Right, this is brilliant. If you like Westerns, if you like Red Dead Redemption, if you like roleplaying games which are based around choosing your behaviour, if you like whodunnits, if you like oddball life-or-death shooters, go get this, have a great time, be happy. If you need more convincing than that, then dammit pardner, saddle up and let’s do this.
You’ll notice I mentioned Red Dead Redemption, Rockstar’s mostly marvellous sandbox cowboy game, which tragically never saw a PC port. This isn’t because Westerado is wholly like it, but because when it comes to Wild West-set games which aren’t straight-up shooters, there isn’t much else to reference. That said, Westerado does have a hell of a lot in common with Red Dead, from the revenge quest arc to the freedom of movement and the odd jobs, both menial and lethal. It’s both smaller and bigger in scope, however. Smaller in that the landmass isn’t huge, the core quest is minimalist and you don’t get achievements for killing endless wildlife in the desert.
Bigger in that you choose your behaviour in conversations, decide the fate of factions and kill basically anyone if you so please, and the game will simply adapt to the consequences. A mishap at one point saw me have to wipe out most of the population of one the game’s two towns, as they’d not taken kindly to my stray pistol shots while fighting a wanted bandit. Another one, where I tried to play the odds and please two opposing factions with opposing aims, led to a huge shootout in which everyone died. Another saw the Sheriff, the lead quest-giver, killed by felons because I was too slow off the draw. This meant I couldn’t collect any bounties for the rest of the game.
Basically, the world went to hell, it was all my fault, and I was so happy about it. Westerado looks like this tiny, throwaway, faux-retro thing, but there it is tracking and reacting to my actions, inactions and clumsiness. And, given I’m playing an archetypal Unforgiven revenge quest cowboy, the idea that there was all this innocent (and not so innocent) blood spilled as part of my tireless quest to find and kill the man who murdered my family seems only appropriate.
While not an RPG as such, Westerado successfully pulls of the twin priorities of an RPG – an over-arching goal with a Big Bad to best, and assorted optional tasks and upgrades off the side en route, during all of which you build a strong sense of what sort of character you are. Brilliantly, it does this without any numbers to speak of, and any improvement comes more from the player than whichever of the five available weapons they happen to have purchased. Sure, it’s handy to have dual revolvers or a rifle, but the basic single pistol is equally deadly if you’re practiced enough at aiming, cocking and dodging.
Combat has a faint touch of Hotline Miami to it – none of the frenzied melee or rhythmic combo-counting, and generally a whole lot easier, but that sense that every single shot matters, that timing is everything, that you have to learn mechanical controls rather than have them make allowances for you. To fire a shot involves cocking your weapon first, a sort of surrogate to taking aim, but this double-tap on the K button (or whatever you’ve rebound Cock and Shoot to) before the enemy moves away from your sights is a peculiar and mechanical skill, to be achieved in tandem with moving away from any other black hats who are gunning for you.
It isn’t a sharp learning curve, nor is it a long one, but it’s an unusual one, and it conveys that these are old-fashioned and slow weapons very well. It also makes it a big deal to take a life; it feels like an achievement every time, and sometimes it feels like a tragedy too. It’s possible to just shoot someone’s hat off and send them packing, or use a bolo to capture them and turn them in for a bounty, but these are harder to do and can just leave the enemy upright and still deadly. Taking a life starts off feeling brutal and unnecessary, but gradually becomes a matter of raw practicality. (And the thematically appropriate endgame section gives you no choice in the matter anyway).
Then there’s the investigation element. You begin the game with only the slightest detail on the mystery person who slew your family, in my case what sort of brim his hat had. As you complete quests, NPCs will reward you not with loot (bar sometimes a few dollars more) but with further hearsay about the killer’s description. What kind of belt he has, what colour his shirt is, whether his hat is wide or narrow. No-one has a face, most don’t even have names, but clothes begin to tell a story. The more you do, the closer you draw to being able to tell – or guess – which of the numerous behatted men of the frontier has your mother’s blood on his hands.
You’re able to accuse anyone of the crime right from the start of the game, regardless of how little you know, but get it wrong and that’s one NPC who won’t talk to you anymore, or might even draw a gun on you. Get it right and, well, then things get complicated. It’s a great system, this sort of ambient manhunt, and one which is also extrapolated to bounty-hunting sidequests where you’re trying to identify perps based on their pictures on wanted posters. Alternatively, you can simply execute anyone mid-conversation and then see what happens. Something almost always happens.
My only real reservation is Westerado’s throughline of awkward innuendo, which is clangingly unsubtle and disruptive to the atmosphere. That said, the tone is all over the place anyway, pinging wildly between sombre Man With No Nameisms, wacky Frontier nutters and dull double-entredes. You can side-step most of it – indeed, you could just kill pretty much everyone in sight rather than ever try to converse – but it’s a shame it didn’t find a tone and stick to it. Sometimes it’s broad satire, sometimes it’s Kentucky Route Zero-lite, sometimes it’s straight down the line, and frankly I think it’s trying to have its cake and eat it. It didn’t stop me from having a wicky-wicky wild-wild time, though.
No numbers, no inventory to speak of, but so much to do, so many ways it can play out and plenty of snowballing consequences. Its superficially simple 2D art occasionally flares into high prettiness too. We might not have Red Dead Redemption, but Westerado is an enormously satisfying consolation prize.