Sometimes a game hits your inbox and you just quietly mutter “fuck yeah” to yourself. Weird West is that game for me, a near-perfect intersection of my tastes and gameplay sensibilities with a killer art direction to boot. It comes to us from the relatively fresh-faced Wolfeye Studios, a small but hungry team of industry big hitters who have founded the new studio to revitalise the gaming scene with creative new ideas. Former Arkane Studios’ Raphaël Colantonio and Julien Roby bring their Dishonored chops to bear here as Weird West is shaping up to be a thrilling (if slightly janky) revitalisation of the action RPG.
Weird West feels like the gaming equivalent of that trusty old pair of trackies you keep in an indeterminate state of cleanliness because you always need them after work. There’s an immediate shorthand between game and player here, its mechanics and trappings a familiar stomping ground for action RPG fans, but that comfort is heightened with an extensive suite of systemic flourishes. The game is played from a quasi-isometric camera angle, with adjustable zoom and full 3D swivel control allowing for the first of many modernisations to the genre.
The West is teeming with danger
Players will find a world full of interactable objects, from the physics-based chaos of being able to toss just about anything to smaller, contextual moments involving tools and platforming. Similarly, fire will spread if unchecked, various substances such as oil, water and gases impact the playfield, as do roaming bands of animals, lighting and so on. Weird West’s Arkane roots are on proud display here as the game delights in incorporating immersive sim elements in the action RPG genre.
An early game combat tutorial immediately informs you that despite its trappings, Weird West wants you to find your way of engaging with its action-ready world. There are, of course, a bevy of weapons to choose from on your handy quick-select wheel. Guns cause you to aim around the screen with a line that turns red over targets, while melee is a little less finessed but satisfying all the same. But Weird West is also an enjoyable stealth experience; without being prompted I knew I could crouch to make less noise and use the enemy cones of vision on the mini-map to sneak my way around bandit camps. That kind of organic engagement with the player is where Weird West thrives, it’s the kind of sandbox I’ve been dying to get back to in gaming. Familiar enough to be easy to pick up, complex enough to warrant deeper digging.
The preview build I was given access to saw me take up the righteous metal of Jane Bell, one of the game’s several protagonists. Jane’s attempt at a quiet life on the range is rudely interrupted by a roaming gang of cultists who are raiding local farms for, um, meat. And no, I’m not talking about the cows. After witnessing her son struck down and her husband abducted, Jane once again takes up arms and heads out into the sprawling frontier in search of justice, vengeance and just about everything in between. It’s classic Western fodder that gives the game a well-worn VHS Clint Eastwood vibe, the kind of story you’d give a whirl on a Sunday arvo.
Folks will take note of how you react to certain situations
Don’t mistake that familiarity for complacency though, Weird West seems to be hiding more than one card up its sleeve. Moments before the attack Jane awakens from a nightmarish vision featuring a strange cast of characters all talking in very meta tones. It’s not quite breaking the fourth wall, but the game feels aware in an exciting way, with several characters talking past Jane and seemingly to the player. A lot of half-truths and allusions to agency and recurring hardships, all very meta, all extremely cool.
The game’s writing is in general quite stellar. Its harder edges occasionally threaten to tip into Edgy – a penchant for violent delights and nihilism streak through the game thoroughly – but Weird West so far manages to balance it all out. The ‘weird’ in the West is referring to a particular genre of Western stories that all feature some kind of horror, fantasy or science-fiction. It’s a typically pulpy realm to tell a story in and Weird West more than lives up to its namesake here. This frontier is riddled with the odd and the spooky, roaming bands of cannibals are the least of your problems when actual magic seems to be tearing up the land on any given day. Contrastingly, Weird West doesn’t want you to feel alone out there, allowing you to build a party or forge friendships with citizens who will come to your aid in the future.
Weird West utilises this array of horror trappings and Western tropes to bring to life an aesthetic that is dripping with atmosphere and style. The game is consistently and delightfully cool to look at. The stylised hard lines and bleeding black ink edges collide with fantastical and detailed character art to give the whole thing a striking tone. The harsh warm tones of the desert are frequently contrasted with bright pops of colour for the UI and character design, a cohesive vision that always managed to look fresh to me when I booted up the game. The world itself is also quite varied from what I’ve seen so far as classic dusty townships give way to swampy oasis outcrops and haunting abandoned architecture.
I actually welcomed these random encounters
Jane, as well as several party members if you choose to recruit other poor unfortunate souls, move across the world map, not unlike classic JRPGs. Each location is an isolated chunk of the open world, varying drastically in size, and moving between them sees your party track across the world map with the chance of random encounters along the way. The first time a pack of wild coyotes stopped me and I quickly dispatched them with my trusty sidearm and, emboldened, I chose to investigate a mysterious howling in the cliffs further along my path. This was, naturally, a huge mistake as I was torn limb from limb by giant mutant bears as an injured traveller bled out nearby begging for help.
On the one hand, this kind of unrestricted gameplay makes me excited for the genre. I should be able to make these mistakes, a frontier riddled with mysteries like these should be dangerous. On the other, this happened several times during my preview and eventually, I began to wonder if the wobbly shooting controls were maybe more of an issue than I had first anticipated. Weird West’s difficulty spikes then do draw a more critical eye to its janky missteps, with said shooting feeling too imprecise to handle some situations and the damage output of my weapons questionably unbalanced too. Players are given a variety of perks and abilities to upgrade through consumable items found in the world to balance out this slightly bare combat, such as bullet time, improved sneaking speed and so on.
Hopefully, its gunplay can be tightened before it releases in 2022 as the rest of the immersive mechanics are pitch-perfect and ready for exploitation. The game’s aesthetic strengths and impeccable vibes fantastically pair with its player freedom and intriguing, dark fantasy world. Weird West has the makings of a genre heavy hitter and the charming moxie of the new kid on the block, excitedly sharing his favourite cowboy story with you.
Weird West releases on PS4, Xbox One and PC on January 11.
Previewed on PC // Preview code supplied by publisher