Weird West slings a few effective yarns, but fumbles when it comes to dealing in lead.
The greatest compliment one can pay to Weird West is that it does, by and large, capture the feeling of playing one of the pulpy EC Comics and Two-Fisted Tales that inspired so many supernatural Westerns in the past. From its beautiful two-color art style and creepy morality fables to its omnipresent leathery-sounding narrator, Weird West is a fully realized grungy dimestore cowboy fantasy brought to vivid life. The game you actually have to play to make progress in it isn’t as resounding a success, however.
Weird West wastes no time knocking you off-kilter. The second you hit the New Game option, you, an unnamed hooded figure, are strapped to a chair while other hooded figures brand your neck with an arcane symbol and shove you into the body of one Jane Bell, a former bounty hunter who’s hung up her spurs for the quiet life on a farm. Unfortunately, she’s forced to go full Unforgiven after a gang called the Stillwaters raids her farm, kills her child, and kidnaps her husband. As it turns out, they’ve been raiding towns and villages across the country looking for fresh meat to feed to their new Skinwalker leaders, and it’s up to Jane to put a stop to their reign of terror. That, by itself, is the kind of plot you could build an entire game out of, but Weird West is even more like its EC Comics forebears than it seems at first blush. It’s an anthology, so when Jane’s story has come to a close, we find ourselves back in a room with the hooded figures, putting the brand on someone new–a man whose memory and humanity are utterly mutilated out of him when his soul is brutally grafted with a pig-human hybrid body and a nearly unpronounceable name. And when you’re done playing through that tale, there are three more waiting for you.
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The Weird West is a place with a memory, however, so someone you kill as Jane Bell is still a goner when the Pig Man shows up, though there’s a non-zero chance you see them later as a zombie, or a ghost with unfinished business. If Jane hasn’t yet captured a specific criminal when her story is over, that criminal will continue to operate until you–no matter whose body you inhabit–finally take the time to put them down. Choosing not to kill someone can have an impact as well–if you save someone’s life, they may show up later during a shootout to save you in return. On paper, that level of cause and effect sounds incredible, but Weird West is a few rounds shy of a loaded revolver. The game’s ability to remember grudges, deaths, and personal vendettas between characters is impressive, and actually getting to know this gigantic cast of innocents, bastards, and weirdos is a joy. However, the morality system by which many of the game’s decisions are made is far too binary to live up to the game’s complexity elsewhere.
Most of your choices come down to either the saintly right thing, or such cartoonish, mustache-twirling evil that at times it’s almost appalling that the option exists. In one particular moment where you confront a woman who betrayed your character for the best possible reason, the evil option is so abominable it deserves a trigger warning. Yes, the correct choice is still there, and handled well, but the stories of our main characters are strong enough on their own. They allow this group of marginalized folks to examine their roles in creating and surviving an increasingly colonized and haunted West, and all the ways manifest destiny makes an already terrifying place even scarier.
Some choices, like whether to assist a recurring character who’s traveling the West in search of the keys to immortality, actually say something worthwhile. Most, however, lack narrative nuance, and come down to killing or sparing someone. Even in those cases, death has a compelling ripple effect on the world. A dead marauder’s siblings might be waiting for you outside a town. Wiping a town clean of one gang may leave it wide open to be occupied by their enemies next time you visit. The storytelling as a whole is simplistic–mostly “go here, talk to this person, kill that person” scenarios–but that’s not necessarily a bad thing on its own, especially when the dialogue for these scenarios is so well-written. It’s a wonderful mash-up that sees grizzled, brash Wild West dialogue clash against eldritch cosmic horror prose, and somehow, those two styles complement one another rather well. These are people willing to believe in the impossible, and the impossible will often occur. However, with only a few exceptions that pay off in the later hours, the narrative choices we’re given aren’t nearly intricate enough to be worthy of said stories.
The actual mechanics of the game are also a mess. The camera is a huge problem right off the bat. The freedom of motion works fine in outdoor areas, but dungeons, mines, and other enclosed spaces are claustrophobically cramped and dense with detail and interactive items. That wouldn’t be so much of a problem if there were an easy way to just point and click on items to investigate them, or press a controller button that swings focus to the next interactive item, but neither of those exists. Instead, you’re rubbing on tables and shelves constantly, hoping the indicator tells you that, yes, you can grab the one tiny box of ammo instead of the other seven or eight pieces of junk you can pick up in front of you. There’s a lot to loot in this game, and it’s far too easy to miss crucial items due to the sheer difficulty of singling out what you need in the crush of interactive items in the environment. You can zoom the camera in and out a few levels, but it’s never at the ideal place to see everything in the area and any enemies ahead of you, without the nearest wall also partially blocking your vision.
