Something about westerns just screams “occult,” I guess. Hard West 2 comes hot on the heels of Weird West, another rootin’, tootin’ gunslinger of a game featuring an isometric camera and dark themes. While Hard West 2 departs from its counterpart in terms of how dark it is, it shares one fatal flaw: it can’t quite stick the landing on gameplay. Weird West had a fantastic story with extremely weak gameplay, while Hard West 2 has an okay plot and not-so-great gameplay; they average about the same in terms of overall quality.
Hard West 2 follows Gin Carter and his band of hired mercenaries as they set out to rob a train. Something goes amiss, though, as Gin and company somehow boarded a Ghost Train with a devil named Mammon at the engine. After an unfortunate end to the introduction, Gin finds himself soulless and seeking revenge.
Gin’s journey takes place in two gameplay formats: overworld exploration to locate and enter important (and unimportant) sites and a range of grid- and turn-based battlefields, including towns, mines, and trains. The overworld is a pleasant, albeit benign, landscape that seems to try to create a sense of place. Landmarks are typically highlighted with a large, white question mark, and a dialogue box with artwork takes over the screen when entering. Few of these interactions offer any meaningful choice. Most of the time, they’re either linear or branch in terms of which ally the player wants to build loyalty with. Each location has a relatively amusing aside from the central plot, adding some degree of flavor to the overall experience.
The most important locations are cities and towns. These sites function similarly to the aforementioned landmarks, except they usually have multiple places to visit, like the saloon, surgeon, sheriff, or store. Surgeons are where players go to heal. Stores are for consumables in combat, quest items, and new weapons. The sheriff is quest-driven or handles bounties players can satisfy for some substantial cash. As it might seem, none of these interactions are terribly inspired. Hard West 2 offers little to break out of the RPG formula, which makes the whole affair feel relatively dull, even if the writing is competent.
“Competent” is the key word here. Notice I didn’t say “stellar” or “awe-inspiring.” I sometimes found the writing pretty basic or a bit immature and unrealistic. Other times I cracked a smile and laughed. Hard West 2’s ending, while not overly unique, was satisfying and a touch surprising. Overall, I’d call the writing “safe.” The writers clearly know how to create a tale with some flair but seem to hold back before putting anything meaningful to paper. If you create a game in this setting, take advantage and go wild.
I knew something was up with the gameplay the instant I loaded a new game and had to choose between “easy,” “hard,” and “nightmare” difficulty. For the first time (I think ever) in my gaming career, I didn’t see a “normal” difficulty or something equivalent. Hard West 2 desperately needs a “normal” difficulty, because I chose to play on “hard,” and while I would consider myself an above-average tactician, what the developers created here is a frustrating affair with cheap tricks and excessive dependence on one of their fundamental mechanics.
Out of the gate, Hard West 2 is pretty easy. Then, it transitions into a satisfying balance of challenge. About halfway through the game, it suddenly enters loud sigh territory. A quick example: in one battle, I was navigating the field systematically taking out foes in a cautious, responsible fashion. When my turn ended, literally ten enemies spawned around my characters and quickly dispatched one of my four party members, instantly making me lose the battle (because everyone surviving was a mission requirement). My wife saw this happen and exclaimed, “that is such bullshit.” So, I loaded my most recent save and worked around this because I knew it was coming. A-ha, you got me, developers. What a satisfying challenge you laid before me.
Fortunately, quick saving is a snap. Just hit F8. Presto. Or is it? For whatever reason, Hard West 2 takes several minutes to load a save. I have the game installed on an SSD and played after it was patched to shorten load times. In one case, I went to the bathroom, got a drink, and came back, and the game had just finished loading my save, to provide some context. That said, save scumming is almost necessary, and I really, really dislike save scumming. I quickly realized I would have to set aside my pride for this game and accept that the omission of information and intense damage enemies can deal requires loading saves often.
Aside from the earlier example with the randomly spawning enemies, most battles require players to traverse a well-designed map from A to B. If players push too far, they will be set upon by enemies further down the map they could not see and get blown away. This artificial difficulty slows gameplay down and requires players to act in fear of what’s to come. If enemies dealt less damage, this wouldn’t be as much of an issue, but Hard West 2 functions so that if two or three enemies can find an opening on your characters who should always be responsibly hidden behind cover, that character dies. Now, one of the four party members can typically die without losing the battle, but if this occurs too early or they’re your superstar, then a quick load is required.
The other problem with the gameplay is it revolves heavily around something called “bravado,” which means a character gets all three action pips back when killing an enemy. Movement, skills, shooting: these all require action points. Movement relies on distance, most guns require two or three pips, and skills can require one or two pips with a cooldown in some cases. When presented with multiple enemies, it’s not going to work if players chip away with all four characters. Enemies will quickly overwhelm the team and destroy you with sheer numbers. So, bravado is necessary. The best way to do this is to get the enemies near death so that one character can run riot getting eight or so kills in one turn, or at least this is the strategy I found most effective. I basically had three characters playing support for most of the game while one character—Laughing Deer—melee’d down each enemy. Rinse and repeat. Thrilling.
Other mechanics that didn’t seem to get enough thought are consumables and an ailment known as bleeding. Each character can bring two consumables to battle, with some interesting ones ranging from dynamite to doctor bags and the all-important bandage. Bandages are essential, especially in the middle section of the game, because if an enemy causes bleeding, then the afflicted character will take two damage with every action; this adds up quickly. Bleeding lasts for three turns or until a bandage is used. Since bleeding often shuts down characters without bandages, players need to use one of the two very important item slots on bandages. This waters down the gameplay and takes agency away from the player. Design decisions like these puzzle me because the core of the game is actually quite fun but needs tweaking to make it the excellent game it can easily be.
I sincerely mean that, because I had fun with Hard West 2. The side missions in battles are fun, the maps and environment are lovingly made and shape strategy, and I love it when a plan comes together. Hard West 2 has the essential nuts and bolts to be an engrossing experience, and even with all its flaws, it’s an enjoyable game when it wasn’t frustrating the hell out of me.
The presentation aligns with the writing: safe. Visually, Hard West 2 is fine by today’s standards, and the artwork in dialogue boxes delivers the vibe of this depressing, cursed land. Its music isn’t memorable, and the voice acting is fine, with only one or two performances standing out as “good.” At least Hard West 2 controls well enough, though fiddling with the camera and rotating is critical to avoid misclicks.
In no way would I ever recommend Hard West 2, but I have to be honest and say that I enjoyed myself. I just wish it didn’t come with a heaping bowl of curses. The developers should swallow their pride and listen intently to their customers, as I am sure I am not alone in my grievances. The team is clearly full of talented people who know how to create a good game, as long as they don’t get in their own way. As for me, I’m in need of some whiskey after this ordeal.