to spend on weapons and provisions, true, but it might also collapse on you, forcing you to either fight a few battles with stat-reducing wounds or to spend some cash at a doctor to fix your posse up. Need some dynamite for one quest? Well, you could try stealing it from the local mine, or murder everyone there and take it… or maybe you’ve already stolen some identification that’ll just let you claim it without trouble and without risk. Not major changes, but enough that each scenario feels like it’s “yours”.
Each scenario also has a different mechanic on the overworld, which – again – changes things up. One has you trying to draw a crime boss out of hiding by causing as much mayhem as possible and raising the bounty on your head to the point where he can’t ignore you. Another divides each “day” into five sections, and forces you to manage food supplies lest your party go hungry. Each offers something different; some are decent, some are a bit rubbish, but all of them offer a unique identity to each scenario.
Unfortunately, the scenarios don’t really follow on from each other. Warren might have been loaded down with guns and money by the end of his first scenario, but start his second, and he’s pretty much back to his old six-shooter and shotgun. This… sort of makes sense, given the time lapses between scenarios, but the lack of consistency means there isn’t much feeling of actual progression. Only one thing carries over, and that’s a trio of unlockable items in each scenario. Once unlocked, they can be purchased from a specific trader who crops up in every scenario. That’s it.
The meat of the game is really in the tactical combat, though, which takes an awful lot of inspiration from the XCOM remake. Each rootin’-tootin’ member of your gunslinging posse has two action points for use per turn, with shooting ending his or her turn; you can either move twice, move and shoot, or shoot once. There are exceptions – some weapons allow shooting twice – but that’s generally how it works.
It employs the same half-cover/full-cover system, too, although this seems to impact damage more than accuracy. Someone in full cover might still get shot, but they will take significantly less damage, with each weapon dealing different amounts of damage to targets in the open, in half cover, and in full cover. A low-penetration weapon like a concealed pistol will do sod-all damage to someone hiding behind a wall, but a massive elephant gun will pierce through and inflict a fair bit more.
Hard West has some genuinely unique twists on this formula, too. There are plenty of abilities on offer (“Transfusion” swaps the health of the caster and the target; “Dodge” guarantees that all shots at that target will miss unless they have 100% accuracy, and then there’s the aforementioned Ricochet) but these cost Luck. And Luck is a really, really weird stat.
When you get shot at, and the enemies miss, you lose Luck – seemingly proportional to the chance they had to hit you. When you get shot at and they hit, you gain Luck, which I think is proportional to the damage done. And Luck is, as mentioned, what you use to fuel your abilities… so if you have someone loaded down with a lot of abilities, you really want them to stick to the shadows and have everyone else draw fire. I’m not actually sure if having a high Luck “guarantees” a shot will miss as long it’s not a 100% chance; I don’t know if having 95 Luck and being shot at with a 72% chance to hit will result in a miss that removes 72 of your Luck. It sort of seems that way, but I don’t know.
You doubtless noticed a lot of “I think”, “it seems”, and “I don’t know” in that last paragraph, and that’s one of my big issues with Hard West: it does an awful job of explaining its core mechanics. The tutorial is mercifully brief – it is, almost literally, about four turns long – but I’d really have appreciated some tooltips explaining how Luck functions or what the Aim stat actually means. Sure, I know that Aim 65 is better than Aim 50, but I don’t know how much better.
I also learned far, far too late that the loading screens for tactical missions do have tooltips… but only if you restart the mission partway through. When loading in from the strategic map, it gives an overview of the plot reason why you’re there and what your mission is. When you restart, it tells you incredibly useful things like “You have a 100% chance to hit if within five tiles, and shots from adjacent tiles completely ignore cover.”
I’ve got a slew of minor issues – the ending is rubbish, a few of the mysterious plot elements turn out to be not mysterious at all, I’d love the option to speed up combat animations, missions should auto-save partway through so that if you fail towards the end you don’t have to go back through the entire setup phase again unless you want to, failing a mission should let you change your equipment and cards – but with the exception of the story stuff, those are all pretty fixable.
Rather more problematically, there is a serious dearth of enemy types. You’ve basically got enemies with pistols, enemies with shotguns, enemies with rifles, and – occasionally – demons, or one-off foes, and I don’t think I ever saw enemies use abilities. This limits the tactics of the tactical sections pretty significantly, but it’s hidden quite well by the varied objectives and styles of each tactical encounter. Some might have you trying to reach a particular area against heavy opposing forces (with optional objectives to steal supplies en route), while others might task you with capturing a fort and then holding it off against reinforcements. Still: no mounted gatling guns, very few supernatural foes, no horse-riding bandits…
Then there are the bugs. I didn’t encounter many of these up until the very final scenario, but that… had a lot. I’m not sure if that’s because I was playing a pre-release build, or if it’s simply because it’s the most ambitious of the scenarios and thus is the one most likely to have issues, but I hit one game-breaker and a few head-scratchers there.
I had to restart the scenario once because an objective didn’t update properly, one objective didn’t update properly within a tactical mission, and one tactical mission had next to no relevance to the Choose Your Own Adventure bit preceding it (after talking my way into a private office and then getting grumpy and shooting an assistant, the tactical scenario had me start outside the area, in stealthy Setup mode, with the assistant – tucked away inside – completely unharmed). And that’s only three examples of many from that scenario.
On the plus side, those aforementioned abilities are pretty great – including some really handy passive ones that let you do things like be completely invisible during the stealth-y “setup” stage some tactical missions have – and they’re linked to playing cards, which can be assembled into poker hands for further bonuses. Assemble it so a character has five ability cards that form a Straight, and they’ll regain 1HP a turn, etc.
As I said, I don’t regret backing Hard West at all. In terms of Kickstarter projects, it reminds me a lot of Shadowrun Returns – a decent enough game that, unfortunately, can’t quite live up to its lofty ambitions and the public’s even loftier expectations. For the price point I’m willing to forgive quite a bit of its clunkiness and rough edges, though I can only hope it follows in Shadowrun Returns‘ footsteps and continues on with extra scenarios or expansions that add plenty more enemies, open things up a bit more, and basically fix all of the niggling little issues present in this first, flawed iteration.