In recent years, video games have woken up to the idea that not every player is fully able. It’s taken too long, but with the work of Special Effect and pressure from bodies like UKIE, we are seeing pioneering accessibility options like text-to-speech support, ledge detection and high-contrast modes in games such as Gears Tactics, and more and more audiogames are coming to market. Most of those are on PC and mobile, like Blind Drive and A Blind Legend, but the occasional example has made its way to Xbox, with The Vale: Shadow of the Crown being a good example.
There’s a hefty appetite for A Western Drama, then, which launched at the tail end of 2021. As with most audiogames, this is not solely for blind or visually impaired players, but it was absolutely designed with those players in mind first. All you’re going to see onscreen is a title card with the words ‘A Western Drama’.
What surprised but impressed us most about A Western Drama is that blindness isn’t factored into the plot. As a visually impaired player, that will be a godsend: you wouldn’t want every game you play to be about, or revolve around, blindness. This is an adventure about being a kickass bounty hunter in the American frontier of the nineteenth century, and there’s no contorting of the plot to excuse the audio-only narrative.
Choosing a Western as a setting feels perfect. Outside of possibly a film noir, there is no film or game genre that has such an immediately recognisable audio signature. The Spaghetti Western music, the crunch of boots on gravel, the clunks and whirrs of a pistol: there’s so much there to play with, and A Western Drama duly obliges. It has an exceptional audio design, with multiple audio layers to make the American West feel immersive. You can peel back the layers one by one: the wind, the vultures and wolves in the distance, the footsteps of your character, the swoosh of your trenchcoat, etc. It’s all there. Plus the music is pure Ennio Morricone, which is a very good thing indeed.
The voice acting is a little spottier, but it’s never less than clear. Most of the characters, particularly the main ones, are working from the same script and have a low, southern drawl that suits the genre. But there’s the occasional character that wanders in and hams it up, feeling like they were ported in from Blazing Saddles. The script, too, is inconsistent. There’s nothing here that’s going to make the writers of Deadwood or Westworld panicked, and it leans a little too hard into the Western cliches on occasion. Still, it ticks all of the expected boxes and takes you on a ride through saloons, horse chases, stand offs and duels.
A Western Drama is broken up into six chapters, following the rookie Wade (you) and his master Drake as they chase down bounties and work their way up to the ultimate prize, the supposedly reformed criminal now land-magnate, Seth Milton. The pattern of play is common throughout the six chapters: there will be some expositional dialogue before an audio set piece, and they tend to come in a few different flavours.
There’s the ‘follow’ mechanic, where you’re asked to move in the direction of someone’s voice or footsteps. This uses binaural audio, making it essential that you play A Western Drama with headphones on. But since this is an audiogame, we’d hope that you were planning to do that anyway. The voice comes from the left or right side, and you’re adjusting and moving in that direction.
Full disclosure: we had a lot – and we mean, a lot – of issues completing these sections. There’s a reason that A Western Drama has sat in our review backlog for a couple of months. The audio cues and their binaural placement in the environment never seemed to be enough guidance for us. Knowing whether a voice was coming from the left or right direction wasn’t a problem: knowing how far over to the left or right, how much of an arc to swing our character in, was always problematic. Watching reviews for A Western Drama on Youtube from visually impaired players, it seems this hang-up is reserved just to us – they don’t have a problem. It might have something to do with our hardware, or because we rely so heavily on our eyes. Regardless, completing these sections, particularly when there was a time limit, was exceptionally difficult. We’d have loved to see the path we took to reach an objective. It would have been awful.
Outside of the following sections, there’s a bit of gunplay. Often it’s about reactions: can you fire immediately after an audio cue? Other times it’s about direction: can you quickly determine whether a bottle is flying at you from the left or right side, and fire accordingly? But the majority of gun stuff is stand-offs or duels, and these opt for a spot of memory gaming. Sound effects play in the left and right ear, and you’ve got to replay them in sequence. Get them right and you will draw faster than your opponent, clipping them in the stomach.
The gunplay works better than the following sections, in our opinion, because it’s mostly binary. Sounds come from the left or right, and your memory recall is either correct or incorrect. There’s no following a small voice along a mountain path, with death being only inches away. We sucked at those.
As the six chapters came to a close, we had mixed emotions. There wasn’t quite the variety in gameplay that we would have liked for its three or four hours. We hoped for dialogue options, perhaps, or less of a linear feeling – some choice, perhaps. Too often, we felt like we were strapped into a minecart. But on the other side of the coin, this is an authentic, extremely immersive audiogame that delivers, over and over again, to an underserved blind and visually impaired audience. And I think I am just bitter because the ‘following’ sections kept on owning me.
A Western Drama aims to bring visually-impaired or plain curious players into the Wild West, immersing them in its grit and machismo. It nails that goal, delivering saddlebags full of Spaghetti Western music, gunfights and duels, without attempting to explain why the visuals aren’t there. It may not be the most varied of games, and the audio cues can verge on the subtle, but the result will be music to the ears of players who have been hunting for more in the way of audiogames.
You can buy A Western Drama from the Xbox Store for Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S