Hard West delivers a new setting for turn-based strategy fans, bringing X-COM style combat to the Wild West with fun (and difficult) firefights but little replayability.
The Wild West is a setting generally underused by video game developers. Whilst recent examples such as the Call of Juarez series and Rockstar’s acclaimed Red Dead Redemption have proved that the world of Westerns can be successfully translated to gaming, it’s a cultural cornerstone that is still largely untapped. With so many games taking place in a science fiction universe or in both historical and modern wars, the likes of Gun.Smoke and Sunset Riders still have very few peers.
Now, developer Creative Forge has decided to try and readdress the balance. With the help of Kickstarter funds, the studio has created the tactical combat title Hard West, which can perhaps best be described as a cowboy version of X-COM. That said, Creative Forge has not just delivered a straight Western to the masses; instead, Hard West delves a little into the worlds of horror and fantasy, delivering a story full with occult imagery, dangerous demons, and magic aplenty.
In traditional Western fashion, Hard West involves stories of violence and revenge. The player is thrown into a world literally narrated by Death himself, covering the ground of slaver bandits, greedy outlaws, mysterious goings on in the wild, and more than its fair share of demonic deals to boot. Hard West sets up a grim, dark world, and is more Unforgiven than Paint Your Wagon.
There’s more to it than that, though. Hard West contains eight separate scenarios, each set within the same dark Western world of outlaws and monsters. Beating one unlocks another, although the player has a pair of scenarios as jump-off points along with a brief but useful tutorial, which also sets the thematic tone for the rest of the game.
Visually, too, Hard West keeps up a dark style, without being too strenuous on a player’s PC either. The game’s towns are gritty and worn out, the occult moments are brooding and claustrophobic, and there is a general sense of malaise throughout. The characters themselves, particularly during the artistic cut scenes, also have a good level of individuality, vital when telling a story in a genre that relies more on combat than dialogue.
When all’s said or done, of course, a tactical game such as Hard West either succeeds or fails based on its gameplay. Thankfully, the title should tick most of the boxes for gamers who enjoyed the likes of X-COM and the stealthy Invisible, Inc. Hard West includes a movement system that will no doubt be familiar to those adept at tactical games, while the isometric viewpoint ticks the same nostalgic boxes as Wasteland 2.
The combat itself, however, is most reminiscent of the X-COM games. Character location is everything, and it’s imperative that the player’s squad gets into a good position of cover, else any shootouts are going to be over very quickly. Like many turn-based strategy games, it’s a matter of making smart tactical choices, and playing the percentage game to make sure characters use their attacks well. Hard West doesn’t exactly pull up trees, but delivers a lean, mean, tactical experience.
There is one mechanic that helps to separate Hard West from simply being a fan-made mod of the most recent X-COM reboot however, and it comes in the form of a Luck bar. Each squad member has their own level of Luck, which serves multiple purposes in the title’s gameplay. In a passive sense, the Luck bar relates to the number of shots a character has missed, depleting with every bullet dodged and increased with each enemy round that hits home.
Aside from the Luck bar being a clever mechanic in its own right, this addition to the usual turn-based fare also helps to redress one of the genre’s major bugbears among critics. There’s nothing more frustrating than an expertly-crafted combat situation being undermined by the sheer bad luck of a poor randomly-generated shot. Giving the player some kind of obvious ramification to a bullet missed or bullet dodged helps alleviate some of this, although it’s still not quite enough to make up for a character with a 80% accuracy chance missing their shot.
Characters can also have an individual skill to call upon in a tight spot. Shotgun carriers can pull off a spray shot that can hit enemies within a close-range cone, while certain pistol-wielders can fan their shots, lowering their accuracy but increasing the number of targets that can be hit. This adds a little variety to combat, at the downside of increasing the likelihood that the character in question will have to reload quickly. Although it’s commendable that Creative Forge has stuck to a little period accuracy with the number of rounds a weapon can hold, it seems a little unnecessary in a game about demons in the Wild West.
Having to reload at an inopportune time is lethal in Hard West – but then again, so are most things. The game follows turn-based tradition by being particularly unforgiving for players unfamiliar with the systems involved. Hardcore fans of the tactical sub-genre will most likely find enough to sink their teeth into, particularly when the Ironman play style is introduced, which fails the entire scenario if a critical character is killed.
Hard West does offer some level of flexibility to play outside of its strict gameplay patterns. Gamers are given a world map to explore, in a similar style to Baldur’s Gate overworld, and can jump to different situations. Scenarios also give a fairly decent sense of progression. If the player chooses, combat injuries from one shootout will end up debuffing characters, but over time will lead to additional perks and strengths.
Unfortunately, although the individual scenarios themselves are strong, with a good attention to detail and plenty of challenge, there isn’t much by way of replayability in Hard West at this moment in time. There’s not much to make a player return to the game once it is beaten, and after the game’s difficult nature has been overcome. Unfortunately, there’s not much to pull a player back in once they’ve had their fill of the game.
That said, Hard West is overall a strong addition to any turn-based strategy fan’s library of games, particularly those looking to keep them occupied until more news surfaces on the upcoming X-COM sequel. Hard West may not reinvent the wheel, but it’s a visually imposing title that brings tactical combat to a new and intriguing setting. Gamers are unlikely to be playing Hard West for the long haul, but it’s a good blast whilst it lasts.
Hard West is out now for PC, Mac, and Linux. Game Rant was provided with a PC code for the purposes of this review.