West of Dead Review

Gaming article by Alex Santa Maria on Thursday, June 18, 2020 - 07:00
Review
Topic(s): Indie
Developer
Raw Fury
Publisher
Upstream Arcade
Release Date
June 18, 2020
Monetization
One Time Purchase
Purchase (Some links may be affiliated)
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Showdown At The Edge of Oblivion

It's been just under two years since the release of Red Dead Redemption 2. That's just enough time for Rockstar's blockbuster to inspire a host of peers to present their own cowboy fantasies. This week alone, THQ Nordic revived the Desperados franchise to great effect, and Headup deployed smart 2D pixel art shooter Colt Canyon. There's one more name to add to the list, a stylish and moody roguelike that takes from the best and offers more. Developed by Upstream Arcade and published by Raw Fury, West of Dead is an excitingly original take on procedural dungeon crawling that shoots from the hip and asks questions later.

What is West of Dead's Story?

You play as William Mason, a recently deceased lawman stuck in purgatory and out for revenge. He's not sure who he aims to take out, but he feels the injustice in his bones. Whenever he dies, he ends up passed out in a bar, stripped of his weapons, and ready for another round with the various haunts and wanderers stalking the halls of the damned. It's a gritty and unique aesthetic that really stands out, combining weird west and the occult with a shadowy climate thick with tension.

West of Dead's atmosphere would probably be great even if William Mason was a silent protagonist, but the team really went the extra mile by bringing in Hellboy himself. Ron Perlman brings weight to Mason's every line, acting as a Bastion-esque narrator and commenting on your gameplay as if it were an old war story. This goes from perfect to just effective as time goes on, mainly due to a few lines that repeat too often. It's killer when Perlman reacts to your situations perfectly, but the forced repetition of the roguelike genre brings it down.

West of Dead Swamp
It ain't easy being dead either.

What Games Inspired West of Dead's mechanics?

Taking inspiration from the Isaac/Gungeon school of roguelikes, West of Dead sees Mason wander through everchanging labyrinths filled with combat arenas, treasure rooms, and upgrade stations. It borrows the latter from Dead Cells, letting players boost health, gun damage, or the efficiency of special items like dynamite and throwing axes. There are stores to purchase new items and a witch who lets you invest orbs of Sin you gather from enemies into new guns. Outside of the first set, these unlocks require serious investment, but that contrasts well with the thrill of unloading a bunch of currency during a particularly good run.

Unlike its prime inspirations, West of Dead has 3D graphics that force the camera to shift perspective constantly, leading to some wonky angles and navigational woes. You'll sometimes find oddly placed corners and corridors that go nowhere in the randomized maps, and you never quite get your bearings on moving around. It's nothing that really harms the experience, but it does ruin the pacing often enough to be worth mentioning. You want to lose yourself in this type of game, so anything snapping you back to reality can be a huge detriment. 

West of Dead Lucky
Who's the punk now?

Speaking of navigation, one of West of Dead's biggest problems is how stingy it can be with basic features of the genre. The most obvious example crops up throughout your first few runs. As you explore, you'll notice huge glowing circles in rooms where your path can diverge in a few directions. If you've played Enter the Gunegon or its ilk, you might correctly guess that these pads serve to teleport you around the map so you can avoid backtracking and quickly explore every nook and cranny on offer.

However, you can't actually use these pads until you beat the first boss, making your initial runs slower than they need to be. The maps were obviously implemented with this teleportation in mind, so holding it back from the player doesn't make a lot of sense. Beating new bosses unlock other features that add variety to the experience, but I feel like the slow burn of unlocking new weapons and items already gives you enough incentive to keep playing. Instead of inviting in new players with simplicity, holding back the complexities of the title masks just how much it has to offer. 

How Do Weapons Feel In West of Dead?

All that comes before the really important part: the moment you pick up your weapons. West of Dead's arsenal really cements the game as a standout entry in an overcrowded genre. While I'd prefer a larger number of guns, each option that is here has its own utility. Each revolver, rifle, and shotgun shine in certain scenarios (except maybe the flare gun), and you can typically secure a loadout you're happy with by the time you complete the first area.

West of Dead Cover
Tombstones for Everybody

Thankfully, it's never a matter of matching up an enemy's weakness or having the right tool for the job, it's all about determining which of the many valid playstyles you prefer and then rolling the dice over and over to find a perfect run. In a way, it reminds me of the selection from Halo: Combat Evolved, with each tool of destruction finding an important purpose to fill during your playthrough.

How Does Combat Play Out In West of Dead?

In every shootout, running for cover is the best first move. Enemies need to blow apart the boxes and rocks blocking their shots, leaving you plenty of time to return fire. Most weapons have limited magazines, which means lots of downtime as you reload and prepare your next move. Shotguns have a crazy-short range, and rifles need time to aim straight and narrow. Pistols typically work from anywhere, meaning that you should always carry one for utility purposes. No matter what you end up with, West of Dead's weapons feel solid, delivering satisfying and responsive action that's as quick as you are.

Besides the guns, the enemies you face crawling through purgatory really set the scene. While you can overtake any single foe with relative ease, mobs of ghoulish dogs and gunmen often combine to test your wits and your patience. You have a dodge roll that can get you through any oncoming fire, but it can also roll you into lager projectile attacks and charging beasts. In later stages, each room's inky darkness plays a larger role in concealing who you're facing, adding another factor of danger to each encounter.  Your health is always a precious resource, so the slow burn of learning how to retain as much of it as possible keeps you playing run after run. 

West of Dead Barkeep
Something tells me that "Disneyland" isn't the answer he's looking for.

Outside of combat, West of Dead slows down somewhat. There are a few NPCs you interact with on the regular, and their dialogue is often tedious and immaterial. Why the shopkeeper has to stop you in your tracks to deliver one of three lines every time you leave his store is beyond me. The same with the barkeep in the starting area, which the game prompts you to visit every run despite him often having nothing of import to dish out. Like the unruly map design, these slow exchanges ruin the pacing of an otherwise action-packed shooter.

West of Dead Review | Final Thoughts

Thankfully, West of Dead never lingers outside of combat too long. While it is a thoughtful game, the main crux is all about learning to line your shots and stay behind cover, waiting for the perfect moment to strike. It's an experience that's not found elsewhere in the roguelike genre, and it will fit right in with veterans looking for a new checklist to fill out. Even if you're not going to spend hours and hours exploring everything it has to offer, West of Dead's moody atmosphere and precision gameplay make it a memorable experience that can stand up to any challenger at high noon.


TechRaptor reviewed West of Dead on PC with a code provided by the publisher. The game is also available on Xbox One via Xbox Game Pass.

Review Summary

9.0
Thanks to a moody atmosphere and precise mechanics, West of Dead perfectly wraps the tense feeling of cover shooting around a solid roguelike core.

Pros

  • Small But Versatile Arsenal Of Weapons
  • Tactically Minded Enemy Forces
  • Grim Tone Perfectly Matches Purgatory
  • Ron Perlman

Cons

  • Stingy With Staple Abilities
  • Unfocused Procedural Levels
  • Pacing Issues Throughout

About the Author

Alex Santa Maria TechRaptor

Alex Santa Maria

Reviews Editor

TechRaptor's Reviews Editor. Resident fan of pinball, Needlers, roguelikes, and anything with neon lighting. Owns an office chair once used by Billy Mays.