Western-themed games are a surprisingly underrepresented bunch; strategy games with a western theme, even more so. How about western-themed strategy games with demonic overtones and a touch of choose-your-own-adventure style narrative? “Impossible,” you might say! Normally I would have agreed with you, right up until CreativeForge Games came along with Hard West.
Hard West bills itself as a tactical turn-based western paired with a dose of strategic management. This style of game has been making a comeback since XCOM reopened the floodgates of mainstream appeal in 2012. Other recent games have taken stabs at the genre, too, like the more RPG-driven approach of the new Shadowrun games, Invisible Inc.’s stealth-based gameplay, and MASSIVE CHALICE’s lineage management focus. The question at hand is this: how does Hard West hold up when dropped into this milieu of tactical goodness?
Lonely Are the Brave
The overall structure of Hard West is built around a series of eight campaign “scenarios.” Each one is unlocked sequentially as you complete them, gradually building the narrative of the setting. The scenarios follow the trials and tribulations of a distinct (and occasionally overlapping) cast of characters and a different set of rules that govern the gameplay. In one mission, for example, you might be prospecting and mining gold to fuel your homestead economy. In another you’re tracking down blueprints and conducting research to build more diabolical firearms.
Within the various scenarios, you’ll move your troupe of characters to different points of interest on an overworld map. These points of interest are where you face the choose-your-own-adventure style decision trees. Do you go inside the ghost house to explore for treasure? Do you dig even deeper for gold, knowing the mine might collapse?
True to form, the player isn’t really given much information to make an informed decision. It often comes down to whether you think you can weather a potential catastrophe if your luck runs dry. The game does use an auto-save system, so you have to live with the consequences of your decisions, for better or for worse.
At any given time, you will actively manage up to four characters, one (or more) of which will be a primary “essential” character. If the central characters die, you’ll have to restart the scenario. Characters have various attributes like movement speed, accuracy, health, defense and luck. In addition, they have up to two weapon slots, two consumable slots, and an equipment slot, allowing you to tailor your characters in a number of ways. Like XCOM, you’ll often be making a careful calculation as to how to customize each team member: who will be tanky, who has close range weapons, who provides long range support?
Beyond equipment, Hard West uses an interesting card system for controlling your characters’ skills. Players are awarded random poker cards after each combat mission. Each poker card comes with a particular base ability, giving you a special skill you can use in-game. What makes the system even more interesting is that each character can have up to a 5-card “poker” hand, and depending on the strength of your hand (e.g. 3 of a kind vs. full house vs. flush, etc.) you unlock a bonus ability or an attribute boost. Players can change cards around anytime outside of combat, so the system creates a nice decision space where you can freely adjust skills around and tweak your characters’ capabilities.
Combat in the game uses a typical turn-based system. There are five combat missions in each scenario (so roughly 40 missions in the game), but each is hand-crafted. This allows for unique and novel combat environments each time, rather than relying on a procedural generation system that results in “different but effectively similar” map layouts each time. This is a nice touch and gives each level its own distinctive elements.
A complaint I often direct towards tactical turn-based games is that combat frequently becomes a rinse-and-repeat procedure; you are always doing the same thing each time (or most of the time), once you find an optimal approach. Thankfully, Hard West provides a diverse range of combat situations. Missions range from having to defend against a horde of enemies Alamo-style to shooting (or sneaking) your way into some mad chemist’s laboratory and stealing their secret notes before the lab explodes.
Missions can start off loud with guns blazing or begin in a sort of undercover mode, where you can direct your characters around the map without raising the alarm. You must be careful though, as your characters have a “heat” value, based on the size of your guns or equipment and how close you get to the enemy. If your western stroll is a bit too stiff (e.g. not cool), you’ll raise the alarm. And of course, no western is complete without weaving in some “stick ‘em up” opportunities. Characters can “go hot” and hold up an enemy so that the rest of the crew can sneak past. It’s a bit like Invisible Inc., where you can leave a character with their six shooter trained on a guard to keep them quiet and passive. But if you wander away, the guard will raise the alarm in short order.
When the shooting starts, there is a nice complement of both expected and unexpected mechanics in play. In the expected category is a very XCOM-like “Two Action Points Per Turn” system for moving, shooting, and using abilities. Terrain features provide full or partial cover. In a nice touch, some terrain is also interactive, allowing you to move things around to maximize cover or block line of sight. There is also a familiar-enough “chance to hit” score based on your character’s accuracy, weapon, range, and so on. So far, all quite predictable.
But Hard West doesn’t limit itself to the predictable. One of its novel mechanics is the somewhat controversial “luck” mechanic, which I think is great. Characters and enemies have a pool of luck points, usually around 100, with the total hidden for enemies. When shots fail to hit (or do hit), depending on how much luck you have or the enemy has remaining, there is a chance that shot will hit (or not hit) the target after all, depleting some luck in the process. This mechanic is great for mitigating the “missing despite having a 95% chance to hit” rage that the RNG’s so often produce. It is a clever way to rectify our own human expectations about probabilities with the reality of how they operate. And thematically, when your “luck runs out,” you are fully exposed to those wrenching twists of fate once more.
