Weird, Weird, West
I’ve never been particularly enamoured of wild west settings in games (or anything else) but Hard West’s American frontier with occultism and lovecraftian insanity (or as the game’s Steam description puts it, “supernatural chaos”) drew me in immediately. I was worried that the occultist aspects might be overplayed but, so far at least, the blending is deft. It’s the old West with a darkness bubbling under the surface, hinted at early on by chance encounters with creepy strangers and little eruptions of evil suggesting things are rotten beneath.
Using occultism and existential horror to symbolise the very real but mundane horrors of the old West is a smart move in a game full of smart design choices. They could’ve just made it gritty, tried to accurately represent the hopelessness and desperation of frontier life, but this fantastical, mythical retelling is so much more emotive.
Gameplay is split over eight campaigns each of which consists of a series of missions making a complete narrative arc. Each campaign has you playing as a different character with minor, though interesting, mechanical changes to how the game plays. I suspect these narrative arcs will converge at some point (this is not a spoiler, I’m only 5 or 6 hours in, I’m just guessing!) and I’m really looking forward to that happening.
Missions will be familiar to anyone who’s played XCOM or anything in a similar vein, though the game introduces a few smart twists. Action is turn based, you control a group of characters each of which has action points that can be spent on movement or performing actions (shooting, reloading, using skills or consumables), so far so XCOM. Most of the twists are thematic, you can fan your pistols for a series of rapid but inaccurate shots, you can kick things like tables over for cover, you can ricochet your bullets off certain objects to shoot round corners (very cool!) and so on. All lovely additions, giving the game a firmly wild west feel, but not really game-changers. The innovation that makes me want to kiss the dev’s hems is the addition of ‘luck’.
Luck is a resource/stat which all characters have (both player and NPC) and which influences that character’s chance of being hit. If a shot misses a particular character their luck is depleted (equal to the percentage chance of the shot), when they are hit their luck refills. What this means in practise is that being unlucky twice in a row is far less likely. Being unlucky three times in a row is virtually impossible. What this means for me is no more rage, the game feels fair. No more losing the game because you missed three 90% chance shots in a row, no more losing the game because an NPC hit two 10% shots in a row. You get something for missing - it’s no longer all-or-nothing - if you miss you strip your target’s luck so that your next shot is far more likely to hit. I can plan for that! It’s still randomised, but it feels fair.
Some missions start out as ‘Stealth Missions’ meaning that combat has not yet begun and you can move your team into position before going all Yul Brynner. If you get too close to an NPC they’ll get suspicious and eventually start shooting but, in another nice wild western touch, you can brandish your gun and tell them to keep quiet and they’ll obediently put their hands in the air and remain pacified for a given number of turns. Pacifying a roomful of desparados like this with a single character while his team-mates get into position makes me feel like a real cowboy. Yeehaw! Once the shooting starts these missions play just the same as the non-stealth ones but being able to get your pardners into position, to come up with and execute a plan, feels good and very wild west.
Mission locations are varied, pretty and tactically interesting, nothing feels like filler so far. Skills and weapons are similarly refined, this game doesn’t overwhelm you with barely-indistinguishable options, it gives you a few genuinely distinct choices all of which contribute to the wild-west-gone-to-bedlam feel. I love it when my current character, a mad scientist with four mysterious companions (all called ‘Mr. Persons’), prays during battle and receives 60 luck in return, allowing him to avoid the otherwise-fatal next shot and take down an insane bandit with his six-shooter.
Between missions, gameplay takes place on an overview map on which locations are symbolically represented. Each location will provide a bit of interaction - usually a choose-your-own-adventure style bit of narrative, sometimes an extra mission, a trader or a campaign specific mini-game. During the first campaign, for example, there is a prospecting mini-game which allows you to get more money to buy guns and gear. These little vignettes are very well written, sharing the same subtle semantic cleverness as the main narrative, helping to make Hard West’s world a cohesive and engaging place. They seem to be entirely optional, if you just want to get on with the missions then nothing is stopping you from doing that. They’re worth exploring though and I welcomed the quiet time between missions.
The overview map is also where you’ll kit out your posse and access traders and the shared inventory. Besides the guns there are also consumables (tobacco, booze, cocoa, snuff etc. - quite the selection of recreational old West chemicals), clothing and trinkets. Most interesting are the playing cards which drop during narrative encounters and missions. Each member of your posse has five slots for playing cards, each of which confers a specific buff or ability. The clever bit is that if you make a decent poker hand (ace high or better, I believe) then you get an additional bonus. Unfortunately the cards you get are randomised and don’t seem to persist between campaigns or across playthroughs, it’d be fun to try to collect them all and would add a bit more strategy to the game. I hope this is addressed in a patch at some point.
The Linux port is by no means perfect. For me the UI will flicker occasionally which is no big deal, it’s perfectly playable and runs well. Others have it much worse and can’t get beyond the first mission due to a completely broken UI. Hopefully this will be sorted out in future patches.
The two mechanical concerns I see mentioned most often are lack of ‘overwatch’ and no quick save during missions.
Overwatch is a mode during battles whereby you can leave a character in position and they will shoot at any enemy that enters their field of view - in Hard West NPCs have this but the player doesn’t. Lack of overwatch never bothered me, it feels like a military thing rather than a cowboy thing, I feel like wild west gunfights should be chaotic and ad hoc rather than carefully planned and meticulously executed. NPCs not shooting when they see you would feel weird, but I do get that this creates what feels like asymmetry.
Quick saving during missions would ruin the game. The addition of the luck mechanic has all but rid this game of those instances where you fail due to a run of bad luck. If you fail a mission, it’s your fault. You did something stupid or your plan was bad and you should learn from that and try to do it better. Allowing saving during missions would make them far too easy and entirely remove any sense of peril or threat.
The developers of Hard West have not fallen into the trap, which besets many indie teams (particularly kickstarted projects), of trying to do too much, they’ve kept it tight and focussed. A few minor mis-steps aside, the game is characterised by intelligent design choices and superb artistic direction throughout. The horror aspects are not overplayed - never cartoony - there’s a restrained and sophisticated use of symbolism resulting in a convincing, cohesive and deeply intriguing world that I want to spend more time in and learn more about. The combat is refined rather than oversimplified, boiled down to what really matters and then spiced up with thematic additions and mechanical flourishes (thank you for luck!). The writing, acting and artwork are excellent and, more importantly, feel like they belong together, everything feels part of a cohesive whole.
The game’s structure looks ideally suited to adding more campaigns. Free ones would be great but I’d be more than willing to pay for more as DLC. I want more stories from this world and, if it’s not obvious, that’s a recommendation.