On paper, Weird West reads like the kind of game I’d like, but in practice it’s an acquired taste. Wolfeye’s goal was to tackle the world of top-down immersive sims as homage to the Ultima CRPG series. Having missed the golden age of Ultima, my immediate point of reference after a few hours in the Weird West was the Shadowrun Returns/Shadowrun Hong Kong series – technically these are tactical turn-based RPGs where the sense of immersion stems from the depth of its writing – but even as my playing hours reached double digits, things still didn’t quite click for me.
Most immersive sims are first-person for a reason, and frankly I can’t think of recent games that have attempted to do this, even poorly. Still, Wolfeye’s ‘immersive sim’ supernatural western shooter is undoubtedly stylish with its broody art and raw, expressive lines. The environments, sound design and wild frontier details are brimming with detail, and there’s clearly been thought put into how this dark fantasy/western hybrid genre – a genre built upon real histories of genocide, enslavement, racism, and violence – would resonate with modern values, assuming we’ve all evolved away from the ignorance and bigotry of the past (into more insidious forms of bigotry in the present).
In essence, Weird West is about the concept of soul transference among different bodies; between its five chapters we get glimpses of hooded ritualists surrounding our hapless protagonist. After each “rebirth” you can reconnect with your past selves and can recruit them into your posse. It’s a coarse, unforgiving world of frontier law, religious fundamentalists, flesh-eating creatures, occult Oneirists, werewolves, vicious outlaws, and of course, guns. Towns, mines, and farms on the map change over time – a key homestead in an early chapter might become an abandoned ruin later in the story.
The first chapter is arguably the most tedious, and a real obstacle in attuning to the game’s pace and combat mechanics. The player starts as Jane Bell, a gunslinger-turned-farmer who returns to bounty hunting after an attack on her home. Playing as Jane, a Pigman, a member of the indigenous Lost Fire nation, a werewolf, and finally an Oneirist, it becomes clear that our protagonist is the butt of an elaborate supernatural joke. NPCs will drop in like an unwanted peanut gallery to remind you that all of this – the mystery, the strange brand you all share, talk of an “experiment” – will eventually make sense. By the time I get to the third chapter, the witch who routinely returns to laugh at me has lost her bite, and by the fifth, I just wanted her to go away.
It’s a compelling premise that lays promising ground, but the ambitious story is undermined by finicky game mechanics and odd choices in the developers’ approach to immersion. Even with camera zoom, there’s no ideal depth that feels right, and it’s a constant game of adjustment, which is especially awful on scrubby terrain. Exacerbating this problem is the fact that you can’t cycle to adjacent items – for instance, if you kill two same-name enemies near (or worse, atop) each other, you can’t easily differentiate between the two corpses to loot them quickly. Ammo drop rates are pretty thin – this isn’t always bad because it forces you to get creative in combat – which leads to the tedious process of manually scrapping every gun you find for bullets, even in the middle of a murder brawl. Of course, if things aren’t going well, like any good RPG, you can always just run away.
Combat using a keyboard and mouse – a new necessity for me thanks to long-term nerve damage – is not great. Aiming and pivoting is painfully finicky, and executing special actions – a process that involves holding down mouse buttons, haphazardly scrolling to the correct weapon and hitting number keys – feels counterintuitive and awkward. I’m told it’s only marginally better with a controller. The finicky triggers and unintuitive button layouts become a nightmare when you’re in the middle of a gunfight, and friendly fire is almost impossible to avoid.
The main story arcs are fleshed out with familiar RPG busywork: cooking and crafting, fetchquests, poking things to see what happens. On side missions I ran into a couple of bugs where despite meeting the requirements, my UI objectives (and for an hour, my horse) disappeared. A patch should help clear a lot of these up. Some missions are short and sweet, and others, like one at Quigley’s Lantern Room, are tedious to get right. It’s disappointing when you fail the game’s most vulnerable characters – indentured prostitutes, slaves, and disenfranchised workers – who don’t hesitate to let you know they’re probably going to die.
In a somewhat rare act of cultural responsibility in white media, the devs worked with Anishinaabe and Métis consultant, writer/narrative director Dr. Elizabeth LaPensée. The game’s fictional Lost Fire nation is based on the Anishinaabe nation, and is one of few games (if any) to feature the Anishinaabe language. It’s an engaging portrayal that feels like a step up from mainstream pop culture that often divorces or diminishes native folklore from their original settings. There’s also an effort to reimagine the lives of minorities who suffered in the historic west – East Asians are common as well as Black and Latinx characters. While I’m unqualified to speak about First Nations culture, I’m curious about why some narrative choices were even made in the first place. The white gaze is an inherent part of the western genre, and it’s very difficult to mitigate the genre’s racist hallmarks in fiction when the core storytellers are white.
Even toward the end, Weird West remains excited to show you what it’s got, and there’s something rare about its earnest enthusiasm for you as a player. At the same time it sabotages itself with constant hand-holding through instructional prompts and reminders. There’s so much inventory micromanagement, which is supposed to carry over items through your rebirths, but didn’t always keep my best gear. I didn’t feel compelled to discover new places or try new things as I was so preoccupied with these minor issues that it was hard to stick to the big picture.
The Oneirist journey was a welcome reprieve (and decent wrap-up) from the previous characters’ repetitive arcs. The payoff was satisfying, though I’m not sure it makes up for my struggle to acclimate to the first half of the game. The world of Weird West is full of promising narrative texture, but there’s a frustrating disconnect between allowing the player to appreciate its writing and bombarding the player with too much too often, along with a combat system that takes a lot of time to get used to. It feels like a game that has a promising post-launch future with the studio’s plans for content packs and more features, but only time will tell if they can finesse the core player experience into something that requires less maintenance and more of the “play your way” experience it aspires to deliver.