By: Brian Gunn
Hard West is a tactical strategy game attempting to bring XCOM-style combat to the old west. Oh, and it also manages to throw comic books and demons into the mix. Does this make for an appetizing concoction, or do these flavors not go all that well together?
The control scheme in Hard West will be familiar territory for most people that have played turn-based combat focused games lately. While there are keyboard shortcuts, using the mouse as the main implement will likely be the end results as far too many of the hotkeys are situational.
It does allow you to rotate the camera, though only at 90-degree angles so some unlucky firefights can look a bit off at times. Like XCOM, the game struggles when dealing with levels or buildings with multiple floors, though thankfully they are a rare occurrence.
Given its history as a low-budget Kickstarter strategy game, Hard West is inherently not going to have cutting edge effects. However, it feels like it has surprisingly high production values. At first blush it can be hard to see from a distance, but the game has a sort of cel-shaded filter that’s not too overbearing. It ends up actually looking like a graphic novel of sorts.
There’s a lot of love in the presentation, from some old-timey film effects to the UI changing when certain abilities are used. Sadly, it all doesn’t translate to the on-ground fighting. Using an ability to turn into a demon for instance, turns the character’s icon into a fearsome creature, but the actual model for the character simply gets some flames.
Audio also benefits from a lot of polish and high production. Sound effects like bullets and glass breaking have a gleeful twang to them. Music ranges from typical western soundtrack to the ominous when the supernatural elements get involved.
There’s not a lot of voice acting, but the story is framed around Death telling the stories, and he’s wonderfully performed. Every time he speaks makes events seem far more stylish and important than they actually are, similar to Bastion‘s narrator.
Hard West differs from a lot of strategy games in that it is surprisingly story driven. You won’t just be finding a handful of cowboys and trying to survive. Instead, the meat of the game is split into eight different campaigns.
While these are often somewhat related, either in terms of chronology or supporting characters, they fit together fairly loosely and most star different main characters. Each one starts with a rather specific goal and tends to have in the range of five battles.
The typical game loop itself is broken into two pieces. The map phases have you controlling an icon to visit a variety of saloons, traders and homes. In these you’ll often encounter short stories that offer a choice in how you react and, depending on your luck, you may make out with a new gun (or a broken ankle that lowers your movement stat).
Grander parts of the story play out here and vary in each campaign. One will have you attempting to cure an area of a madness epidemic, and the next may have you hunting down the previous main character for doing so.
Once you encounter a battle, it quickly becomes apparent that the basics of XCOM-style games will get you through most encounters. Battles are turn based, remain in cover, and it can be surprisingly easy to die.
There are a few key differences to set things apart, though. There’s no overwatch or defensive style system, which encourages more active, movement-friendly strategies based around flanking enemies.
The other major difference is a stat called Luck. In Hard West this acts as both a sort of mana bar, powering abilities and is tied into evasion. One of the primary frustrations in the genre is having something with 80 percent hit chance miss.
Hard West solves this with removing Luck from the enemy equal to the hit percent, and so your next attack is pretty much guaranteed to hit if the percentage is higher than their luck. This works in your favor survivability wise too, allowing a high luck character to charge in a bit more recklessly.
However, there are some odd choices that make the game feel at odds with itself. The abilities players can earn are often cool and varied, but unlocking them is a bit tedious. Since the campaigns are short, there’s no building up an elite squad and tailoring things to your liking. Battles and encounters will unlock cards that correspond to abilities. These are random, and it can take a while to get anything useful.
On the ground, the Luck system that works so well for aiming and defense utterly hamstrings the ability system. There are so many enemies that it often means barely using any abilities at all as the Luck system has spent it all on dodging.
Regaining luck is a slow process, mainly achieved via items or getting shot, which is incredibly risky for a game with perma-death, especially when you have main characters that are marked as essential, which means failing a mission if they die.
Given the campaign style setup, Hard West is a bit light on replay value. There just aren’t many variables that will make encounters interesting a second time. There is also a slight meta-game element via the Fate Trader, a mysterious merchant that will offer legendary items unlocked in one campaign in others, for a price, and some of these can be difficult to obtain the first time through.
While a valiant first attempt, Hard West ultimately stumbles a bit in the long run. It is still worth an initial visit, though I mainly look forward to what they can fix for a sequel.