The American-European 93 cultural exchange treaty pertaining to gaming seemed like an excellent deal when we first signed it. America got our rich medieval history, leading to the creation of such instant classics as The Sims Medieval and Mary Kate & Ashley Join the Crusades, and in return we were to receive the Wild West. Yet the number of games to use that colorful setting remains tragically small to this day. At least Poland is taking the treaty seriously. Developer CreativeForge has produced a rootin’ tootin’ tactical turn-based strategy with that magic bullet, supernatural elements. This is the third game in a row that I’ve played with an underlying occult atmosphere (the other two being Legends of Eisenwald and Shadowrun: Dragonfall), so I painstakingly arranged candles around my desk in the vague shape of a pentagram to further set the mood.
‘Hard West is like X-Com’ is something we’re required by frontier law to say, and this statement holds true except when it doesn’t, which is most of the time. Though Hard West shares similarities to X-Com in its combat, they’ll be no barracks and/or drinking establishment to hire customizable desperadoes here. The Milky Bar Kid isn’t invited to this shindig of a campaign which jumps to different characters whose parallel narratives are told via segmented scenarios.
For the most part, Hard West is a story-driven journey from one crafted battle to the next, with some opportunity for limited adventuring on an overland map. The map contains scattered locations tagged in eye-straining font that become an illegible CAPTCHA test on lower graphical settings. Locations contribute towards resource gathering or activate simplistic text events which typically have a safe option and a risky option, but there’s often no way to know what the consequences could be or the chances for success. These events are over in seconds, giving me the first inkling that Hard West presents a slew of decent ideas, many of which reveal something of an identity conflict. The game wants to be a collection of short stories with an open-world lite presentation and it doesn’t quite gel.
Permanent injuries are another example of Hard West’s unfocused nature. Gunslingers who take major damage can suffer debilitating wounds like a gouged eye or broken leg. These wounds go through stages and start out entirely negative, only to later heal and confer bonuses. A cowboy losing a finger might suffer from reduced aim at first, but end up adapting to be a better shot. It’s a great way to further differentiate between characters. Sadly this isn’t explored further because there just isn’t time. Each scenario lasts a couple of hours before taking the reins of a new character, so a strong feature which could be a supporting pillar of another game is reduced to a side option under the difficulty settings.
The upshot of having no dominant protagonist is the varied perspectives on offer to the player. The undead gunslinger that made a deal with the devil, the inventor trying to cure a madness gripping the land, the madam fleeing a corrupt inquisitor, all have a role to play. These short stories are a lot of fun, more so thanks to a stellar performance from Death himself, who serves as a narrator. Hard West also has vistas disturbed by strong winds, backed by music tinged with a dark theme that does the setting proud. If there’s one thing the game nails like an Old West coffin, it’s atmosphere.
Combat is the only part of the game explained by a brief tutorial (I use the word very loosely) and mostly resembles X-Com. The series hard cover and half cover prompts are instantly recognizable. Two action points enable each character to take two actions such as moving twice, or moving and shoot, or use a combat ability like cannibalism. It’s a solid system encouraging tactical thinking, where you have to commit to actions and the temptation to overextend yourself is a constant threat. Flanking is still the most powerful offensive move and a prolonged long-distance fight isn’t an optimal use of resources no matter how fun it is to blast every glass window with the game’s arsenal of well-balanced authentic Old West weapons.
Incorporating good bits from other games can certainly lead to positive results; however some refinements would also be welcome. Combat has the same weaknesses as X-Com, such as being unable to tell if a location offers a clear line of sight on an enemy before wasting an action to get there. Also only the AI opposition gets overwatch. You don’t deserve it. Hard West does make some changes in the form of the luck stat, a finite bar for each character that depletes with every bullet whizzing by. It can be worth draining a target’s luck by taking an impossible shot and setting them up for another character, though ganging up on a target can be easier said than done if every enemy in the mission starts out alerted to the presence of my maximum squad of four.
Some missions have a setup phase where enemies aren’t aware of your presence, allowing you to get up to a certain point by sneaking past men whose vision is so laughably poor, I can only surmise they’ve been drinking on the job. The Desperados: Wanted Dead or Alive flashbacks last only a moment before it becomes apparent there’s no option to take them out silently. At most you can tell them to reach for the sky for a few turns until they lose patience and draw their weapon. If this part is supposed to be a homage to Desperados, the game isn’t doing itself any favors by drawing comparisons.
I’ve been hard on Hard West, but I’ve got to get the bugbear of single saves off my chest. There’s only one save, which Hard West constantly rewrites. I came to the conclusion long ago that any benefits of one rewritable save for a single-player campaign cannot compare with the drawbacks. This case is no exception as half an hour after the tutorial I got pasted in one of the few optional missions by a large gang. Hard West automatically saves right as the combat starts, so I’m not only locked into this optional fight and not even allowed to check over my equipment first.
Stealth, open-world elements, Hard West is a jack of all trades and master of none. Aside from the corpses of your enemies there isn’t a lot of meat to sink your teeth into, yet gamers yearning to visit the Old West aren’t exactly spoiled for choice right now. Consider giving it a go if you’re keen on the setting. The developer did an admirable job within the limitations of a ninty five thousand dollar Kickstarter project, though ultimately ambition far outweighed the budget.
Despite dragging its spurs, Hard West successfully captures that Old West feel. Just know what you’re getting into.