What is the best Western of 2015? The RPS Advent Calendar highlights our favourite games from throughout the year, and behind today’s door is…
Alec: You know the look. You know why it’s been done. Retro 2D! Big pixels! Everyone loves a big pixel! Anyone who makes a game like that will be as rich as Tom Francis within 10 minutes! Westerado, you’d be forgiven for thinking, is of a type.
Actually, it’s all about tone. Because almost everything it does is in service of tone, Westerado is the best Western game we’ve had in a while.
Sure, there’s that none-more-cowboy soundtrack, the high noon colour set and the deft use of hats as health – the frontier isn’t a world of magic medicines, but simply of chutzpah and front – but in the deliberate removal of something usually vital.
No faces, you see. Partly that (presumably) made development easier, but more importantly it suits Westerado’s loose tale – out here, labouring away in the dust, everyone winds up looking pretty much the same. You’ll need to know the size of a man’s hat, not the colour of his eyes, if you want to track him down. Never mind the man with no name, it’s the man with no face. Just like you.
So you piece together an identity from hints – the colour of his shirt, the height of his ten-gallon, the buckle of his belt – and, never knowing entirely for sure, you take a risk when stumble across someone who matches that partial description. You might accuse a (comparatively) innocent man of murdering your family, you might stop a useful NPC from ever talking to you again – or you might find your mark.
It’s a smart, sharp interpretation of the vengeance quest which drives so many games, adding both investigation and uncertainty into it – and with it the driving, paranoid, twitchy trigger-fingered determination of the Eastwood archetype.
Westerado isn’t quite sombre – it’s too colourful, too responsive to deliberate acts of chaos or even silliness, and there are some misplaced attempts at outright humour – but it meaningfully feels like what we think we mean when we say ‘Western.’ It’s buttoned down in all the right ways, using tropes only in support of stuff you can actually do rather than as mere set-dressing.
It’s an open world too, but in a small way, under the restraints of budget and simple controls, but I think that works for it. It doesn’t have to pad itself with routine tasks or overly garrulous characters, so despite the freedom to roam absolutely everything is in service of its core revenge tale. This isn’t Batman getting distracted from saving Gotham from poisoning so he can collect some trophies to stick on his Bat-bathroom shelf, but a man looking for a few dollars more so he can protect his head with a hat or carry a bigger stick than his unknown enemy.
Westerado does so much with so little, and so I can’t help myself – I dream of a Westerado with a big budget, that offbeat, languorous tone paired with scale and more choice. And something that approaches both Western games and open world games with a mindset that isn’t pre-defined by Grand Theft Auto or Assassin’s Creed.
If you missed this, you missed out. It’s the Western game you keep complaining they don’t make enough of.
Graham: My love of Westerado is only tangentially related to its Western setting and theme. Really, I love it because it’s an open world that manages to make the go-anywhere, do-anything promise of open worlds more than just a front. This is a game in which you can draw your weapon during any conversation, accuse anyone and everyone you meet of being the person you’re hunting, and kill absolutely everyone.
In the latter instance, the game doesn’t break. It might become harder to find your man if there are no other people in the world for whom to do jobs and receive hints as to their appearance, but eventually you’ll pull the trigger on the right person and bag the murderer of your family.
Alec has covered the rest of its charms, but I appreciate any game that gives me these options even if I then choose not to use them in most instances. I appreciate a game even more that doesn’t then automatically reload an old save for me or pop up a message to tell me the world is broken. Imagine a game like this with a budget, yes, but it doesn’t have to be Western. Imagine a Far Cry game, say, where your Pagan Min is a randomly generated NPC somewhere out in the world, living his life and travelling as you do.
Or don’t imagine it: just play Westerado. It is what you want.
Go here for more of our picks for the best PC games of 2015.