The game’s ability to remember grudges, deaths, and personal vendettas between characters is impressive, and actually getting to know this gigantic cast of innocents, bastards, and weirdos is a joy. However, the morality system by which many of the game’s decisions are made is far too binary to live up to the game’s complexity elsewhere
This all has a knock-on effect on combat. On controllers, the game uses a twin-stick shooter setup, where the left stick moves you, and the right stick aims your weapon. A great-sounding system but because targets are smaller, faster, and hit like a ton of bricks, it’s hard to maneuver the camera and sufficiently keep track of them. The PC version doesn’t fix this either; your character won’t shoot where you click, but instead will just aim around to that general area. The hitboxes on most enemies require surgical precision to score damage, even with shotguns. Obviously, it can be done, but it’s hard to be that accurate on the fly, which can frequently result in frustrating misses.
There are stealthy options where, as long as you remain unnoticed, you can either do more damage with single hits, set traps using environmental hazards, or sneak up and put enemies to sleep, but the sheer number of enemies in an area, and how quick they are to notice and investigate the slightest of movements–even on Normal difficulty–often makes this feel untenable. For what it’s worth, the basic weapon variety is nice. You’re allowed to equip four types of firearms–pistols, shotguns, rifles, and bows–along with a melee weapon and explosives, and none are restricted to a single character, so it’s very easy to find your go-to weapon type and stick with it throughout the game. Borderlands this isn’t, though.
Aside from how far and/or fast they fire, every pistol feels the same, every shotgun feels the same, and that applies to all the other types too. There’s a special type of explosive that drops cluster bombs instead of doing just one explosion, but they’re prohibitively rare and expensive. That sameness isn’t an issue on its own, but while weapons aren’t scarce, they also don’t scale. You can find a rifle that does 40 damage on any random goon in the game. With 10 pieces of silver, you can upgrade that into a rifle that does maybe 45 damage. Want one that does 50 or 60 damage? You might find that difficult. Despite the fact that many of the towns you travel to in-game have multiple shops which will sell you weapons, the only ones that raise your stats to any significant degree are also expensive. Generally, two-star weapons are the best you’ll find out in the world. Although there are three-star weapons in the game, they’re either super expensive (the most expensive rifle in the game is $1300, and doesn’t even have better damage than an upgraded two-star) or rare. Money isn’t necessarily hard to come by, but the economy is heavily skewed towards bounties above anything else you can do for money, and unless your stealth skills are absolutely incredible, so much of your earnings end up going towards ammo and health items to replace what you lost chasing your targets that fattening your wallet can feel like an uphill struggle.
There is a separate upgrade system that grants your guns some new special abilities to learn that make things easier. You have a Max Payne-ish bullet-time dive in your arsenal when you start, but all the weapons also have special abilities you can unlock which can do everything from make your next rifle shot a silent headshot, to a rampage mode that makes it so shotguns don’t need reloading for a few seconds, to the ability to shoot electric or explosive bullets.
None of these are necessarily game-changers the way they should be, though. Part of that is the controls, where activating your weapon’s ability involves holding/toggling the aim button, holding the ability wheel button, and hoping you remember what button activates which ability. That’s not the worst control scheme on its own, but combined with how fiddly the targeting system is, using your abilities involves clumsily fumbling around every single surface of the controller. And so, even relatively casual side quests can find you getting into frantic, interminable shootouts, low on ammo, and doing chip damage. The saving grace is an overzealous quicksave/autosave system that means failure doesn’t put you back too far, and enough side quests and bounties are available so that earning enough cash for resources isn’t terribly difficult. But it’s typically only enough money to maintain, not advance, and the anthology nature of the game means putting hours of work into one upgrade that you only get to use relatively briefly. Bewildering moments still occur, too. After killing one particular boss, you’re tasked with destroying his haunted mansion by placing explosives on the building’s foundation. Unfortunately, having used all my explosives to kill a horde of zombies a few minutes earlier, I was out, and there were none to be found in the immediate area. This meant leaving the area, riding all the way across the country to the nearest town with an ammo shop, and buying a stick of dynamite just so I could finish. Weird West does feel like the logical creative conclusion to something like Fallout leaning more and more into its Western tropes, but the ultimate irony is how much this 2022 game plays like the original Fallout from 1997.
Is the struggle worth it, though? Rather emphatically, the answer is still yes. The writing, the story, the characters, and the ways in which your actions have an effect on the world are all enthralling. I wanted answers to the mysteries presented, since the heroes and villains of these tales are captivating, and the payoffs, by and large, are worthwhile. There are a lot of excellent old-school isometric adventure games in Weird West’s DNA, but not enough new-school polish for it to be something great.
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Weird West slings a few effective yarns, but fumbles when it comes to dealing in lead.