Wot I Think: Hard West

Much has been made of how Hard West [official site] is XCOM-with-cowboys, but if anything it’s more like Jagged Alliance. With cowboys. Demon cowboys, yes, but really they’re just cowboys with horns and a flame effect. Point is, this isn’t a game about gradually building up a super-squad and a grandiose base in order to take down an almighty, otherworldly threat, but about a small gang of gun-wielders carving or limping their way through more disassociated skirmishes.

That’s not an opinion. Not yet; I just want us to be clear. This isn’t XCOM with cowboys. It’s a turn-based strategy game with roleplaying elements with cowboys. There was a time when ‘turn-based strategy’ wasn’t defined by XCOM, you see. True, we prayed every day for a new X-COM during those wilderness years, but we didn’t want the entire genre to be about it.

I don’t think Hard West does, either. For all the superficial similarities – the percentage chance to hit, the cover system, the permanent fatalities – it’s very clearly trying to be its own game. Maybe a little too hard, to be honest. Its Wild West concept barely has a moment to breathe before it lays the demonic aspect over the top of it, to the point that it might as well have been set in present day Chicago, Belgium’s distant future or Dagenham high street on Tuesday, February 10th, 1981. The meat of the game is really just some men with guns versus some men who sometimes have horns. It’s a testament to the solid, tense combat that Hard West always feels like it’s walking its own road even despite this.

The narrative, doomy and dry, offers no shortage of Frontier tropes, though all rapidly tend towards the mystical. So please don’t turn up expecting turn-based Red Dead Redemption – though at a pinch, you’re getting the Undead Nightmare add-on.

Hard West puts the work in to build atmosphere, front-loading its numerous sub-campaigns with apocalyptic morality tales about deals with the devil, survivor’s guilt and mysterious strangers, and peppering the mid-mission dialogue with elliptical prophecies from all-knowing hermits and mad soothsayers. It’s playful, in an extremely serious sort of way. Unfortunately the presentation of the game proper can’t quite keep up, with the arid lighting, samey art and over-filled text boxes lending it an undeniable air of cheapness. The ambition is clearly there, but, I can’t help but suspect, the budget was not.

The ambition most shines in the systems. There’s a ton of ideas being thrown around, but admirably buttoned down into logical and coherent controls. For instance, each of your characters isn’t saddled with a set clutch of skills, but instead carries ‘cards’, each with their own constantly active or recharging single-shot power. You can assign any card to any character, essentially turning everyone into a specialist of your own design, rather than of the game’s. I’ve got, for instance, a guy with lousy accuracy but tons of hitpoints, who carries a shotgun and has a big movement boost so he can essentially run right up to anyone and drop a shell into their spine. Another is frail but with good range, and who can cast a fatal hex on any enemy in sight – so long as they’re not stood in sunlight.

Truth be told there aren’t quite enough characters or powers available to create too many variations, but nonetheless it’s a neat way of making your squad feel yours when visual customisation isn’t available. It might even be a more meaningful one. Which makes it only the more sad that your characters are effectively lost after just an hour or two. Not because of death – more on that shortly – but because the campaign is divided into vignettes, each with their own stars. Some interconnect, some loop back, and there is a Getting The Gang Together throughline, but it means a lot of stopping and starting.

I really like the theory behind this – there are hundreds of stories out there in the Weird West, each just as worth telling as any other – but it lends the game a stacatto feel it doesn’t deserve. Stories end abruptly, others dawdle along uncertainly before stumbling to a halt with a routine boss fight, and effort put into buying new weapons and trading tobacco and liquor across settlements simply doesn’t seem worthwhile. Even if the next story stars one or some of the same characters, all their equipment and skills reset. On top of that, some campaigns introduce new ideas, such as hunger or gold-prospecting, which are ditched come the next one, never quite establishing purpose or pay-off. It’s a jittery game, and feels as though it’s made of parts pushed loosely together rather than ever built as one whole.

At the same time, this means nothing outstays its welcome, and there’s certainly pleasure to seeing what scenario it’s going to throw at you next. Losing everything you’ve put into your characters is unforgivable, but I can appreciate that it’s been done in the name of balance. Hard West is forever seeking the sweet spot between challenging and punishing, and pretty much manages to stick to it (although you can crank things right up and turn on an Iron Man mode which necessitates restarting an entire sub-campaign if certain characters are lost). It doesn’t quite live up to the chest-thumping of its title, but as far as I’m concerned that’s a good thing.

The lack of a mid-battle save system had me swearing a few times, when one cock-up meant I’d have to repeat some 40 minutes of careful work, but it’s there to necessitate caution and thoughtfulness, and I don’t really begrudge it that. It did make me careful, to the point of anxiety – never leaving cover, reloading my weapons compulsively, scurrying wounded units way out of sight. In battle, Hard West has that special blend of tension, of risk/reward, which made so many of us love Jagged Alliance, X-COM and XCOM. Every decision feels momentous – apart from the odd moment when there’s only one enemy left but the bugger’s hiding somewhere and you have to trawl the whole map to find him.