The system gets even more clever though, because most of your characters’ active abilities consume luck, as well. It creates a challenging decision point around whether to use your pool of luck to exact a certain effect (I love the Golden Bullet ability to shoot through walls and ignore cover), or to save your luck to avoid taking future damage from enemy fire. Curiously, your luck only replenishes when you take damage. This creates more tough call moments: you might deliberately send a character out on a fool’s errand, just to get damaged so their luck gets restored so they can then trigger an ability. It’s wild out west.
The last bit I’ll mention, because I love it, is Hard West’s injury system. If you turn on the “permanent injuries” option, wounded characters have a chance to get a lasting injury after the mission. Maybe they walk slower, or have wobbly aim. But, after a few more missions (and/or injuries), there is chance that these penalties evolve into a quirky benefit. I had a character with a spinal injury, so he moved slowly for a few missions. Now he still moves slowly, but his maximum pool of HP also jumped up a good amount, making him more of a tank in combat. It’s a cool way of creating more depth and a sense of history in your characters.
The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly
Hard West does a great job of blending familiar mechanics (lifted from XCOM) with fresh new ideas. The luck system, card-based skills, injuries and mission diversity are all well-executed and make the game feel original. Visually, the game works well, for the most part. I wish you could adjust the camera angles in a way to look more top-down, as sometimes terrain makes it hard to see exact spatial positioning. But it wasn’t a huge concern.
However, an aspect of Hard West that leaves me wanting is the strategy layer and the choose-your-own-adventure narrative. Many times, things just “happen” to you for no apparent reason. And while I can appreciate how these random (or hardcoded) outcomes help drive a deliberate narrative, I the actual written text and dialogue just don’t do enough to build the story and provide a clear rationale for how and why things happen. For narrative events that aren’t central to advancing the scenario, this lack of description fails to give players any clues about the potential consequences of their choices. In short, the writing could better support the gameplay.
I also felt that, in many of the scenarios I’ve played, the strategic management side felt a bit underdeveloped and incoherent. In one scenario (searching for a cure for “madness”) there is a quasi-research tree implemented through the dialogue menu, but it doesn’t feel very connected to the overall story. The strategic systems don’t make you face complex or deep resource management conundrums, so they end up feeling like something you just need to click through. Maybe on higher difficulties you need to be more discerning in your choices? I don’t know, but I feel like I always had more than enough guns, gear, and consumables to stay well-equipped and felt little pressure to carefully manage my strategic affairs.
Despite this, Hard West has grown on me the more I’ve thought about it and played it. At first, I wasn’t sure what to make of the game, but many of the design and gameplay decisions continue to impress me. And while I do have some complaints, these are more in the camp of missed opportunities rather than negatives. They didn’t detract from my enjoyment at all, they just made me wish for even more! And that is, overall, a good position for a game to be in.
Going back to our original question: how does Hard West hold up among a growing field of tactical competition? The game is in a strong and unique position. It successfully conveys the evocative western themes of struggle and hard times. Then, of course, there are the demons.
TL;DR: Looking for an XCOM-like mix of turn-based tactical squad combat with a choose-your-adventure-style, scenario-based campaign structure? Hard West delivers. It is also set in “The West” and nicely captures the uncommon western theme. While the strategic and narrative aspects of the game feel a little clunky, they don’t detract significantly from the overall experience. More importantly, however, the game adopts many familiar gameplay mechanics, which makes getting started a breeze, and layers in well-thought-out twists that make for a fresh and unique turn-based experience.
You Might Like This Game If:
- You enjoy turn-based tactical games with a dose of strategic management (like XCOM).
- You feel that “The West” is a severely underrepresented genre of games and are itching for opportunities to perform the ole “stick ‘em up” routine.
- You like a bit of choose-your-adventure-style gameplay when it comes to the narrative flow of the game, and are willing to roll with the punches that “The West” will dole out in spades.
You Might NOT Like This Game If:
- You are prone to rage-quitting when your luck runs dry, or you are down on your luck, or you are not feeling lucky (are you reading these bad puns?) and the RNG-gods don’t give you a break.
- You require overly verbose, long-winded written dialogue that forces most people to use a dictionary to read – because that isn’t this game. “The West” shoots it straight.
- Seeing only various shades of brown, tan, beige, yellow and maybe red (this is the west after all) will cause you psychological trauma.
Oliver has played approximately 15+ hours of Hard West on a MSI GX-640 Laptop with a Core i5-430m (2.26 GHz), 4GB RAM, ATI Mobility Radeon HD 5850 (1GB DDR5)