Hard West is a well presented and technically very effective entrant into the turn-based strategy genre. Comparisons to other titles can be unfavourable in terms of depth and scale – the great big sci-fi elephant in the room being the most notable of these – that said, this new release from CreativeForge Games has a lot to be admired for and is certainly more than fun enough for the big boys to be looking over their shoulders.
I must make my apologies to the hard core turn-based strategists in our ranks. Any comparisons I will try avoid making to X-Com are all referencing the recent reboot – headed up by Enemy Unknown. My first foray into taking turns with an AI opponent (ignoring Battle Chess, shout out to Battle Chess, that game was sweet) was actually Small Soldiers: Squad Commander in 1998, which I loved. Suffice it to say that since then I’ve been a fan of the genre – if you’re not, you probably shouldn’t read further you’d only be wasting your time.
Still here? Great! I didn’t doubt you. Hard West features a main campaign storyline, made up of four campaigns and a prequel campaign. There are also three alternative campaigns that follow a related but different storyline featuring different characters. Each campaign is then broken up into a number of battles that are linked together by a map screen that can be traversed with text based puzzles and merchants littering the landscape. This breaks up the action quite nicely, providing a respite between the tense shootouts that offers a chance to restock on consumables and also stretch the grey matter with the puzzles that need a little thought in spite of their simplicity.
In fact, the map screens offer the most variety in the game. Each scenario map screen looks familiar but has a different mechanic underneath. Admittedly not all of these hit the mark (managing your party’s hunger levels when playing as the Undertaker becomes tedious rather than difficult) but they are all innovative and give the player something different to think about between missions, which is more than most games can lay claim to.
After you have engaged in some prospecting as a Mexican adventurer or some mid-level genocide as the evil inquisitor, your posse of up to 4 people will enter into battle arenas wherein the real turn-based action begins. This turned out to be my favourite part of the game – kitting out my team with the best gear. For the guns and gear that was all stat crunching – the real fun comes with the card conceit that allows you to assign cards that you acquire through each campaign to a character for passive and active bonuses like better aim or special abilities. Adding to this, you get bonuses for putting together poker hands (starting off with a pair) for each character meaning there’s a lot of fun to be had experimenting.
Once you’re all set up and ready to go, you’re likely to encounter a new section that has been added to the start of most scenarios, namely the set-up phase. If the storyline dictates that your enemies are unaware of your presence then you have the opportunity to sneak around them, sticking up those enemies that are in the way, and setting up favourable positions for when you want to turn on the lead shower.
Turning on that shower causes you to go into the combat phase, which requires you (apart from a couple of outlying cases) to kill all of your opponents. This is one of the few drawbacks of the game. The combat phases all playout in the same way. There aren’t any huge differences between weapons and after a few battles it becomes clear that the only consumables worth worrying about are those that give you health back. That said, the gunplay is very tight, and the use of a luck gauge (the higher your luck the less likely an enemy is to hit you – but you lose luck as enemies miss you) is a fantastic way of making even wasted shots seem like you’re achieving something and making aiming percentages seem less random.
The story is presented in an enjoyable comic book noir colouring, think the brown palette from Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead and you’re pretty much there. The themes of curses, revenge and the darker sides of the great frontier is engaging, if a little relentless but made more fun when they trickle into the gameplay (a character who is cursed lowers enemies luck when he is near). That said, the inclusion of the occult side of things does provide a lighter edge to the bloodlust of some of the darker characters (the cliché of the devil at the crossroads is well played out throughout). Speaking of the characters, the vividly realised and varied roster of gunslingers make this game a joy, sadly it is difficult to build a posse up for a campaign’s length. Story reasons often dictate people leaving and joining the posse making it difficult to get attached to any given individual.
The game is great fun to play and does not suffer from it’s simplicity. The story drives along at a great pace and the puzzle elements to the map screen are all challenging but not at all broken. The tone of the game is at times bleak, but with a dour voiceover from death himself, it’s pitched at a level that definitely won’t give you nightmares. If X-COM 2 proves successful enough and the devs are hungry enough, I have little doubt that this game will get a well-deserved sequel. For those of you who are looking for a top game with good replayability to tide you over until the next X-COM in Feb, or those who just fancy a swim in a deep black pool out west then this is an excellent title and I heartily recommend it.
P.S. If anyone played or can remember either Battle Chess or Small Soldiers Squad Commander shout in the comments. I sincerely want to give you a digital high five.
Disclosure: Midlife Gamer were provided with a copy of Hard West for preview purposes. The title was previewed over the course of 5 days. For more information on our reviews policy, click here.