In 2015, director John Maclean’s indie western Slow West told the story of a bounty hunter protecting a Scottish teenager as he searches for his lost love in 1800s Colorado. It’s not the gun-toting, Spaghetti Western most common in the 1960s, but rather an introspective, eerily quiet journey through the violent Colorado landscape. Jay Cavendish’s venture to find the love of his life ends in tragedy as he is gunned down by the very same woman – an ending that is both depressing and representative of our world.
Five years later, Hard West: Ultimate Edition, a turn-based, tactical Western developed by CreativeForge Games, tells a similar story. Broken up into several scenarios, Hard West plays like two different games seamlessly blended into one cohesive experience, each surrounding their own protagonist tasked with a seemingly insurmountable task. The overall ambiance, from its score to its bleak, comic book-like visuals, bleed dread. Hard West borrows popular mechanics from games like XCOM, yet creatively spins the typical formula into something unique.
Serving as both a tabletop adventure and a strategic action game, I found myself enjoying the former as it consistently delivered a compelling experience all through text and action choices. Hard West, in each of the eight unique story-based scenarios, drops the player in a semi-open environment, free to explore interactable lands and encounters that offer several options, each with their own rewards and consequences. These sections break up the combat portions of the game, allowing the player to build an economy, purchase weapons and consumables, and make difficult decisions that actually impact the rest of the scenario.
At one point during the first scenario of the campaign, a family travels through the Oregon trail, only for the mother to be captured and decapitated. As you search for your wife’s killers, you build a homestead and venture out into the wasteland excavating gold, earning coins, and discovering new locations solely dependent on your choices within dialogue. The father, struck with a malignant curse, seeks aid from a minister held up in a church somewhere on the map. Before exploring the church’s scenario, I traveled to a Mexican town where I asked for information about a cure in exchange for some coin. The townsfolk pointed me in the direction of a wishing well that appeared after the fact. Once at the well, I was given the option to throw one of my own down into it in an attempt to strip my father of his curse, or climb down to snag the other coins at the bottom. My choices in this particular scenario left me severely injured as I slipped and fell to the bottom, and would ultimately affect my performance and vulnerability in combat. After narrowly escaping death, I had made it to the church where the minister healed me of my ailments and performed an exorcism on my father for a meager price.
Hard West’s risk reward system shines in these situations, as it encourages the player to make difficult decisions. The motivations to engage in combat are justified, and serve as a nice diversion from the exploration portion of the game. Yet there are some issues that persist throughout.
Before starting any scenario, there are three difficulty options in the form of easy, normal and hard. Within each difficulty setting, the player has the opportunity to choose different optional modes – combat injuries and ironman. The former debuffs damaged characters, but strengthens them over the course of the scenario. Ironman, similar to Halo’s iron skull that reverts players back to their last checkpoint after death, forces you to restart the scenario if a critical character is killed. Hard West’s UI is a bit muddled and overwhelming in the beginning when trying to learn and understand its core mechanics, but after that initial hurdle it proves to be a rather lenient experience.
Hard West simplifies the brutal gameplay of XCOM, and proves to be more favorable with critical shots. That’s not to say that the game is devoid of any kind of challenge or strategy. Before launching combat, the player is taken to a menu to prepare their characters for battle by equipping consumables, weapons and ability cards all allocated in a few inventory spots. Each weapon and consumable come with their own luck, sight and damage statistic, while ability cards can be split between characters. These ability cards sometimes turn the tides of battle completely, often affecting more than one enemy when it becomes overwhelming. The AI is competent most of the time, but I found myself questioning their decisions on normal difficulty. There would be moments where the enemy took advantage of verticality and fired at me from the top floor of a building, only to then run downstairs and into the middle of the field on their next turn. On the harder difficulties, enemy aim and precision is understandably increased, but I felt myself craving more of a challenge.
Hard West incorporates this luck system that depletes when a shot misses you and increases when hit. The ability cards equipped cannot be used freely at any time, as they require a higher amount of luck to trigger and a brief cooldown before reuse. The combat works almost identically to the grid system of XCOM, where the player moves a character to a point on the spaces provided based off of the amount of action points granted in that turn. Cover is displayed in the form of a shield, but bullets can penetrate cover, dealing minimal damage. Unfortunately, I was consistently struggling with the controller to pick the intended block of cover – an issue that doesn’t translate over to the PC version, and one that permeates amongst similar console ports in the genre. However, an interesting mechanic allows the player to move towards an interactable table or wooden cellar that transforms into cover.
Battles are violent and often unpredictable when ability cards come into play. One ability allows a severely damaged player to transmute blood into an enemy, swapping their health points entirely, while another forces a character to shriek, inflicting panic onto enemies within the area of impact. Several combat instances begin with a set-up, where enemies remain neutral unless fired upon or by entering a restricted area. This added layer of strategy encourages a stealthier approach, but character movement is slow and separated by turns, leaving me impatient. My aggressive push on the objective left me victorious as the AI on normal difficulty posed no real challenge. There were several moments where I had thought my character could bust through a window to get to the objective quicker, but those options were not available – leaving me more inclined to take the violent and spontaneous approach. After an enemy encounter, I often found myself searching for the remaining thugs in more open environments. Where XCOM fixed this problem by incorporating an enemy sound indicator towards their location, Hard West forces the player to aimlessly search room after room, while the AI stands still. It was only when I was a few blocks away that the AI finally responded to my action.
The frame rate was consistent throughout with barely any technical issues in gameplay or sound on my base Xbox One console. Depending on your playstyle, the game will take you around 12 hours or more to complete, on top of the additional four to five in DLC content in Scars of Freedom. Released shortly after the original, Scars of Freedom adds some clever twist to the Hard West formula. While the paranormal aspect of the original is toned down significantly, developer CreativeForge focuses more so on gothic horror that alters some of the mechanics. In the original campaign, players used poker cards as abilities to aid their characters in combat, but in Scars of Freedom these abilities are now in the form of body parts, obtainable through ether, the new in-game currency. Much like Hard West’s campaign, Scars of Freedom expands the lore, and allows the player to continue the story through branching environments and situations. It’s a welcome piece of content for those of you Frankenstein enthusiasts.
Appropriately priced at $19.99/£16.74, Hard West: Ultimate Edition on Xbox One offers hours of enjoyment throughout the eight unique campaign scenarios, for those craving an XCOM-like tactical action game – just without humanoid aliens and mass genocide, of course.