Hard West

In the run up to Christmas, I picked up a new game via Steam, called Hard West. If you’ve not come across this game – quite likely, as it appears to have a fairly small following currently – it’s a turn based tactics game, set in the wild west… a spiritual successor to XCOM in terms of gameplay; heavily influenced by Deadlands in terms of setting. Given the wild west nature of the game, it seems only reasonable that I review it in the following fashion:

The Good:
Tactically, there is a decent amount of choice. Cover matters a lot and getting flanked can be devastating (more so than XCOM, due to lower hit point totals), so you can’t just breeze through a map without any care. Weapon choice is varied and makes a difference in gameplay; scoped weapons are powerful, but have to be reloaded after every shot; shotguns can hit multuple targets at very short range; some weapons are weaker, but can be fired twice in a round… all these provide different tactical options when kitting out your party.
One well implemented aspect of the combat sections is that some of them do not immediately start out as combats. If the scenario is such that you have a legitimate reason to be wandering around the map (e.g. you’re in town for a bank robbery, but haven’t yet made a move) there is a setup phase where you will not be attacked on sight, unless you do something suspicious or start the combat yourself. This gives some interesting options in terms of setting up positions before the fighting starts and there’s even an option to hold people up at gunpoint, further delaying overt hostilities. Although the game certainly doesn’t support an entirely pacifist run, this mechanic does mean that it can be played in a slightly more considered fashion than some similar games.
There is also a very well designed system of skills, based on playing cards that are received during gameplay. Each playing card represents a specific ability, from unique skills (e.g. the ability to ricochet bullets off metal objects in order to fire round corners) to supernatural powers (e.g. regeneration while out of direct sunlight). These cards can be assigned to your characters as you prefer, but in addition to the individual abilities themselves, you also get bonuses if the cards make up poker hands. For example, if you give one character all four aces, he would gain the abilites from those cards, plus some extra health for the four-of-a-kind. This mechanic means that you never stagnate with one party setup, as receiving new cards will often result in redistributing abilities to take advantage of new combinations.

The Bad:
While the combats are reasonably engaging, the story between combats is a little uninspired. It plays out as a sort of “choose your own adventure” style story, with choices of what to do at each location, which will affect what happens later in the scenario. Each scenario also has a unique mechanic, but some of these are very dull and seem like they’ve been tacked on, just to ensure that every scenario has one. The worst one was the scenario where food was crucial and you had to make sure you always picked up enough provisions to feed your party each night. In and of itself, this would have been just a rather boring mechanic, requiring a small amount of attention, but at the end of each day, you were required to individually feed each of your characters, through a series of screens, meaning it generally took two minutes of clicking just to confirm that you had enough food and weren’t starving anyone out of pettiness. This is reflective of many aspects of the game that could have been improved with a slight amount of thought; an extra option that said, “Feed everyone and go to sleep,” would have saved a lot of bother.
There was an interesting NPC called the Fate Trader who appeared in each scenario. Completing optional goals in each scenario would unlock items that were then available to purchase from the Fate Trader in every scenario going forward. This would actually have been a pretty neat mechanic, except that the items were rarely that expensive and once some of the more powerful items or weapons had been unlocked, there was really no reason to use anything else.

The Ugly:
The biggest disappointment overall, was that the game really tried to set itself up as a game where your choices mattered and it failed utterly in that task. On the surface, the choices appear to be meaningful; there are places where characters can trade their sanity for more power or kill innocents for greater rewards, but greater notoriety. However, each scenario is independent in terms of gameplay, even when there are overlapping characters, meaning that any choices you make will only affect you for a couple of hours of gameplay at most. If my character’s blood thirsty rampage through the second scenario had meant worsening NPC reactions for the rest of the entire game, that would have felt like it meant something; instead I was told that my infamy would result in increasing prices and poorer NPC reactions so close to the end of the scenario that I don’t think I bought anything else anyway.
This hit a true low in the final combat of the main storyline, where the ending was a straight choice, completely uninfluenced by anything that had occured before. You could go through the game being the worst human being to ever walk the earth and then in the last turn of the last scenario, you could decide “I want the good ending” with a single click.

Overall, I can’t whole heartedly recommend this game. If you’re a big fan of the genre and can pick it up reasonably cheaply, it certainly has some interesting ideas that are worth a look. However, it feels like it was simply developed with not quite enough budget or time for what it was trying to achieve. What I am hoping is that it garners enough attention for a more established game company to pick it up and create a more polished sequel.

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