The first thing that’s bound to run through everyone’s mind when they see Hard West is the similarities with XCOM. They’re undeniable, as it slots into the same genre of tactical turn-based gameplay, but as soon as you scratch even just a little below the surface, it’s quite clear that CreativeForge Games have some rather fascinating ideas of their own.
For one thing, this isn’t the romanticised vision of the Wild West that featured in classic Spaghetti Westerns, but rather the Weird West, where everyday life is twisted and contorted by the occult. Ritualistic sacrifices, demons and generally supernatural occurrences affect many parts of the game, as it draws from a myriad of different myths.
Spread across eight scenarios, the story follows different characters as they travel the West in search of riches, redemption and revenge, but they unfold in a fashion that is not entirely linear. Cassandra, for example, can see into the future and use this to shape her path through certain decision points as you move around the world map. The Inquisitor, meanwhile, is hunting down a secret order, and while you can travel around researching, bribing and questioning people to track down specific targets, you can also simply kill all of those you even vaguely suspect. Whatever gets the job done!
The combat missions unfold roughly how you would expect for the genre, with between one and four characters under your control, but there’s an additional scouting phase before the guns are pulled and the bullets start flying. It comes in handy whe trying to rescue Cassandra from a lynch mob set on hanging her for being a witch, as you can get your men into advantageous positions on balconies and take advantage of the map’s other quirks.
Meanwhile, the bank robbery – it wouldn’t be a Western without a bank robbery or two, would it? – gives you the possibility of heading over to a telegraph station, to stop word of your attack getting out, before sneaking into the bank and keeping those inside subdued. Alternatively, you could free a murderer to try and create a distraction for you and wreak a bit of havoc.
The only problem with the latter plan is that this is results in demons being summoned to help fend off the would-be bank robbers. Their arrival drastically changes the visual tone of the fight, with the map now basked in red light and not the searing sun, and with suitably occult imagery popping up.
There’s a number of clever twists to the gunplay itself, with a particularly gratifying ability to knock over tables and lift trap doors to create cover, and various guns have different firing methods, such as a cone shot on the shotgun, but that’s useless if you can’t see your target. Cunningly, you don’t need to see any parts of a person’s body to know where they are, but just being able to see their shadow gives you an indication of their position and what kind of weapon they have to hand.
This comes in handy for not charging headlong into the fray and finding yourself hopelessly outgunned, but in tandem with some of the game’s various abilities, opens up new avenues for attack. The ricochet ability lets you bounce bullets off practically any metal surface with frightening accuracy, letting you ping a piece of deadly metal around the map and take out foes that were otherwise out of harm’s way.
It wouldn’t be a Western without a little bit of gambling and card games, though, and this is invoked by the Poker card ability system. Picking from various ability cards, you can combine them into different and familiar hands that will be familiar to Poker players, so you might deliberately look to get a pair, three of a kind, flush and so on for abilities that work well in combination.
One such combination sounds particularly devilish. You can reduce the health of all the characters to just a single hit point, for example, which will certainly make all the enemies easier to kill, but comes with the risks of being rather weak yourself. So, to minimise that risk, you’d look to combine it with the aforementioned ricochet, as well as getting an extra turn every time you kill someone. It’s a truly lethal sounding trio of abilities that could see you mop up practically an entire map filled with enemies in one go.
With so many clever tricks up its sleeve, which go well beyond what I’ve written here, Hard West is quick to dispel the notion that it’s just an XCOM clone with cowboys in it. It’s a crying shame that this is currently only heading to PC, as it looks to evolve the tactical turn-based genre, but does so it a way that builds upon ideas and themes that just make so much sense within the context of the Weird West.