Welcome to “January Back Catalogue”, where we’re taking advantage of this quiet release month by catching up on all the games we’ve been meaning to play.
Many of you may not know about Hard West, a turn-based strategy title from Creative Forge games, that released on Steam way back on November 19. That day ring a bell? It should, it was the launch day of Star Wars Battlefront and anything else launching on that date was buried underneath the foot of a passing Imperial Walker. I know I certainly spent a lot of time roaming Hoth and Endor that week, and spent the rest of the time since buried deep within Christmas mania.
But now that the dust (snow?) has settled and the new year is upon us, I got the chance to take a look at Hard West. I had heard it resembled 2012’s XCOM: Enemy Unknown only in a Wild West setting, and that description turned out to be incredibly apt. Hard West doesn’t just resemble XCOM, it pretty much is XCOM, if a little inferior.
The turn based, chess-like feel? Check. Two tiers of movement zones, the larger area costing double the “Action Points (AP)” to travel? Check. That crushing sense of unfairness when situations seeming statistically likely to go in your favour turn horribly sour? Double check. I know XCOM didn’t invent the small scale, turn based strategy genre, but it was difficult not to look at Hard West and think it had blatantly taken its mechanics and just changed the story.
Cowboys and India – oh wait, monsters!
In fact, story is where the two games differ the most. Hard West features a protagonist on a quest for revenge against those who wronged him and his family, told through various chapters or “scenarios”; a much more focused narrative than the merely contextual alien invasion story of XCOM.
Starting out like a Clint Eastwood Spaghetti Western, Hard West takes a sharp turn towards the supernatural, bringing soothsayers, demons and undead powers following the prologue chapter, making for a creepy world of chaos and blood for Warren (our leading cowboy) to navigate through as he slaughters his way to justice.
A majority of the storytelling takes place in text format, almost like the DOS RPGs of old. Between battles (more on them in a minute), players navigate a world map to decide which areas to visit and harvest gold, trade with townsfolk, interrogate informants and meet new party members. Various choices can be made throughout these text adventures that directly affect your abilities when in combat, such as gypsy curses hurting your health regeneration or aim, so paying close attention to the suspicious nature of certain characters and resisting the urge to take risks can go a long way.
The Quick and the Dead
But enough about the story because despite how intriguing it is, it’s the battle gameplay that we’re all really here for. Battles take place when one of your homesteads are attacked, a plot relevant character needs rescuing or any other major developments occur. This is where the major XCOM elements come into play as the main characters are placed in a 3D Western style location and take it in turns to move around and attack.
As mentioned earlier, characters each have two Action Points meaning they can perform two actions per turn. Actions range from tiers of movement (a longer distance taking up both points), shooting at a foe (which automatically ends that characters turn) and using items or special abilities. Once all your team has spent their AP, the enemy gets their turn, and unless they are within the player’s line of sight then it is unclear what they are up to which makes for some tense situations.
Almost exactly like XCOM, but…
Now I’ve been harping on about the XCOM similarities, because there are a lot of them, but Hard West’s gameplay has some unique twists. The foremost one is a “Luck” system, a character stat that affects how likely an enemy is to miss them when being fired at as well as being tied to the use of special abilities. Luck is decreased with every close save, meaning you might not be so fortunate next time. Knowing your characters’ Luck levels came in handy when calculating risky moves, but thankfully didn’t guarantee success in all of them.
The other prominent mechanics Hard West brings to the table are a card based character customisation system and a stealthy setup phase to some battles. Rather than crafting permanent character stats, the cards system allows for different combinations for each battle so the same group of small characters can be reconfigured to a variety of different situations and strategies. Cards range from basic things like producing more Luck, increasing aim, boosting maximum health etc, to wild abilities like regaining AP for every kill in a chain combo effect, and cannibalising fallen enemies for more health.
That’s right: you can actually eat the corpses of your enemies to regain health.
As for the stealth mechanic, it adds a pretty cool spin to the inevitable combat phase as skilled players will be able to rig things slightly in their favour. If a battle begins with a setup phase, players can move their characters around the map without fear of being shot at immediately, instead having to keep out of enemy sight lines for more than a single turn. The moment an enemy is attacked the phase will end, but the advantage of scoping out their placements and preparing for bullets to start flying can be an invaluable asset.
There are also little side objectives that can be achieved in this phase. Battles are usually only over once all the enemies are killed, that way no one can pursue the protagonists when they flee the scene. In an early scenario, players can stealthily lock the exits of a building to limit the amount of enemies that need to be killed to win the round. They can’t chase you if they can’t get outside, so clever planning at the beginning makes ending the match a breeze. Other battles find other ways to utilize the setup phase that I shan’t spoil, but suffice it to say that refraining from going in guns blazing is always a good idea.
But here comes the tumbleweed!
Despite all these clever mechanics, and the excellent foundation inspired by the likes of XCOM, Hard West can still feel a bit clunky and unclear. The game’s tutorial begins by stating it promises to be useful but then promptly proceeds to not be. Sure, it teaches you about AP spending, how to shoot an enemy etc, but omits some useful information like how to choose between which enemies to shoot (it can be done, it was just easy to miss in amongst the other mechanics displayed).
There is a lack of clarity when it comes to using some of the special abilities as well, with only single sentence descriptions that occasionally lead to confusion in the middle of battle. The range and aiming angles of firearms is also unclear, making strategically placing oneself in cover frustratingly difficult. It is common for world objects like staircases and horse-carriages to not impede line of sight, which leads to many infuriating deaths.
As for range, any short to long range weapon can fire across the entire map if there is nothing in the way, and often has higher chances of hitting than aiming at someone through an adjacent window. It isn’t a huge issue all the time, but no consistency in a strategy game can still ruin the fun very quickly.
Having said that, with a little patience you can get the hang of the frustrating combat, so anyone after a strategy game to tide them over until XCOM 2 in February should look no further than Hard West.
Pros: Fluid customisation options, nuanced stealthy preparation phases, intriguing story
Cons: Inconsistent shooting mechanics, unclear tutorials