With the revival of the XCOM franchise a few years ago, the attention paid to other turn-based tactical games have also been transformed. With an intriguing setting in the Wild West mixed with broad elements of the occult, classical mythology and a greater focus on storytelling, Hard West isn’t just looking to ride the zeitgeist as it heads to release on PC at the start of November, but also push the gameplay into new and interesting directions.
Kacper Szymczak, Lead Designer on Hard West, explained, “The origin of this idea was the Carnival series, because we wanted to do something in the Wild West. First of all we wanted to do a tactical game, but then we thought of settings and obviously the Wild West came up and, compared to other settings, other games on the market and timing, it seemed to be the best choice. I wanted to put a twist on that, so we could have more creative freedom and extend our features.
“A lot of stuff people seem to like about Hard West are only there because the supernatural allows them to be there. If we were to make a realistic game, ricochets wouldn’t really make much sense, right?
“Then it crawled in all possible directions, I’d say. We allowed the team a lot of freedom like that, so on the one hand you have some occult and there’s the Devil and the narrator is Death – that’s the overarching story, this conflict between the Devil and Death – and there’s a clairvoyant, a mad inventor making his own weapons. They’re just ideas someone came up with, they fit the theme, so why not?”
The turn-based combat gets all of the basics right, with each character afforded two action points to move and then either attack or move again. However, there’s lots of nice little touches that push it beyond being just an XCOM clone. It’s an inevitable comparison that Kacper is happy to talk about, though.
“It’s hard not to be perceived through the lens of XCOM when you’re making a tactical game,’ he admitted. “Personally, I’m a huge fan of XCOM, so I think that going in a completely different direction [and ignoring the influence] would be somewhat disrespectful to what they achieved, because it’s an awesome game and in many ways flawless. What I wanted to do was to build on that, learn from what they did and expand it in a different direction.
“I think from a lot of the feedback that people appreciate the differences. They sort of expect it to just be a reskin, and they come out from the presentations surprised by how much it differs. Even the base gameplay is different because of the tweaks with the cover system and the luck system. It’s the same canvas, but the picture is completely different.”
There’s interactive cover, for example, that lets you pull up wooden lids on a box or kick over a table to let you hide behind full cover in a gunfight. That’s pretty clever in and of itself, but an even better parlour trick is to be able to shoot through permeable cover and kill an enemy without a direct line of sight, having been able to figure out where to shoot just from seeing their shadow cast on the floor. Combine spotting shadows with a card that lets you ricochet bullets off metal objects in the game and you can even shoot people around corners.
On the other side of the gunfight, the best way to avoid getting yourself killed is to not get hit by bullets in the first place. The real Wild West was full of characters and people not only skilled with a gun, but lucky enough to not get hit by the return fire. Everyone’s luck runs out some day, and in Hard West that’s a core gameplay idea.
“Every character has a maximum level of luck,” Kacper explained, “but whenever they get shot at and don’t get hit, they start to run out of luck. When they completely run out of luck, they will get shot, but then your luck goes up a bit, so that you [aren’t likely to get] hit again right away.
“The same luck is used for trick shots – you have to be lucky enough to make a ricochet – and when you explore the world map, many encounters require you to be lucky enough.”
The abilities that you unlock and that can be applied to your characters are styled after a deck of cards. However, with five potential slots to fill and cards unlocked at random after a fight, you’re looking to put together various poker hands. A pair will give you a minor boost of sorts, three of a kind replaces that with something a little better, but manage to put together a full house or throw a joker in the mix to complete a hand, and the resulting boost will be much more powerful.
Talking about the cards, Kacper said, “In general, the system is simple, but it wasn’t easy to come up with. The way we developed the gameplay, we set up several simple systems that are overlapping somewhat, so there’s setup, there’s combat, the cover system, passive abilities, active abilities, and every bit of the system affects the other bits. So every single system is simple, every card is simple, every ability is simple, but when they’re combined, the results go completely crazy.
“That’s OK. I didn’t expect to precisely balance and fine tune every combination. I assume combinations will be overpowered, they always are. In every game I can think of, there are combinations the design team could never predict. ”
One fascinating facet to the way that the story unfolds is how it is spread out across several characters. The main thread of the story follows a named Warren and his tale of revenge, but the game features several protagonists and has other stories to tell. A tangent that explore the cursed life of Cassandra and her powers of clairvoyance – as befits her classical mythology origins – occurs alongside the main plot, but actions that you take here can have certain ramifications and alter how the timeline unfolds.
“It sounds complex when you try to explain it to someone,” Kacper said, “but when you play it, it feels very natural, because when you have encounters you know it will affect the future, and you keep this in mind somehow, but the scope you have to consider at any given time is very small. It builds up momentum to the future events.”
Missions are also all bespoke, as opposed to being randomly generated, which can open up a lot of doors for more experimental play. The mission that acts as the finale to Cassandra’s particular story arc saw her betrayed and locked up in prison. A spare bobby pin and she can free herself, before trying to sneak through the level, get the key and free her fellow captives. You have a lot of freedom to wander around and explore before the combat gets underway – though you’ll always have to be wary of enemy guards, you can hold them up for a few laps to gain a bit of an advantage once everything kicks off – but that also gives you freedom to experiment and explore.
With Kacper watching on and theorising alongside me as to what might be possible in a level that he’d had no hand in creating, I spotted several possible routes through the map, but also the opportunity to get to the target of my revenge without triggering a big gunfight. Ultimately, locked doors and things ever-so-slightly out of alignment meant that I couldn’t get the line of sight I needed to rend the soul out of my target, but I was more than capable of making my way through the world, avoiding cones of vision and showing the man that betrayed Cassandra that hell truly hath no fury.
As you unlock new cards and meet new characters, you get to play with different hands of abilities and different perks, to gain that variation in the gameplay mechanics that push you to alter your tactics. Then there’s the missions themselves, designed to engender and reward those who try out different things, think and don’t necessarily just barrel into combat. For me, even with all the occult themes, the gritty setting and the branching story telling, Hard West feels like a sandbox to play in.