Even though I’ve been dead excited about Weird West since its announcement last summer, when the time finally came for me to play a preview build last week, I found myself unusually hesitant. Primarily, this was because I loved the game’s concept so much (“What if Dishonored and Desperadoes III had a rooting tooting baby, then let it watch way too many horror movies?”), that I didn’t really want to face the possibility that developers WolfEye Studios might have fallen short on it. But more than that, I was worried I’d have to… well, make an effort.
For whatever reason, my enthusiasm to start new games has been taking one of its periodic dips over the last month or so, leaving me in the comforting arms of old favourites I can play on autopilot. Time and time again, I’ll get right to the point of hitting play on something, before convincing myself - completely unreasonably - that it’ll probably be a load of hassle for moderate reward. And however promising a sprawling, top-down immersive sim set in a world of haunted stetsons sounded, I was certain it would involve a lot of fiddling about with inventories, reading long screeds of text, and going on sidequests.
I’m delighted to say, however, that I was completely wrong. Because while Weird West does involve all those things (and features even more emergent complexity than the hefty dose I’d anticipated, to boot) I have not had a smoother time getting into a game in a long while. The build I played only featured one of the game’s five character campaigns, admittedly. But unless the other four are all set in a Tesco car park or something, I can heartily recommend it to you.
Weird West is an easy game. And I don’t mean that in the sense that it offers flimsy barriers to progression: it’s respectably tough in the traditional sense. Where it really does offer a light touch, however, is in how many of the traditional RPG hard edges it polishes away, or at least makes a fair go at bevelling, so you can devote your brain to the genuinely interesting challenge of murdering cannibal outlaws.
The tutorial, for example - usually my most hated element of any game - is wedgied out almost over the breadth of the entire first campaign, with succinct little explainer boxes popping up so infrequently that they never seem to break the flow of the action. The same is true of dialogue. Weird West’s writing is splendid, but it’s used sparingly. I can think of many gorgeously-written RPGs that I’ve bailed on in ten minutes because I didn’t want to read a novella before shanking my first rat, and doing so never fails to make me feel guilty.
Another example: loot. I don’t actually enjoy looting that much, truth be told. For the same reason that summer blockbusters don’t pause for fifteen minutes after fights while the heroes rummage about in bin bags for old nails to sell, I go cold on a game very quickly when I feel it’s my duty to scour every corner of an area for “treasure” before I can sensibly move on. Don’t be mistaken here, as Weird West has many, many things to pick up and sell. But harvesting them never feels like a mandatory chore. As I skipped from location to location on the map, I generally always felt that I’d blundered across enough objects in the course of my main business to feel compensated, without having to go back and scrounge in the toilets.
"I can think of many gorgeously-written RPGs that I’ve bailed on in ten minutes because I didn’t want to read a novella before shanking my first rat."
When the game does compel you to go on the hunt, though, it gives you a good reason to do so. Ammunition scarcity, at least in the early section of the game I played, is perfectly calibrated. Slugs aren’t so rare that I was trigger-shy, but gunfights tended to empty my pockets frighteningly quickly, leading to some brilliant steeplechases through clusters of blood-drenched sheds as I looked to rearm in a panic.
Weird West is, as already mentioned, an “immersive sim”. That is to say, it aims to give you as much freedom as possible in choosing how to accomplish your objectives. And it isn’t fucking around. From a stealth system with the most satisfyingly fluid creeping I’ve encountered in ages, to Divinity-style elemental damage combos facilitated through barrels of oil, water, poison and the like, to a honking great range of skills, perks and special abilities, the toybox on offer is vast.
It should be overwhelming. Thinking back, I’m sure I should have been regularly cursing myself for forgetting that entire game systems existed, or never bothering to use certain items, or sinking into choice paralysis when approaching an enemy camp and just logging off to have some strawberry milk instead. But again, somehow, all the familiar pitfalls of the genre were roundly dodged.
As facile as it sounds to say, I can only put it down to very careful design on WolfEye’s part. There’s a lot happening in Weird West’s UI, and I’ll admit there were a couple of persistent bafflers tucked away in it (what determined the weapons I could readily bring to hand, for example, or the way to activate gun-specific skills). But given the sheer amount of possibilities it was trying to arm me with at any given moment, it held up admirably well.
Even one of the staunchest bastions of RPG frustration - the strange misery of feeling bound to take the “nice” option at every given decision point - crumbled a little for me during my adventure through this Arthur Morgan anxiety dream. Weird West’s world feels so murky, lawless and genuinely chaotic that, when I came to choose how to interrogate one of the gang who had captured my husband, I barely thought twice before I began snapping fingers.
Sure, I did nice things too. But crucially, I did them when I felt the situation merited it, rather than because I was trying to achieve some arbitrary moral apotheosis. Huh. Guess I was... roleplaying?
Of course on top of all this, I also enjoyed the things which I already knew that I liked about Weird West, and which I have written about before. The sublime use of colours; the John Carpenter-esque musical moments; the disconcerting second-person narration from an ash-tongued cowboy.
I already knew I liked the general psychedelic yeehaw horror vibe of the setting, too. But I wasn’t prepared for quite how satisfyingly idiosyncratic the implementation would be. As I’ve mentioned already, the writing is cracking. Rather than leaning on the sort of half-arsed invocation of vague Lovecraftian stuff that too many games tend to lean on, Weird West forges its own distinct tone - a little bit Deadwood, a little bit Bone Tomahawk, a little bit 1940s pulp horror comic. Seven minutes in, when I found an extract from an etiquette manual containing a single, understated reference to some sort of fucked-up old god, I knew I was in for a treat.
It would be wrong to finish without acknowledging the rough edges I did come across, primarily in connection with the enemy AI, which was frankly bizarre at times. Sometimes, the bag-headed bastards of the antagonist Stillwater gang seemed utterly unable to comprehend the death of their comrades, just feet away from where they stood. They appeared so keen to sprint into raging fires, that I almost considered easing off on the incendiaries, purely out of sympathy. Then there was the time when a bloke got stuck inside some wood. And the occasion when, upon exiting a dungeon, I found the surrounding camp’s defenders had all come back to life, and were stood stock still, aiming their guns at the horizon, while I brained them one by one.
I do feel this stuff could use some work. But as you can tell, it didn’t exactly ruin my fun. One of the advantages of a deliberately unnerving setting, I suppose, is the ease with which bugs can be camouflaged as features. The bottom line is, even if the AI remains completely unchanged in the run up to launch, I’ll remain just as keen to jump in and fritter away my hours bedevilling it. And that’s a feeling I’ve not had in a little while.