Review: Weird West
Few games have been as much of a roller coaster for me as Weird West. What first caught my attention was the developer, Wolfeye Studios, being made of former Arkane Studios developers. Weird West is also an immersive sim just like Arkane’s previous titles Dishonored and Prey, but this time departing from the usual first-person shooter trappings of the genre to go with a more isometric RPG approach. Then of course I saw in the trailer that you could be a werewolf, and I just had to give it a shot.
Weird West launched for PS4, Xbox One, and Steam on March 31, 2022. The Steam version was played for this review.
Five Western Nights
Former bounty hunter turned ranch owner Jane Bell awakens from a weird dream involving hooded figures and a room with five portraits to the pain of a brand magically searing itself onto her neck. Outside, the Stillwater gang has just killed her son and is in the process of kidnapping her husband. As soon as she’s up, Jane wastes no time in digging up her old six-shooter and embarking on a quest of revenge against the Stillwaters. This is her story as the first playable character in Weird West… but it is not, strictly speaking, your story.
See, this isn’t your normal wild west story. Occult rituals, horrifying monsters, and ancient powers are everywhere, and you’re a part of that. Each of the five playable characters has their own personal story with a beginning and end, but across them all there is also a second narrative about the brand that appeared on each of them at the start of their quest, the force controlling their actions, and the reasons why. That is your story, and going from character to character, narrative to narrative, is itself part of that story.
I’m honestly in love with most of the writing here. People discuss the strange things of the weird west as if they were perfectly natural which, to be fair, it is to them. When you first start you likely won’t be able to tell Yeb from Inun and read news reports on mine crawler outbreaks with a look of blank confusion. But all too soon you’ll be taking it all in stride.
There’s also a lot of great moments narratively along the main quest, and some of the concepts it tackles are uncomfortable ones I don’t see pop up a lot elsewhere, such as how apologizing for your past doesn’t necessarily entitle you to forgiveness.
Now, the important caveat here is “along the main quest.” There are a number of randomly generated sidequests, areas to explore you’d never visit during the main quest, and oodles of randomly generated NPCs. This wouldn’t ordinarily be a problem – plenty of modern games have random sidequests without much story to them – but the issue was the sheer volume of them compared to handcrafted content.
Any town that you’re not sent to by the main quest, you can be assured every last NPC is a randomly generated nobody who doesn’t matter, and their quests are mere reputation and loot piñatas. This is perhaps the only RPG I’ve ever played where I’ve run across a town in my travels and absolutely did not care to investigate it, and that just feels wrong.
Saint, Scoundrel, or Something In-Between
So, as briefly touched on before, this is an isometric RPG take on the immersive sim genre. For those unfamiliar with it, an immersive sim is essentially a game with a heavy emphasis on allowing multiple solutions to problems. Stealth and combat being equally viable options is pretty much a given, but this open-endedness also applies to completing objectives. Essentially the design philosophy is to give you a lot of tools, and then if it makes sense for something to work then it should.
Weird West definitely leans into giving the player options. Perhaps the most noteworthy one I found early on involved finding my way into a two-story building. There were two obvious ways to get in – a shopkeep you’re bound to talk to early on gives a lead on side objectives for both of those – but there’s also two less obvious ways.
If you’re really into exploring you might notice that while most of the windows have bars over them, one of them does not. It’s on the second floor, but that’s nothing a good leap from a nearby building won’t solve, provided you first find a way to get on top of that in the first place. There’s also the fact that what’s blocking your way is just people, and you may just decide to charge in guns blazing. There’s not that many of them and, honestly, you’d be doing the town a favor.
This emphasis on choice is also an emphasis on consequences. Some of these are fairly obvious, such as gaining reputation for a quest or losing reputation for a crime. Some are less so, and it may not be until a few characters later that the consequences for finishing a quest in a particular way reveal themselves. I actually really found myself enjoying going through the game a second time to try out various options. Even when it’s just one different line of dialogue it’s nice to have your choices acknowledged.
Speaking of the different characters, each is an opportunity to play the game in different ways, with a bit of nudging to help you do so. For example, the first character begins with a pistol, you’re taught about how to use cover during a shootout early on, and your unique skills focus on putting things between you and the enemy. The second character, by contrast, starts with a cleaver and a shotgun, and has unique skills that are either melee range or help you get there.
It’s perfectly possible to get through playing in a different style, but that little nudge is just enough to say “Hey, try this out. You might like it!” You can even go back and find your previous character while on a new one and have them join your posse, and they’ll keep all the abilities you gave them.
