With so many strategy games treading the same tired, old mechanical paths, it takes considerable creativity to stand out. The hard route is to do it with new, clever game systems but it’s a long road with no guarantee of success. An easier, but no less effective alternative is to do it with story and atmosphere.
Hard West doesn’t take the hard road. It’s very derivative of XCOM, to the point where veterans of that game can apply the same tactics and succeed. There’s the same emphasis on cover, the same limited pool of actions which end with shooting, the same need to outflank for victory. Oddly, there’s no overwatch for the players, even though AI units will fire during your turn if you get too close. Confusing, but you get used to it.
It’s got to be said, though, that it’s a setup that worked well in XCOM and it still works well here. The missions are easier and there are less options but you’ll still have to consider your tactics. It’s not enough on it’s own, though, to make me recommend Hard West, yet that is exactly what I’m going to do. Not because of the tactical combat, but because it surpasses the grade with its narrative and setting.
There aren’t enough wild west games. It’s a chronically underused theme, all the more puzzling because it’s been a damn fine place to make some classic films. Hard West sells the western angle pretty well. There are six shooters, abandoned gold mines and Pinkerton agents. You’ll take part in Jailbreaks, robberies and tales of vengeance. It’s all familiar stuff. Where the game excels is adding weird to the west.
It would be easy to overdo this. Put a real magic-wielding shaman in every native tribe. Pop some moldering undead under every makeshift tombstone. Hard West does it with style and imagination. The atmosphere is thick with dread and despair. In the first few missions I got cursed, and got offered multiple ways to get rid of said curse. None of them worked. It set the tone for the game that followed.
A giant clockwork edifice in the desert, counting down to doomsday. Missions dryly narrated by a one-eyed avatar of Death itself. Rain-drenched townships populated by cannibals, lunatics, demons and worse. The game is full of concepts that mesh across its eight interlinked campaigns. Each tells it’s own tale which gradually weave together toward a grand whole. There’s the occasional misstep, right onto your toes. Meeting a tall dark stranger who smells of sulfur doesn’t leave much to the imagination. But on the whole, it pulls you in like so much bitter taffy.
So it’s a bit of a shame, then, that the best parts of the story get told in the weakest parts of the game. Each campaign has an overland segment where you move from place to place, working through the plot. Some have choose your own adventure style dialogues. Some allow you to make money or trade for items. Others turn into the combat encounters that make up the meat of play. One of the more striking examples sees your character sell his soul to Satan, then keeps a running tally of people you’ve killed and properties you’ve wrecked on your way to hell.
Yet for all the intriguing narrative on offer, it rarely feels like anything you do here matters. It does, however, give structure and setting to the tactical encounters that make up the bulk of the game. Here’s where you’ll find the vital decision points, and most of the fun.
The game tries hard to put some novelty into turn-based tactics, but it’s only a partial success. You can spot hidden enemies by their shadows, for instance. It’s a real thrill the first time you do it, but quickly becomes routine. Some missions also start with a scouting element, where you can subdue guards by getting them to “stick ’em up” while the rest of your posse scour the map.
Where these new elements work best, though, is when they tie in with the theme. Instead of armour, characters have a Luck score which gets spent to dodge shots or fuel wild west skills and supernatural powers. Taking down enemies with ricochet shots or by fanning your revolver never gets old.
My favourite example is the skills system. Since each campaign is self-contained, you don’t get to build up characters over the long term. Instead you earn skills in the form of playing cards. Each one adds some bonus or ability to a character but, in a brilliant twist, you can get extra buffs by using them to make poker hands. It’s such a great and evocative way to add strategy to the limited role-playing elements in the game.
A similar mechanic is used to bolster your options in the new DLC, Scars of Freedom. It adds a new campaign, longer and more involved than the ones in the base game. The tale here revolves around a shadowy cabal of occult surgeons who are capable, amongst other things, of augmenting the human body. In the Scars of Freedom missions you can buy these superhuman abilities and equip them for combat. Sucking in important strands of history like slavery and the civil war, as well as more important choices in the overland map sections, it’s a great addition.
As with many games where story and atmosphere are the high points, there isn’t a lot of replay value in Hard West. There’s plenty of mission variety on offer, but with a limited range of enemies, one gunfight starts to look very much like another after a while. Yet there’s enough hours in a once-through of the game to justify the asking price. The imagination and creativity on display are just gravy.