Review: Hard West
The resurgence of XCOM inspired a lot of hopeful talk over other settings and themes to apply the squad-based strategy formula to. Hard West follows up on one of the more promising concepts, a turn-based western shootout. Honestly, who wouldn’t want to maneuver a team of gunslingers through a dusty town, sending bandits Wilhelm-screaming off of rooftops? After a few hours with Hard West, however, I found myself doing a lot more number-crunching and restarting than gunslinging.
The first thing you’ll note about Hard West is that it is not a grand campaign of cowboys and desperados, but rather a series of isolated scenarios. Each contains five or six battles split up by a sort of text adventure played out on a game board. You travel to different locations, trade for weapons and items, and make choices that can have dramatic impacts on your characters. Most scenarios also have unique gimmicks, like prospecting for gold or patenting inventions. These parts of the game are charming and feature some decent writing and a few surprises.
But you’re not here to read, are you? You’re here to gun down bandits, and I guarantee it doesn’t work the way you’d expect. Battles in Hard West play out on familiar grid maps, with movement ranges, action points, full and half cover, and hit percentages that you probably remember from XCOM. However, there’s an additional system layered over this called Luck. Each character has a reserve of Luck, and when someone shoots at them, the hit percentage is compared to their current Luck. If they have more Luck, the shot misses and an equal amount of Luck is deducted. If the percentage is higher, they get hit and gain some Luck back.
What this actually means is that everyone has two effective health bars in Luck and their real Health. You can flank an enemy and fire an 80% likely shot into their face, but if they have enough Luck you’re still going to miss. Conversely, a group of enemies shooting at someone in full cover is inevitably going to hit them no matter how low the shot percentages, because all those bad shots will eat away their Luck. Gaming the Luck system with poor shots before firing the real one then becomes a priority, which takes a lot of the excitement and tension out of battles. Cover is also vitally important, doubly so because weapons do less damage against half and full cover, often only a single point against full cover.
These systems not only make battles more deterministic, but also limit your options in terms of gear and skills. You’ll find tons of strange and beautiful weapons in your travels, but only the ones with the highest damage or can fire more than once per turn are desirable because of the cover and Luck rules. Skills are even more restricted because many of them require a Luck expenditure to use, so if they don’t get you almost entirely out of danger somehow they’re not really worth it. The card system that grants skills is clever, though, allowing you to form poker hands for additional bonuses. Ironically, cards are granted randomly after battles and are limited to the scenario you find them in so you’re restricted again in both strategy and progression.
That’s the essence of Hard West, a clever game limited in some very unfortunate ways. The story is an interesting tale of revenge, monsters, and madness but it follows too many character across the scenarios to grant any really gratifying resolutions. Since it’s all story-driven, you’ll always have characters that earn you a game over and a reload if they bite it. Usually the non-essential characters stay dead if they die as well, which can lead to some aggrieved reloading that fans of Fire Emblem will be familiar with.
The 3D maps and characters look good and are well animated, but run into graphical quirks like shots passing through cover and geometry more often than not. The 2D cutscenes are presented in a pretty unfortunate style as well that I can’t see anyone really enjoying. I could go on, but it pains me to do so. The world deserves a good strategy western, and Hard West had all the marks of one going in, but a mountain of poor design choices are bound to hamper your enjoyment of it. I’m not even sure I’m going to stick it out to the end, so I can’t rightly suggest anyone else do the same.