Hard West 2 kicks off with a train heist. Gin Carter and his gang of rather naughty scallywags have heard tell of great riches aboard, kicking off an audacious horseback assault on the locomotive, but as they make their way up to the front, they discover just why it’s nicknamed The Ghost Engine. It is, in fact, owned by a devil called Mammon, and one risky game of cards later, the gang ends up on a mission to recover their souls and get revenge. Good ol’ Westerns, eh?
Just as with the first game, Hard West 2 borrows a lot of elements from XCOM, adding a few twists to its combat to make it stand out. Wrapped around these turn-based battles, the game then borrows from Heroes of Might and Magic for its map exploration, letting you travel from town to town, discovering events and resources as you go and also getting into skirmishes.
You very quickly build up your team and have to choose four of them in fights, equipping them with skills (via playing cards), weapons, items and trinkets to make your characters stronger.
The way you level up your characters in Hard West 2 is unlike the XCOM-likes you are used to. Your characters don’t earn XP in order to get new abilities, but instead utilise the Deck of Haunts system. This lets you equip up to five cards from a deck, giving you different abilities and stat boosts depending on what poker hand you have.
Each card always gives a general stat boost, but equipping a pair of any card, for instance, will unlock a character’s special ability – Dead Man’s Revenge in the case of Old Bill. Three of a Kind will give another buff on top to a stat, such as increased Bullseye chance, and it goes up to Five of a Kind which gives the strongest buffs and skills. Other combinations exist for other poker hands, all giving different abilities, so it all depends how you want to play that character and what skills you are after.
You don’t get all the cards straight away, of course. They are earned after finishing missions as you progress through the story, giving you that natural arc of progression with characters, without actually doing any kind of levelling up. This is great for making all characters be viable later in the game, or if someone needs time to heal up after a gruelling battle, simply by swapping around cards to power up a different character to take into the next fight.
Inventories need to be managed in the same way, swapping out guns and trinkets between characters to make sure you get the best out of your squad. It’s all fairly simple and can be done before the start of every fight.
On the surface level, the turn-based combat in Hard West 2 looks an awful lot like XCOM, but it’s meant to be played a lot more aggressively.
The first thing you’ll notice is that there seems to be swarms of enemies. They literally feel neverending. This is because you need to utilise the Bravado system which, if done correctly, can wipe out an entire screen full of enemies in one foul swoop.
The Bravado system is excellent and really rewards forward thinking. It’s a strategist’s dream. Killing an enemy triggers Bravado, refunding all your character’s pool of three Action Points and effectively giving you another full turn with them. If done correctly, you can chain enough kills to wipe out every enemy in range. Even if you can’t quite kill that final enemy because his health is too low, you can utilise other members of your posse to soften them up or just finish them to keep the Bravado chain rolling through your party.
On one occasion, I was able to use some dynamite to soften up a group and Gin’s ability to soften up another, then trade my low health Lazerus’ hit points with Bill, powering him up to use his Dead Man’s Revenge ability to kill everyone on screen. Those that survived? Well, they met a swift Bravado-fuelled fate afterwards.
Even with Bravado, you can clear one area of the map, only to find another twenty enemies around the corner, resulting in your character getting yeeted out of existence. This can be fine for some levels – there’s no permadeath, so characters will just be “knocked out” and need to recover – but some levels require that all characters survive, which can get frustrating if you don’t plan ahead with healing items.
Also, I know the lack of an overwatch mechanic is intentional, but I still miss it. It’s an extra layer of strategy for these kinds of games which really add to the experience. Its spiritual replacement is the Duelist skill, in which a character will return fire when fired upon. This is fine, but when you’re taking on multiple enemies who have this skill, it can cut through your Bravado chain. You can circumvent it with ricochet shots and area of effect abilities, but in a game where a majority of the damage is coming from single shot base hits, it doesn’t feel good.
Ricochet shots can bounce bullets off metal surfaces to hit enemies, meaning you really have to pay attention to positioning, both on your side and the enemies. I was caught out plenty of times during missions, thinking I was safe, only to be sniped from a seemingly impossible angle after the AI bounced a bullet off three surfaces. It’s proper Western style shenanigans and I’m here for it, even if it’s annoying when it happens to you.
Between missions, you and your posse roam the world map, exploring areas and travelling to towns, healing your squad and purchasing items from shops. Talking to the townsfolk also gives opportunities for side missions that can yield extra swag and loyalty points for your companions which lead to extra abilities. The RPG elements here are pretty light and after roaming for a little while, I just wanted to get back into combat instead of trying to explore to find stuff.
As for the overarching tale and Gin Carter’s posse? It’s mostly fine. We seem to be getting a fair few occult Western mashups recently, and they’re starting to blend together. The characters here all feel a little by the numbers, checking off each stereotype, just so you know for sure that it’s set in the Wild West. Don’t get me wrong, the characters weren’t offensive, but they did feel a little typical. Hard West 2 isn’t doing anything magical with its storytelling, but then again, that’s not why we are here. The core strength is in its strategy and combat, which it does well.