Going into this year, it feels like Weird West was one of the year’s most anticipated indie games. The initial outing by a new studio made of former Arkane employees published by Devolver Digital, an action-RPG styled as a throwback to the likes of the original Fallout, a unique Wild West setting that’s been warped by several supernatural horrors…it felt like there wasn’t much that could go wrong. So now with the game’s release, we finally get to experience this sun-kissed land of bizarre delights, and let’s just say the little gold rush the game has created has led to a few moments of fool’s gold as well, even if there’s still genuine gold in them hills.
Weird West is the story of five individuals living in a twisted version of the Wild West, bound together by a mysterious branding they’ve each received at the hands of a mysterious group of figures, as shown in between chapters as you switch to each character and their tale. You have a bounty hunter coming out of retirement in order to rescue their husband from a group of cannibals and avenge their dead child, an amnesiac pigman created by a witch who wants to seek out the answers concerning who they previously were in life that has to destroy a swearing Soul Tree and is assisted by the only other pigman capable of speech who’s been cursed to only speak in rhyme, and then three other characters who were unlucky enough to follow the pigman’s story, because that was insanity that could not be topped.
Joking aside, every character’s story has their highlights, like almost literal ghost towns that can appear out of nowhere or fighting pits run by an owner obsessed with pain. Weird West makes great use of a wide variety of different supernatural elements that surprisingly tie in perfectly with the Western setting, be it wiindigos, werewolves, wraiths, witches and several other parts that may or may not also start with the letter “w.” You truly never know what you might come across next (especially with random encounters that can occur as you travel between locations), especially as the world expands a bit more with each new chapter. The best bits, though, are the recurring characters like a mysterious witch that gifts you with mystery boxes not to be opened and gunslingers obsessed with immortality, contributing more to the greater picture.
Really, though, it’s world in Weird West that easily takes the center stage. Aside from the the attractive visuals and spot-on classic Western soundtrack, what makes it attractive is not just the little bits of-world-building, but how you build the world yourself as you play, as you can easily change it throughout your journeys in various ways beyond any moral choices given. Fail to bump off a slaver? He’s shown dealing meat to the villain of the next chapter. Bump him off then or as part of a bounty? Then his gang disbands, and they no longer ambush you. Clear an abandoned town of monsters, and new citizens may move in to replace them. Do certain favors for folks, and they can jump into battle to help save you at random times. The graveyards in each town fill up as NPCs can potentially die, creating rather shocking sights at times.
One of the biggest twists, though, is the ability to recruit up to two individuals to create a posse that can travel along and assist you. You can hire random mercenaries and outlaws, maybe people you come across just in it for kicks, but then you have major story characters that you can recruit as well, which extends to all of the previous characters that you’ve played as. Travel to them, recruit them, gather whatever equipment you left them with at the end of each chapter if you’d like, and then go raise hell with them…but with the knowledge that if they die, they die permanently. As do any posse members who perish. The game does a good job in getting you invested with the major players that you can recruit, making you ready to load a previous save the second anything goes wrong.
There’s also a ton of stuff to hunt for in Weird West, be it unique weapons, various documents that provide neat little bits of lore, or Golden Aces and Nimp Relics that can be spent on passive perks and combat abilities, respectively. Notably, while perks are shared between characters, abilities are not (as each character has their own unique skills), requiring you to start from square one each time. It’s a unique gambit, as the beginning of each chapter basically sees you having to fight your way back to getting the best weapons and abilities, including hooking up with the previous chapter’s hero and realizing there may be some existential meta horror in play, as one single being seems to possess them each time. The climb may be difficult in some chapters (in one I didn’t get a shotgun for the longest time), but it encourages even more exploration as you wander past every area that’s nicely twisted in one way or another. The world of Weird West is a delightful and even enchanting one, in a bizarre way…so it’s a shame that you actually have to do some fighting in it, because that’s where the cracks in the world start to show.