The fights are good, then. They look a little bit ropey, a little too Made In Unity, but they’re scary and thoughtful and crunchy. The card powers are a giggle, some appealingly devastating and others curiously specialised, and they enable Hard West to regularly present scenarios which appear unwinnable at first look but are eminently beatable with a little consideration.

Outside of fights, Hard West is a more mixed bag. It tries to be a baby RPG between missions, as you scuttle across a map trading in towns and making occasional dialogue choices with slightly different outcomes, but while characterful it sadly seems a little purposeless. It’s just killing time before the next battle, and there’s every chance that will be the last battle before the sub-campaign ends and everything resets. To start with I’d try to do everything I could, agonised over every choice and every purchase, but as the game wore on I felt my time was being wasted, and sought out the quickest apparent route to more gunplay. The flavour text in these sections isn’t bad, but neither it is wild or funny or ingenious enough to prop up the innate purposelessness of scuttling around that map.

It just adds to that sense that Hard West is a turn-based strategy game with a strong core surrounded by a fragmented, uncertain exterior. I’d say it’s definitely worth picking up if your XCOM and Jagged Alliance itches currently feel unscratched, but expect something to dip in and out of, not some grand timesink opus. The best times with it will come from playing it on maxed-out difficulty in Iron Man mode, and its wounds system – whereby the injured are weaker in the short term but even stronger in the long term – turned on. Make the central battles as long as involved as possible, because that’s where Hard West has the surest footing.

Hard West is out now for Windows via Steam, GOG and Humble.

24 Comments

  1. funkstar says:

    I quite like this, and a neat thing about the card system is the additional bonuses you get for making poker hands. A couple hours in and its definitely scratching that itch!

  2. Crafter says:

    I picked up the game on Gog.
    It is some serious issues on OsX (the second story campaign crashes at startup). Apparently the devs are aware and working on it.

    Weirdly enough, they have an official forum but their website does not link to it, only to the kickstarter.

  3. Zenicetus says:

    I was mildly interested in this, until I got to the part about battles that can last 40 minutes with no saves. I don’t mind it when hard modes are optional. I do mind games that don’t respect my limited time for gaming.

    • Menthalion says:

      As far as I understood from some posts by the developer, you can quit the game (even mid mission ) and have your progress saved. What you cannot do is savescum from within the game, due to only having a single save game.

      You can do it from outside the game by copying save files though. The devs just want people not skip on the “What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger” mechanic where living through a serious injury gives your characters a boon in the long run.

      That and “extras” being expendable anyway due to perks (cards) being redistributable to new characters means any fatality to non-storyline characters shouldn’t be much of a problem.

      People can correct me if I’m wrong, since I didn’t actually play it but I did some extra reading on the issue because I had pretty much the same reservations as you.

      • GunnerMcCaffrey says:

        Games with stingy save systems get automatically knocked down a dozen or so spots on my wishlist. I should be able to start and stop as I please, and I should get as many mulligans as I like, because I’ve bought your game and now I’d like to have fun with it, on my own terms and my own schedule.

        • Kordanor says:

          From me they get a plus. As I want to have a challenge in a game to put me through. I hate it if I need “to make my own rules” to actually make the game challenging. So the last thing I want to have in a game is combats which I can savescum.

          However it would have been nice if you could quit a combat and continue it later. No harm in that.

          • klops says:

            By Methalion’s post above I understood you probably can do that.

        • TickleWizard says:

          Well, you can start and stop as you please. But you can’t cheat. Save-scumming or “infinite mulligans” is cheating. Are you upset with skyrim because it doesn’t allow you to walk through walls? Are you upset because a video game makes you reload a gun when you would rather fire infinitely instead?

      • JaggidEdje says:

        Thanks for the detailed info Menthalion.

        I was very interested in this game until i read the part about not saving in mid-battle. Not having followed the game’s development I wasn’t aware that you still could exit and have it get saved.

        I’m all for mechanics that don’t let me rely on save/reload (hate games that seem to actually encourage that behaviour). What I don’t like is limited save options such that I can’t just pick up and play the game in that 30 minute time window.

        Based on this review and the addition information in your reply here, I just picked this game up. Off to play now.

  4. Morph says:

    This pretty much mirrors wot I think too. Enjoying it, but plenty of niggles.

    • Hedgeclipper says:

      Sounds like it’d be a good target for modding if they’ve left it open for that.

  5. Carlos Danger says:

    The actor doing the narration did a really good job. Had a Sam Eliot timber in his voice that really help drive the story.

    In terms of gameplay the only glaring omission is the lack of overwatch in the game for characters. AI get a pseudo version of it but nothing for the player. Just seems to be a weird decision to leave out and does detract from play as it limits options.

    • Farsi Murdle says:

      There’s no ‘overwatch’, just an area of denial around enemies. The player effectively does have one too because the AI should not ever get within 4-5 tiles of the player’s characters. That isn’t made clear though, and apparently there was a bug that made it sometimes happen. The point is to keep gunfights at a sensible distance rather than having everyone bumrush enemies.