Now, this is an action RPG; combat is done with real-time aiming and shooting at enemies. Even melee weapons function this way, though the range is “right next to me.” It’s hectic and frantic and I honestly did less of it than the game probably wanted me to. I tend to lean towards stealth in immersive sims in general, and while I tried to branch out… it’s probably a bit TOO effective. To be fair, it does make sense to have stealth be powerful since you can always swap to combat once stealth has failed and can’t really do the reverse, but the difference was so great that I often found it better to reload than to try and shoot my way out of a problem.
Part of it was my own human fallibility. I had to carefully aim at my opponents and had concerns about hitting the members of my posse, while my opponents had no such problems. Another was action usage. You get a number of actions you can unlock for each character, but the MP equivalent is so small that you can only use four minor abilities or two major ones before you’re tapped, and you only get a few points back for every enemy you take out.
Yet another issue was armor. Weapons were extremely common to come across, as were ores to upgrade them. Vests were quite rarer, and the skins to upgrade them were not only less common, but seemed fairly RNG-dependent on whether you’d get the right quality for your next upgrade.
Probably most important was the resource cost. While I could heal outside of combat easily enough by eating food or finding a bed, in combat I needed to use expensive bandages. They cost nearly a quarter of the quest reward for most bounties. If I ever needed to pop a bandage to survive, there went a good chunk out of the whole reason I got into the fight in the first place. Not only are bandages expensive, but picking up items to sell is almost laughably pointless. Initially it feels like all the junk you’re picking up might go a long ways to helping you stock up. This one says it’s worth $8, this one’s $24, you’ll get that $200 in no time!
…and then you go to sell it and instead of half price like most games have, you’re selling items for maybe a tenth of their value. You’ll fill up your inventory with junk and find yourself lucky to get two bandages and a few pistol reloads worth of ammo for the trouble.
Perhaps the thing that frustrates me most about all this is that it feels so close to where it should be. It’s not like I’m playing a stealth game where combat is explicitly not meant to be viable; this is giving me a lot of fancy abilities it clearly wants me to use in a brawl, and I’m able to earn some victories even if they’re occasionally pyrrhic… Oh, and there’s plenty of moments like random wilderness encounters and certain bosses where I don’t really have a choice but to fight. And yet every time I get into a fight I could have avoided, I come out of it feeling like I really should just reload and sneak on by this time.
Lastly, it would be remiss of me to not mention the bugs. While there was a day-one patch, I am writing this after having checked it out and, well… while the game is still largely enjoyable, I’d be lying if I said they weren’t noticeable. Most notable is how things just… readjust themselves after saving and loading, which is both more common for someone attempting stealth and can really hamper the playstyle.
Loading often caused enemies to spontaneously change their routine. Occasionally they’d get stuck in walls, and sometimes my reload was simply too powerful and promptly alerted the guards by shattering all the glass bottles. I’m also fairly certain the game probably didn’t want me to use the greyed out option to ride my horse during wilderness encounters to run away from any and everything, and I’m pretty sure I managed to soft lock the game by doing so at one point.
That said, one small solace is that the bugs are more laughable than really game ruining. You learn to keep a few save files and quick save only when you’re well and truly hidden, and otherwise just roll with it. Besides, more patches are planned but just… for now, expect things to be a bit weirder in the Weird West than the developers likely intended.
Not All That Glitters…
I absolutely love the comic book art style, all vibrant colors and bold outlines. While it’s certainly not unique as far as games go, I always appreciate a strong artistic vision and it even serves a gameplay function. One of the downsides to the isometric perspective is you’re usually zoomed out and it can be difficult to see things. This art style lends a strong contrast to most of the game elements and helps them stick out.
Sadly I cannot say the same about the sound. Outside of a few pieces here and there, most of the “background music” is just the occasional pluck of a guitar string to keep the mood rather than a full blown melody. More noticeable is the ambient noises, some of which were strangely loud and hard to place. It felt like the kind of sound you’d have to warn of an enemy or environmental effect but as I desperately searched around for the source, no, it was just a… I dunno, sounds like a tornado made of spaghetti. Does that make this a spaghetti western?
A Flawed Beauty
Weird West took a long time for me to finally nail down how I felt about it. I absolutely mean it when I say it was a roller coaster. I started out having a blast, but once I was a good ways in I was noticing more and more of the rough edge. And yet, as I experimented more with the systems to better articulate my problems with it, I couldn’t deny that I was having fun.
It’s buggy, the balance is off, and a good 80% of the locations only really serve as random sidequest destinations. But the storytelling drew me in, the stealth worked rather well, and on the occasions when I felt like I had resources to burn it was just so dang satisfying to slow motion dive out from behind a corner while blasting a barrage of shotgun shells.
Review copy provided by Devolver Digital for Steam. Screenshots taken by reviewer. Featured image courtesy of Devolver Digital.