Who hasn’t dreamed of being a gunslinging cowboy? Who doesn’t want to dole out justice as a roguish vigilante? Who wouldn’t want to do all of this while having a burning skull for a head and Ron Perlman for a narrator? Put down your lighter because, luckily, you won’t have to light your head ablaze — the gothic western, roguelike West of Dead has got you covered.
Developed by Upstream Arcade, West of Dead is set within the ever-shifting landscape of Purgatory, Wyoming. Upon waking up in this dreary, menacing land, William Mason finds himself a lot more dead and flame-headed than he remembers. In fact, he doesn’t remember much at all. After a short tutorial and no more than a “Yeehaw!”, the game throws you right into the action. The developers’ ambitious goal becomes clear within these opening moments: is there an effective way to combine the traditional elements of a twin-stick shooter with a cover-based one? The answer is a resounding yes.
Like other twin-stick shooters, West of Dead has an isometric view while you maneuver around enemies, their attacks, and other hazards. Naturally, you’re seeking to blast said enemies into oblivion at the same time. A wide variety of punchy, vicious weaponry makes this a total delight. Pistols, revolvers, shotguns, rifles, TNT, knives, and more abilities all have their own set of advantages, disadvantages, and variants that urge you to experiment and find the tools that work the best for you in different situations. Of course, as part of the game’s roguelike system, death causes you to lose your weapons and begin anew. The tools that you find in each run are randomized and found throughout the environments in a multiple of ways. This is usually where I start to lose interest in most roguelikes. Why would I want to reset my progress and lose the weapons I was enjoying? West of Dead solves this issue by having every single weapon kick serious butt. There are definitely some that work much better than others, but the enormous amount of time that was taken to make each gun feel effective and fun kept the excitement of discovery alive.
No matter what tool you grab, defeating your foes is the addictive core of the gameplay. It doesn’t start out as addictive, though. Coming to terms with the controls takes time. Learning enemy attack patterns, dodge rolling at the right time, and knowing when to light the environmental lanterns that stun enemies is a lot to juggle at first. However, very soon you will find yourself sliding up against cover, tossing dynamite in one direction, unloading a revolver on some weaker enemies, blasting a larger one with a charged rifle shot, leaping over your cover and meleeing your final combatant with a brilliant flash of light without taking any damage. It is then that you find yourself thinking, “Clint Eastwood ain’t got nothing on me”. All of this deliciously fast-paced combat is possible thanks to the automatic reloading of your guns. Weird as that may sound to some, it makes it easier for you to prioritize and pay attention to the positions of yourself and your targets.
As you venture through this procedurally generated land of perdition, enemies will occasionally drop blobs of light called sin. Contrary to the advice of your local preacher, you need and want this sin. In between each successfully completed level, you offer your sin to a kind witch in exchange for upgrades. Some of them are permanent upgrades to your health flask, and others add to the available list of upgrades and weapons you can find in the game world. This is the same system found within 2017’s Dead Cells. Also like Dead Cells, after purging yourself of sin you can refill your health and health flask before continuing to the next area. This is a wonderful system in both games because it further incentivizes the player to keep playing despite the difficult nature of a game that sends you back to the beginning after each death.
In addition to the allure of unlockables, West of Dead has an evolving story that keeps you pushing through its levels. Your character, Ghost Rid- I mean, William Mason… roams Purgatory with no memory of who he was or is. Being voiced by Ron Perlman, he has a powerful presence to him. This voice, that defies the laws of nature by being simultaneously smooth and gruff, is a perfect accompaniment throughout the game. Perlman’s brilliant acting lends a huge amount of authenticity to the forlorn tale of this man’s cursed existence. Just like the unlock system, the more you progress the more you learn about Mason’s life. Many of the story beats come in the form of memories that can be found throughout the levels and given to the witch. Like a real memory, these moments are foggy and don’t give every detail. This, like so much of the game, continues to push the player forward in an attempt to gain some answers while leaving everything open-ended enough for the player to draw their own conclusions.
West of Dead on Xbox One is a major accomplishment. It feels like it has it all: an appealing visual style, exciting gameplay, tight design, and smart writing. As a roguelike, it has been built to last. There is more than enough content here for any player to enjoy for a lengthy period of time. If there is any part of you that enjoys anything about shooters, action games, or Westerns, West of Dead is a title that you simply cannot miss.