      It is possible to sneak up on enemies if they haven’t seen one of your characters though. So if you’re close enough to hear them, or see their shadow, or another character can see them, and you can send another one in close.

  6. Derpkovsky says:

    Sounds like a game that would be perfect for a sequel!

  7. Premium User Badge

    teije says:

    Fair review for a game with some oddities and loose parts but overall an enjoyable, tense squad TB game with a great atmosphere. Save system is really not a big deal. The combat is very tense and proper use of cover is all important because 2 hits out of cover is enough to kill any character.

    I like that the devs haven’t played safe here and tried out some interesting things. Really hopes this sells well because I’d love to see what the devs could do in an expansion/sequel with more funding available.

  8. misho8723 says:

    I have played so far 3 or 4 scenarios and I really enjoyed my time with the game.. I don’t have a problem with the save system (yeah, if you make a mistake and you need to play from the start the combat scene is annoying, but that’s a part of this type of games), the artstyle is good & story is interesting. I like those moments between battles when sometimes you must make hard decisions (and some have really unique consenquences).

    Music is great and the narrator is in my opinion fantastic. Some more variety to customize characters would be welcome, but the way it is now, isn’t a big problem. The card system is great + the game has some really great looking weapons. The demon aspect of the game is atleast interesting, even though I don’t think the game needed him.. anyway, so far I really like this game and because of her I stopped playing other games like ACSyndicate, Witcher 3 HoS, Batman AK, Mad Max, etc. :) so there you have it, a little game like this is more enjoyable for me like those big AAA titles :)

    If only the sales for this game would be bigger, because I think that 20 000 aren’t enough for such a fun game

  9. Premium User Badge

    Benratha says:

    Good balanced reveiw, I think. I probably hadn’t done enough pre-reading to understand the various scenarios did not use the same characters. Not a problem, really but I wonder if a mod/DLC could focus on e.g. the Gold Rush theme and then do something with mine exploration.
    Also, not exactly understanding the Luck system (probably a case of RTFM), but I have had the Ricochet Card and what I though were enough points but only to find there didn’t seem to be any available scenery for a bounce shot…

  10. guygodbois00 says:

    “Point is, this isn’t a game about gradually building up a super-squad and a grandiose base in order to take down an almighty, otherworldly threat…” So, it is Jagged Alliance 2 without sci-fi turned on? Best line from JA2 was “They are blowing all to hell. Well, nobody is blowing me, all to hell.”

    • Sin Vega says:

      My favourite is “Sure they look at me like I’m a CRAZY man but THEY are the crazy ones! One day, I will kill them all!”.

      But then, I am enormously fond of Maddog in general. He’s supposed to be a deranged serial killer but mostly he just makes me laugh.

  11. Kordanor says:

    It’s more similar to XCom than to Jagged Alliance.
    Just because it has the combat system in common with XCom. While it has nothing in common with Jagged Alliance.

    Played through the whole game. Enjoyed it and would recommend it.

    • klops says:

      Cover system and lethality of the shots and therefore the combat and therefore the “main thing” in the game seems to be much more like XCOM than JA2. JA2 gunfights weren’t like gunfights in this game. Of course, I say this without ever played Hard West so…

  12. DanMan says:

    Maybe worth mentioning that this isn’t a full-price game, so I guess you can cut them some slack.

  13. john_silence says:

    Enjoying this very much right now.

    I love how they’ve managed the variations on map play, and how these frame the combat sequences and add great flavour. Think King Arthur series, but each new scenario toys with a specific Wild West theme – as Alec quotes, gold digging, frontier madness, hunger…

    Also totally on board with the lack of Overwatch. With it, it would be just another TBS game. Without it, it’s very possible that a character will get murdered within one turn by two unannounced gunslingers. An embodiment of the phrase The Quick and the Dead, which was aptly the title of the setting book for pen-and-paper RPG Deadlands: Weird West, back in the 90s. The closest cultural parent to Hard West that I’m aware of, an occult spaghetti Western RPG, it’s the memory of it that made me buy Hard West upon release.

    Not on board with their implementation of Ironman however. As it is, the loss of an important character already forces you to restart the tactical battle – but redoing an entire chapter? You’d need a lot of spare time and patience.
    With Ironman off though, don’t worry too much about the lack of save inside tactical battles, the scrapes are not that drawn out. It’s the price to pay for slightly higher tension, and honestly well worth it. If you can only play this in half-hour implements I can see how it may occasionally be a problem, but most of the time you’ll spend a while on the map and know full well when you’re launching into a fight, at which point the game auto-saves.

    That said, I had to redo almost the entire first scenario because a patch killed my save, and it was crazy to see how far I’d messed up my first try. Which made me aware of the need for each scenario to start from scratch instead of porting over your progress in the previous chapter. There’s some depth and replayability here. And a lot of play time I figure, as I’ve clocked quite a lot of hours to complete just 2 scenarios out of 7 or 8.
    The storyline is pleasantly twisted too.