Howdy, pardner. Mosey over here to hear the tale of a dead pony soldier, delivered in a cliched accent. Yee-haw!
Just kidding. West of Dead is a significant distance away, stylistically, from hackneyed Wild West stuff. This isn’t the video game equivalent of Maverick, or Dances with Wolves. It’s more like Grim Prairie Tales or Bone Tomahawk. In other words its style is Gothic Western.
Developers Upstream Arcade exploit the potential of the sub-genre quite adroitly in this hybrid cover shooter. Essentially a trudge through purgatory, you play an undead avenger (with a distinct resemblance to Marvel Comics’ Ghost Rider), moving through corridors and procedurally-generated rooms to blast away at phantom soldiers and demonic entities. His goal is to work out why he got here, and what is being asked of him…
From the first moment in the world, I was struck by the aesthetics; they are seriously impressive stuff. Fifty percent of the play area is in darkness; a thick sheet of shadow that moves and shifts like a living thing. And, just like (Hellboy creator) Mike Mignola’s art style, the negative space helps set the scene and tell the story. The inky blackness is complemented in audio by sparsely-used guitar licks on the soundtrack. That plus Ron Perlman’s (under)world-weary drawl make for a moody, troubled background to the gameplay.
As you edge through this dangerous netherworld of chill basements and stygian crypts, you collect weapons of the age: revolvers, rifles and shotguns along with the odd throwing axe or stick of dynamite. In standard Roguelike style, superior versions of each are found along your path, but lost upon death. There are no saves, stakes are high, and you have to be cautious and strategic in every battle. You pretty quickly find yourself weighing up reload time against how safe your cover is, how much of the room you can see, the enemies you can spot, and how much distance you can safely cover before being blasted by your opponents.
Being an isometric, twin-stick cover shooter set in a timeless netherworld featuring a ‘Weird West’ design, you can hardly call West of Dead cliched. That it ditches convention in lots of ways only to jump on the in-vogue Roguelike bandwagon, is the game’s pivotal flaw.
After hours of play (and I must admit, I’m still chipping away at the campaign) I’ve built up a handful of buffs that follow me through each run: extra health, temp shields and the like. Enough to justify the time commitment? Personally, I’d say no. The variety and power I’d expect to see after the 10+ hours I’ve put in doesn’t feel like it’s there. I want to start each new run with some real lead in my pencil from minute one, but it feels like i’m still spending the first thirty minutes firing a squirt gun at an inferno.
I can’t help thinking that flipping WoD into a linear action game with a decent progression system would have fit this game better. Like a dangerous outlaw fits a plywood coffin up on Boot Hill, if you want to get fruity about it. The look and feel of the game has a curious draw though; a sophistication you don’t often find in action titles. So, although it takes some missteps along its path through the underworld, West of Dead is an admirable curio that continues to grow on me.
Maybe one day I’ll fight my way through and ride off into the sunset…? More likely, though, I’ll just keep heading west towards Mephistopheles’ Rest Home for Spectral Rangers.