Hard West Review

This article was originally published at Another-Castle.com

Tombstone Tactics

Hard West
Platform: PC
Developer: CreativeForge Games
Publisher: Gambitious Digital Entertainment

Just a few years ago it wouldn’t have been unreasonable to complain about the lack of turn-based tactical games on the market. Since the reboot and release of XCOM: Enemy Unknown in 2012 there have been a number of new titles. Many of these are crowd funded such as last year’s Wasteland 2, Shadowrun Returns and even the legendary Jagged Alliance series had a new release. To be sure, the genre has always been popular with a niche audience but until recently, there were very few new titles to choose from. After being successfully funded in September last year, Hard West is another recent release that distinguishes itself with a unique setting.

Hard West, (as you have no doubt gathered) is a turn-based tactical title set in the West, or rather a bleak and often demonic vision of it. Most Western tropes are represented here from the haunting harmonica heavy soundtrack to the sombre voice of the narrator. The only Western tropes you won’t experience are horse riding and highway robbery and this is only because the gameplay doesn’t allow it. That’s not so much a complaint as an observation as the setting alone is far underused in video games.

There are eight scenarios with interconnected narratives that last roughly two hours. Most scenarios have a unique character to take control of but many characters appear more than once if not influencing future events with their actions. The main thrust of the story and how players will begin is related to a man named Warren, his father and the tragedy they experience on the Oregon Trail. This begins with a melancholy tale in the West which soon turns into gothic horror with demons, devils and heavy religious themes.

Hard West is in many ways a standard turn-based tactical shooter. You will control anywhere from one to four characters on a map with various objectives, most of which come down to eliminating the opposition. In most ways this is standard for the genre. Hard West does have a few unique twists though. The main and most interesting is the use of playing cards to enhance characters. Over the course of each scenario, you obtain cards in various ways and each gives characters a unique ability. Combining these cards into good poker hands will also give extra bonuses. There are passive and active abilities and all of them affect the combat in meaningful ways. Some are far more useful than others such as the ‘Golden Bullet’ which gives the player a guaranteed and powerful hit on any visible character on screen. One of the more interesting the ‘Equalizer’ reduces every character’s hitpoints (including yours) to one. This can be used to add challenge but is better used tactically if you have a single powerful enemy left to defeat and want to immediately weaken him.

One omission that was immediately noticeable was the lack of overwatch/interrupt options. This is a very useful ability in games like XCOM and Jagged Alliance where you can set up ambushes for enemies and interrupt their turns using left over action points. If during your turn, you move inside a marked radius of a visible enemy they will interrupt and shoot your character but this does not apply to your characters. In the initial scenario of the game I found this to be a major drawback, especially since it is a feature I take advantage of in the aforementioned series’. I gradually got used to its absence and according to the developers; it was deliberately left out. Though I would still say it should be an option, having played through all the scenarios, I’m quite satisfied the game works better without it.

A lot of the strategy outside use of items and playing cards will be related to taking and maintaining cover. Some objects in the environment such as well covers can be interacted with to increase cover as well. The inability to set up devastating interrupt/overwatch ambushes encourages manoeuvre and seeking out, surrounding and flanking enemies is far more rewarding. Sitting in behind cover is often a losing strategy as even missed shots reduce a character’s luck, making the next shot far more likely to connect. This is somewhat mitigated by connecting shots increasing luck but this is only if the character survives the shot. Another important consideration is that losing major characters will instantly fail the mission and in ‘Iron Man’ mode – the entire scenario will need to be restarted. This can be frustrating and certainly was for me initially but is a condition that encourages constant and careful repositioning.

Another aspect worth mentioning is the weapon and item variety. As each scenario is reasonably short, the ability to acquire items and weapons is too. This means that you are often forced to make use of what you can find and encourages experimentation with weapons and items. Most weapons will be familiar with close, short, medium and long range options. Each character has two weapon slots so having a short and long range weapon is a good tactic. There is also ammo capacity to consider as some weapons will require frequent reloads which costs one of two action points. For most weapons, firing once will end the characters turns so most players are limited to a single action before firing. It is often better to pull your characters right out of a gunfight to reload, buff or heal.

Outside the combat there is an overworld of sorts that varies each scenario. This portion of the game is easily the least interesting, serving largely to drive forward the plot add some variety to the gameplay with a little strategic planning. Each scenario has somewhat different features but most boil down to obtaining supplies, weapons before the next battle. There are some optional battles and secrets to be discovered but not much more than this. It is a shame that rather than developers trying a potpourri of ideas, they didn’t focus on and develop one. It also doesn’t help that most (if any) of what is obtained doesn’t carry over between scenarios. Thankfully, this is also the smallest part of the game and a lot of the dialogue is interesting.

If you’ve played Wasteland 2 or any similar game developed in Unity, then Hard West will look familiar. It isn’t by any means a visually stunning game but it captures the Western aesthetic excellently. The weapon sounds and over-the-top ballistic animations are particularly well done. The aforementioned soundtrack by Witcher 3 composer Marcin Przybyłowicz, is also a major highlight. I didn’t encounter any significant bugs in my playtime outside of some occasionally slow load times when transitioning into battle. The interface does take a while to get used to and engaging enemies at different depths is unnecessarily clunky. These are small issues though and they didn’t affect the overall experience.

Hard West is an easy recommendation for anyone who enjoys turn-based tactical games. It is incredibly ambitious and content rich given the limited budget and low price point. If you’re experienced with the genre then I advise turning the difficulty right up and jumping into the challenge. This a genuinely unique take on the genre and well worth the asking price.

4 Stars

December, 2015

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