Placing turn-based strategy against the rarely used backdrop of the Wild West is enough to catch some people’s attention, but Hard West doesn’t rely on its setting alone. This tactical experience takes the grit of frontier life, and mixes it with a chilling touch of the occult.
Sometimes luck is all you have to make it through – and while usually that would sound like bad game design, developer Creative Forge have turned it into an effective system that impacts both combat and narrative.
Hard West has you constantly up against arcane forces that take pleasure in your misfortune as you play through each character's campaign. Nowhere is this clearer than when listening to the story's narrator, spur wearing Death himself, as he tells of your struggles in a thick, southern drawl. Throughout the game he tells of your battles with evil forces and encounters with tall, enigmatic individuals who make you promises of riches in exchange for unspecified payment.
A short tutorial goes a long way to establishing both the core mechanics, and the game’s unrelentingly unfortunate tone. On the Oregon Trail you are ambushed, leaving your father to rescue you and your mother from bandits. You then assume control of the dad who must take out the abductors. The turn-based strategy takes place in an isometric perspective, and plays out much like Xcom – albeit with its own nuances.
One such twist on the formula is the Luck system. Traditionally, when you attack or defend in such games, the outcome is decided by a percentage chance. Hard West adds Luck. Every time you are missed your Luck decreases, while every time you hit it increases. The effect of this mechanic is that it makes things feel less random, while also allowing the Luck stat be used to activate abilities.
The Devil's due
But this is just one example of the differences between Hard West and similar titles, and you become familiar with all of them as you lead your squads of 1-4 characters through scenarios. A card system can adds extra skills - like being invisible in darkness - to characters, you can target through cover if you see hidden opponent's shadows, and everyone seems incapable of jumping over obstacles – leading to some fun missions where you trap people in buildings by just locking the door.
The result is a flowing and tense turn-based strategy game that, thanks to the constructed scenarios, feels challenging and varied. Unfortunately, it can occasionally feel clunky for the more casual player due to the number of options forcing you to click around the screen until you master the many hotkeys.
Outside of the combat scenarios things are more relaxed. You navigate an open map searching locations for events that can improve your fortunes. Though you usually fail in specific goals - good luck lifting that curse from your father - you do find ways to help. You can improve your stats, load-out, and wealth, giving you slightly more chance of making it through the next combat scenario alive - be it against bandit or demon.
Hard West drips with style thanks to every line of dialog managing to fit perfectly with the mystical grit. This blends with the music and art – which look realistic but slightly cell shaded – to form an aesthetic that brings the novel fiction to life.
With fantasy and science fiction so regularly used within the turn-based genre, it is nice to see something different. Fortunately, Hard West goes beyond just being a nice change of setting, adding new, novel, and rarely seen mechanics. All the while injecting a health measure of rich – if oh so slightly depressing – fiction, into the mix.