by Sergio Brinkhuis
reviewed on PC
An unlucky young man
If you are reading up on Hard West before making the purchase you will be seeing a lot of references being made to XCOM. While I would love to continue the illusion that Hard West is XCOM in the wild west, it simply isn’t. That’s not a bad thing at all. Hard West is a confident turn-based strategy title that has enough going for it to stand firmly on its own.
Set in the wild west of gunfights and horses, Hard West tells the story of one very unlucky young man and his equally unlucky father. Mom died at a young age and father - though hard working - never quite recovered. As the story unfolds, you’ll find yourself facing hard questions, tough choices and even yourself. You will also learn that there are dark forces at play, meddling in your life in ways that would make anyone’s skin crawl...
Which is actually a fair description of Hard West’s ambiance as well - it will make your skin crawl. This is quite possibly the creepiest strategy title I have ever played. No matter whether you are in a combat session or traversing the campaign map, there is a real sense of foreboding, of things not being right in the world. And then it is tough as nails.
No rest for the wicked
I honestly cannot recall having played any turn-based games in which I had to restart levels as often as I have in this title, and I’m playing on the medium difficulty. One level in particular I restarted more than ten times. The game’s designers are obviously sadists with a penchant for Dark Souls type games - and I love them for it. With the exception of the introductory levels, you are virtually guaranteed to play a sizeable portion of the levels multiple times if you want to walk out with your entire team unscathed.
The options for healing are limited. A few healing herbs that can be used only once, a buff that lets its wearer heal a few hitpoints by feasting on downed adversaries, a few potions… there really isn’t much to bring your guys back to health and you’ll learn to use them sparingly. Dead is dead. Period. You cannot save and load during combat to revive your fallen crew, you can’t even tell them to retreat out of the battle scene when they are severely wounded. If one dies, you either opt to leave him dead or go back to turn one.
A single shot can kill or maim and some wounds are brought along for the ride unless you find a healer who can patch you up in between battles. The game is split up into scenarios, each starting with an inventory reset that gets rid of all the good stuff. You start from scratch, often with just a single character, making you fight every step of the way.
Guns, cards & charms
It all sounds incredibly harsh but the reward comes in the shape of a true sense of euphoria when you finally manage to successfully complete a mission with your team still in one piece. It also means you’ll be working hard to get to that point. The punishment for tactical mistakes can be severe. Cover and careful maneuvering are key to your survival and you will soon learn to spend enough time to consider your moves. You would expect that to slow the game down but the constant sense of danger kept me at the tip of my chair for the majority of the game.
Actually, the very fact that death lurks in every corner is perhaps the most compelling reason to play Hard West. Combat itself is fairly standard and revolves around seeking cover and shooting baddies before they shoot you. Things get interesting through the addition of card decks that can give your characters both passive and active bonuses such as the ability to hide in the shadows and to chain shots for as long as you have bullets and keep dropping enemies. Using simplified Poker rules, you can combine cards to get additional bonuses. On top of those, there are charms that you can equip that give yet more bonuses. If that sounds like overkill, trust me, it isn’t. There is no character progression. The only way to get strong enough to face the challenges on your path are your cards and equipment.
There is a good variation in weaponry, even if it relies a little too much on aesthetics and the number of bullets in the magazine. Your targets, however, are less diverse. Most of your adversaries are human but in Hard West, you are not just fighting your inner demons, you’re fighting real ones too. One early mission introduces a demon bandit ringleader who heals a point each turn and is a… demon to take down. The combat arenas on the other hand, are far less generic. Every time you enter a new town, farmstead, stronghold or other location the game offers new settings and fresh challenges. In one you may need to fight from door to door, working your way around enemies who will interrupt your turn with a free shot when you come too close. In another, there is a huge courtyard separating the barn you spawned in from a two story building featuring rifle-wielding enemies in every window.
I like my games challenging but I hate it when the difficulty increases to the point of feeling unfair. Somehow, Hard West’s developers have been able to put the difficulty level just at the edge, making it hard enough to make you want to bite into it without driving you insane.
The game also becomes better with age. The early missions felt a little dry and limited, mostly due to the game failing to explain some of its more interesting mechanics. The card system wasn’t explained, trade wasn’t explained… only gunplay had a tutorial. It was the incredible ambiance and the miniature text adventures that showed up playing on the campaign map that made me push forward but I can imagine some players opting out before the game really became interesting.
If you don’t mind discovering a game under your own steam, Hard West is a truly unique title that you can really sink your teeth into. With some 10 hours of gameplay, it’s perhaps a little short but what is there is interesting enough to give another try on a higher difficulty level after you see the credits scroll by.
Challenging combat, amazing ambiance
A little short