Imagine, instead of being born, going through schooling and life experience, you’re dropped into life at twenty. Imagine trying to figure out how the world works, trying to get a job and imagine the disaster that would be dating for the first time. Now imagine that instead of life, what you have just experienced is the beginning of a game on Steam. Welcome to Hard West. Hard West is a turn-based strategy game set in the Wild West but wait for it… there’s demons and shit. There have been quite a few comparisons to XCOM but I don’t think that’s entirely fair to XCOM. On the surface, the idea is intriguing and I was initially excited to get stuck into it. I’ve never really been a huge fan of things set in the Wild West but I love strategy, I love RPGs and I love turn-based games like Civilisation so I figured I would love Hard West. Well, I was wrong. The idea has so much promise but the execution just falls flat and there’s nothing to keep someone coming back for more.
Nothing to see here, move along
The story of Hard West is unique in that it has combined elements of the Wild West with the supernatural. You play as Warren, a man who has been wronged and sets on a path of revenge and general destruction. After being killed, Warren sells his soul to the devil to come back as a half-dead cowboy and fuck shit up. During your journey you are tasked with battling demons, cannibals and other otherworldly elements, but in reality basically everyone you battle just seems like a different type of human.
The in-game, tactical combat phase is much like XCOM but with differences. There is a painful lack of a tutorial, but the basic explanation is this: You shoot at enemies and they shoot at you, your aim decides if you hit them or not, as well as your distance and whether or not they are in cover. This is all programmed to show a chance of hitting as a percentage. When being shot at you have a certain amount of luck which determines whether or not you will be hit. When an opponent shoots at you and misses, you lose luck. When they hit you, you gain luck. You are given abilities to help you along that require luck to be used, but the general idea is not to get shot. Even though getting shot nets you precious luck it only takes a few shots to drop you so it pays to be careful. Sound simple? Well yes, but to figure all this out required fumbling through mission after mission trying to demystify the gameplay system and how best to utilise it, an arduous task that could simply have been explained via tutorial and subsequently would have made this a far more enjoyable experience.
Hard West claims to have RPG elements, however considering nothing can be upgraded, this claim is a bit of a stretch. There are weapons, items and cards that give you an advantage in game but it’s a fairly shallow system and leaves a lot to be desired. There are a number of tactics available to players, one such is the ability to “shadow spot” an enemy. During the day the sun’s position can allow you to see an opponent’s shadow and thereby locating them whilst in cover. Seemingly cool but ultimately useless. On the topic of cover, Hard West employs a full cover/half cover system that will determine how much damage you take rather than the chance you have of being shot. Another tactic available is the “ricochet” which in theory allows you to shoot an object and ricochet the bullet into an enemy hiding behind cover. I never actually figured out how to use this option as whenever I tried I had 0% chance of pulling it off. Again, a little explanation in a tutorial would have been great.
The game boasts eight story-based scenarios and more than forty turn-based missions that you battle through either by yourself or with other playable characters to help you along the way. Four of the scenarios have you following the story of Warren and his father and the other four are more like side missions where you get a closer insight into the other characters that crop up in game. Outside of these missions there is a hub world that lacks any real finesse, offering options to click on and make choices based on the offered responses.
The important, yet largely underwhelming hub-world
Warren sells his soul to the devil to come back as a half-dead cowboy and fuck shit up
Hard West is said to change the game depending on the choices you make but I rarely saw the consequences of my actions affect me in a drastic way, other than give me some ailment or another that I would have to put up with during a battle. There is enough there to make it feel like the choices you make are significant but not enough to make me think twice about making one choice or another. The missions are fairly straightforward to the point of being almost boring. There is a distinct lack of consistency between scenarios meaning you never really feel like the actions you take or the items you acquire in each mission actually have any real long term benefit. Each mission seems like an entirely new encounter even though the story kind of links them together.
Images like this offered such promise in the beginning
Probably the game’s greatest sin is the save system, which I absolutely despise. When you are in the combat phase you have two options: you can restart or you can quit to main menu. Now one would think that quitting to main menu would bring you to the hub world to try and tackle the mission again with a new setup. Instead, quitting to the main menu brings you back out to the scenario screen allowing you to restart the entire scenario or load last checkpoint. There is no option to simply back out and change your setup for a mission within a scenario, the loadout you start the scenario with is the one you are forced to finish it with. It is very possible to get 90% of the way through a scenario (which might take hours) only to realise that you can’t complete it because you haven’t equipped the right items or cards for a mission within it. It is beyond frustrating and a poor design choice. After making the mistake of not equipping a certain item and being unable to complete a scenario a few times I almost destroyed my computer in a blind rage.
Despite all these shortcomings, I was curious to see where the story would take me, however as time wore on I found that my growing dislike for the game outweighed my desire to play it out to get the story. This is a pity as the story is actually pretty great. It’s new and fresh and is backed up by some excellent voice acting, but the gameplay issues are far too numerous and soul destroying (kind of ironic).
Hard West is a unique, turn-based, pseudo-RPG set in the demonic Wild West that really showed a lot of promise but ultimately failed to deliver. It really seems that the developers had all these great ideas but either ran out of time, money or both. The scenarios are decent enough but don’t offer anything new to the turn-based strategy genre and the combat mechanics are also fairly familiar. The lack of tutorials is a massive let-down and one that can only damage the overall feel of the game. The fact that nothing is really explained and must be discovered through tedious trial and error is unforgivable and the save system is straight-out sadistic. Hard West looks nice enough and the narration is excellent, but its crippling gameplay issues means it falls short of anything worthy of your time. Go and play XCOM.