Set in a purgatorial Wild West, West of Dead is a procedurally generated cover-based roguelite shooter. Quite the mouthful of tropes and gameplay mechanics, but Upstream Arcade have managed to combine them all with surprising success.
Set in the late 1900s, you play as the very murdered and very dead William Mason. Finding himself trapped in purgatory, William (Voiced by Ron Pearlman) travels deeper in a bid to uncover the truth of his death. Exposition is delivered through chapters, uncovering more of the story once you’ve defeated the boss that lies at the end of each one. The narrative is interwoven fantastically with major moments of exposition coming alongside some of the most difficult fights.
While roguelites are fairly common these days, I’ve yet to see one provide any real tactical gunplay. The likes of Enter the Gungeon and Nuclear Throne provide manic and immediate gameplay experiences in which the player’s reactions are tested, but West of Dead balances those moments of manic gunplay alongside more tactical approaches as well.
This is achieved through a cover system which enables players to duck behind objects. It’s a neat system which really changes the gunplay in a significant way. You can stay in cover while scoping out the enemies in a room before you engage, or you can use it to escape from danger just long enough to reload your weapons. It’s a system that truly takes centre stage in every encounter.
There are three weapon types in West of Dead: long, medium and short range. William approaches each combat encounter with a mix of pistols, shotguns and rifles from the period, as well as a number of throwable items and combat modifiers. There’s plenty of weapons to choose from and it didn’t take long for me to find the weapons that fit my play style.
Weapons, items and modifiers are all mapped to the shoulder triggers and buttons, letting you almost glue your thumbs to the analogue sticks for movement and aiming, only tearing one away to tap a face button to dodge or get into cover with the face buttons. The twin stick shooting provides a nice level of freedom in how William aims, although I did find this could be hindered by auto-aim at times – a feature I would love to be able to turn off.
Much like the rest of the roguelite genre, each run in West of Dead is unique, with death sending you back, to the beginning to face freshly generated world with a new layout, weapon drops and encounters. It follows the established formula we’ve seen in other titles, but the gunplay really sets it apart.
Throughout each level you can find weapons, items and stat increases. Stat increases enable you to level up William’s health, perception to deal out more damage, or resourcefulness to improve how effective you are with items. You will also run into a shop where you can spend the iron picked up from defeated enemies. The shop stocks weapons, items and modifiers, so there’s plenty of opportunity in each level to stock up on firepower and stat buffs.
Between each level there is a hub area where you can spend Sins, the other collectable in the game. This feeds the overarching metagame, unlocking new upgrades and weapons that can then be seeded into your next run. It’s a classic set up that incentivises further attempts with the reward of better weapons and equipment, making William’s journey just that little bit easier as you head into the later chapters. William can also refill his health and health flask between each level by drinking alcohol – who’d have guessed huh?
As you progress through the world, each combat encounter increases in difficulty and tension. With the right planning and stealth, it’s possible to surprise enemies and take a room out in a few quick moves. It’s in these moments that West of Dead really shines. It provides players with a playground composed of fast, brutal and snappy combat encounters that gradually increase in difficulty. Later on in the game there are a number of special fights with hunters who are also able to use cover and special abilities, making for some incredibly tense Wild West shootouts.
All of this action and violence is set against a stylistic cel-shaded visual style which wouldn’t feel out of place in a comic. Lighting plays a big role in combat, making each room you enter dark and foreboding with a tangible sense of dread. Ping one of the lights in the room and it will suddenly light up, stunning enemies briefly and filling the immediate area with light and giving you a brief advantage. The art style plays into this dynamic of light and dark really well, adding an extra layer of spectacle to each encounter.
Ron Pearlman provides an excellent performance, with fantastic one liners and great story moments all delivered in his unique, guttural tone. He brings a level of depth and believability to William that likely wouldn’t have felt anywhere near as effective with another person playing the part. The nature of repetition in roguelite games does unfortunately mean that you will undoubtedly hear the same lines over and over again, though. It’s a shame, as lines really do start to lose their punch the fifteenth time you’ve heard William comment on picking up an upgrade or that a character wishes to speak with him.