For a game that conjures up the image of action-packed shootouts with gangs of outlaws, supernatural creatures, or both, Weird West ends up having clunky combat. At its core, you have twin-stick gunplay, but whereas the best twin-stick action games excel through simplicity, here the RPG elements feel like they crowd things too much at times. Whatever special firearm skills I unlocked for any of my characters, I rarely used any because they required having to hold down three different buttons in the heat of battle just to select any of them. Having to use the right thumbstick to point a gun in a direction while aiming also meant losing control of the camera, which made things difficult in cramped areas like mines.
In fairness, my use of a controller as opposed to WASD-plus-mouse could have contributed to those, but there are other issues here. Most fights are with entire gangs of enemies who immediately converse on you when spotted and can drain your health quickly, forcing you to confront them before you can lure them over to any environmental hazards you can use, or before you can even go ahead to discover that there were hazards you can use because all the enemies were already dealt with after they stormed into your current room. You do have the option to use stealth to take them out, but unlike the Arkane titles the developers were previously known for, the environments and skills you have at your disposal don’t allow for any efficient way to quaintly take out enemies without being ridiculously patient.
Part of this may be a bit of early game hell, as Weird West seemingly limits what you can unlock in the beginning, having to stick with weaker weapons at the start. By the halfway point, though, I was able to find and craft four-star weapons, and it was suddenly like flicking a switch that suddenly made everything easier, as multiple enemies now went down in two or three hits, and now I could truly afford to just go in guns a-blazing. Plus, I was able to suddenly come across more than enough Golden Aces and Nimp Relics to beef up my current character. But even then, it almost feels like the game tried to correct for this with moments of artificial difficulty, like enemies that throw cluster dynamite which can one-shot you or just having larger groups of enemies.
Not helping things is the AI, which be it your companions or your enemies, feels like it has one too many brain farts. On the companion side, your posse members seem to have a mind of their own, and at the first sight of any enemy, won’t hesitate to charge at them regardless of what you or any other posse member does. One time, we had successfully cleared out a room full of cultists, only to discover a mercenary we had hired decided to charge into another room with more of them despite them not noticing us yet, dying in the process. Another time, I successfully killed the target enemy and nicked the papers needed off their body, and then bolted in order to put distance behind them and make a quick getaway, only to find that the rest of the posse has stayed behind to do more killing, and not effectively, as they were dying. And on one occasion, Heathen the recurring random encounter with appeared to give us a test, which involved a caged enemy…and the posse went and killed the caged enemy before even learning what the test was.
So yes, your posse doesn’t exactly know how to prioritize targets. Then again, neither do your enemies, who seem to randomly choose which member of your posse they’ll gang up on. Or sometimes they may just randomly skitter about without firing any weapons, or in one case just not do anything at all. That last one may have been a bug, though, which is sadly prominent in Weird West. And unfortunately for a game that prides itself on being a throwback to the days of save scumming, a lot of them in this writer’s game seemed to happen upon loading a new save, like bodies that were supposed to be thrown off a balcony now floating in the air or suddenly being unable to move. One bug even made a side mission impossible to accomplish, as I had finished off a difficult bounty and was ready to turn it into the sheriff, but the sheriff was dead as part of the story, and despite claims that say otherwise, the deputy did nothing. So that was at least half an hour of work down the drain.
The sad part is that for all of the issues and others that I don’t have time to mention (the inability to apply new skills to previous heroes that have joined your posse, disappointing side missions, etc), Weird West is still an enjoyable and fun game when everything clicks. Successfully sniping a whole mine of cannibals without taking a hit or killing a massive bounty and then successfully racing to a horse for a getaway are moments that still provide some thrills, a lot of the story moments and supernatural twists are still chilling and even awe-inspiring in some cases, and are worth playing towards. It’s just that when you get down to it, whatever gold nuggets that may be here are caked under layers of grime, and your level of enjoyment depends of how easily you can put up with getting through that grime.
Weird West offers up a world of intrigue with a terrific blend of classic Western fiction and supernatural elements, with a lot of enjoyable story bits and and a world that can change on a whim, but it’s one whose awkward combat and bugs make for a bit of an uphill battle when it comes to truly enjoying this world. WolfEye should definitely be commended for their ambition and unique ideas, and the end result is still an enjoyable game, just one that could have used some extra spit and polish.