With gun battles aplenty, blending the classic spaghetti western with turn-based tactical play in the mould of XCOM is an ideal fit. From outlaws and murderers to the righteous vengeance sought by nameless protagonists, there’s a lot of influences to draw upon, but Hard West twists these together, binding them with elements of the occult and mythological.
The narrator to the stories is Death himself, as he recalls the way that the devil tried to manipulate and distort the lives of those on the frontier. The main thrust of the story is split into four scenarios that tell the tale of the ever-deepening despair that befell one particular family, but from this sprouts a trio of side stories and a prologue, that help to flesh out the bizarre world in which this game takes place, with other characters taking the lead.
This helps to give each battle more of a narrative and sense of place, and that’s depended by the overworld map and the choices open to you in the run up to a fight. There’s always something to head towards, a new person to speak to, or simply a trader to visit to buy some items or new guns. It wraps up the turn-based battles within a light text adventure, where you have some elements of agency to alter the outcome of certain events.
Each scenario puts a different spin on this as well, so that you might be trying to make a living sifting for gold before outlaws attack your home in one, while another has you seeking to remove a curse while managing your posse’s food supplies from one day to the next. Then there are the little puzzles and moral quandaries that they often throw up at you, trying to piece together where a stash of gold is hidden or deciding whether or not to turn a potential outlaw in who professes his innocence.
The real meat of the game is going to be within the battles themselves, though. The isometric viewpoint and the turn-based tactical strategy will be familiar to fans of the XCOM series. Each character has two action points to spend in a turn, moving from cover to cover and taking pot shots. Outmanoeuvring the enemy and getting into flanking positions is key to dealing the maximum damage, but at the same time, it’s vitally important not to overextend yourself, lest you witness your own team staring down the wrong end of a barrel and a mission failure screen.
This isn’t just a bare and basic XCOM clone, and adds a number of refreshing and thematic ideas to the mixture. Luck is one of the most important, as it increases the likelihood that a bullet will miss, at the expense of your finite amount of luck – conversely, being hit by a bullet makes you a bit luckier going forward. The same is true of your enemies, and you’ll learn to pepper them with lower damage guns to reduce their luck, before hitting them with a more powerful shot. However, there’s also neat tricks like being able to shoot through tents and spot enemies by their shadows on the floor, even though I used those tactics infrequently compared to the standard flanking moves.
Set up phases precede a number of missions, allowing you to move around and explore the map quite freely before the bullets start flying. The enemy doesn’t patrol back and forth, which can make this feel a little underwhelming and too easy, but if you can avoid the cones of vision and hold up certain people, it’s a great way to get the drop on the enemy or reach an objective stealthily. It’s just a shame that this is only ever the prelude to a gunfight, rather than letting you occasionally find a completely stealthy path to success.
In addition to the kinds of guns that you’d expect to see, there’s also an awful lot of very unusual weaponry. Why have a double-barrelled shotgun when you can have a shotgun revolver, instead? Or maybe you’d prefer a rifle made to look like it’s being held by a metallic arm? As always, you’ll go for what’s got the best stats, with damage and how many bullets it holds the most important ones for me. Unusual guns are joined by unusual items, such as a bloodstained shirt that removes the risk of serious permanent injuries, but you also have the much more influential ability cards.
Earned from winning battles and at various other points through a scenario, they lend your characters exceptional and supernatural abilities when equipped. Each member of your posse has up to five slots, letting you drop in everything from the ability to heal when out of direct sunlight to tracking wounded enemies, ricochetting bullets off metal objects to gaining an extra action point whenever you kill someone. But combine these playing cards into poker hands, and that character gets extra health, greater movement, better aim and so on. It’s potentially an incredibly powerful system if you play your cards right.
Though it has a number of clever ideas, Hard West ultimately falls short in a number of frustrating ways. Though scenarios tend to last around two hours to play through and the battles can often feel fairly compact and short, it’s still annoying to fail a mission and be sent right back to the start, when basic checkpoints or a limited quick save function could rescue you from having to repeat a set up phase or completing the first of a handful of objectives.
It’s not helped by the way the odds can be stacked against you. With 2-4 members in your posse on a typical mission, you’re invariably outnumbered by plenty of low health enemies. They’re not particularly bright, and can often be quickly dispatched by sensible tactical flanking and one or two shots, but if you’re not wary, you can run too close to certain enemies who can then take a reaction shot – you can’t set overwatch, but they effectively can – or find that they can rush, flank you and kill a vital story character. There’s no bleed out time either, in which you could reach and revive them with another character, they’re just dead and you’re sent back to the very start of the battle, or to the start of the scenario in Ironman mode.
Hopefully these are patched and changes, as one or two battles see the difficulty spike as a consequence of this, with nothing to do but replay and (slightly) altering your tactics or have a little more luck with your shots. At the same time, you could find yourself receiving some of the more powerful combinations of cards over the course of a scenario, which can let you almost instantly end a difficult situation. With enough luck left over to play them, three or four missions in a row saw me end a battle by first reducing everyone’s health to a single hit point, and then killing all enemies in sight with a piercing scream from another character.
Hard West gets a lot of things right, with a number of clever ideas that help to broaden the scope of the standard turn-based formula it draws upon, but a lack of checkpointing and other game design faux pas can spoil the fun.