Weird West combines two themes we’ve not really seen in gaming: weird and west. In all seriousness, titles set as westerns tend to play it straight, and while Weird West does much the same, the weird comes from the heavy meshing of the occult. In Weird West, players traverse the gold rush era of the United States (think 19th century) where strange occurrences like werewolves, pigmen, witches, and curses are commonplace. All the while, the town sheriff tries to keep the orneries down by posting bounties. Somehow, these two great tastes go together quite well in terms of the writing. If only the gameplay and controls could cast a similar shadow.
At the opening, players find themselves on a farm panning down on a father and his son. Their home receives visitors who cut to the chase: kill the boy, kidnap the man. And so, the Bounty Hunter’s tale begins as the man’s wife is forced to take up irons (guns) to avenge her son and save her husband. I immediately bought in; what an amazing start to the game! Rumor has it, the kidnappers are cannibals who may or may not be trying to summon an ancient evil. As she travels from town to town, mine to mine, and temple to temple, she–and we–learn more about this world, what life is like, and what these cannibals are actually up to.
Each story is just about as good as this or arguably better. One story forces an indigenous person to fight back a greed curse that infects people, rendering them aggressive zombies searching for bracelets. Another forces players to save a secret group of werewolves from a cult of witches trying to render the werewolves extinct. Each tale is clearly larger than life and fantastically told, which should serve as ample fodder to enthusiastically keep the horse bolting forward.
Unfortunately, as well-written and engaging as every second of this narrative is, the gameplay and controls halt the momentum. Weird West takes place isometrically, with players able to pan down or up slightly while maintaining an angle. What could be fluid is instead stiff and barely adjustable for reasons I can’t quite make sense of. If just navigating the world wasn’t awkward enough, the combat certainly is.
Players can use guns or melee to fend off foes, but the controls and movement don’t flow and feel stilted. On top of that, even when I close the gap on enemies to hack and slash, I don’t seem to connect consistently, and I’m not referring to when the game prominently displays “Dodged!” When I do manage to hit the enemy, each battle turns into a battle of slaps while I intermittently hit medkits or dodge far enough away to take cover and shoot from behind a rock.
Gunplay isn’t much better, with some shots landing on crosshairs missing entirely. Even worse, my laser targeting the enemy suggests I can hit them, but sometimes it’s blocked by the environment, unbeknownst to me. This would be less of an issue if ammo weren’t so valuable and limited, but bounties, sidequests, and loot-trash make arming up a reasonable possibility, assuming you want to invest the time just for funds that won’t transfer between characters.
Do you like finding rakes, empty bottles, and cigarettes that literally say “JUNK” on the pop-up box describing the item? I sure don’t, but Weird West has plenty of it. So, click those boxes, make sure you search every nook, and eventually spend a long time getting back to a town to sell the items, because without funds, medical supplies, ammunition, and lockpicks will be challenging to keep up with. Sure, the game allows players to destroy enemy weapons for a couple of bullets, stab cacti to drink a bit of water, and offer valuable perks to increase the likelihood of saving a lockpick after use, but these methods only serve to slow the game down. Is it fun having to hold down the collect button and wait for a bar to fill up so I can get a bullet or two? Is it fun to press a use button on a plant, wait for it to leak water, and then click again to drink the water just to gain five health points (out of 100)? Is it fun to use valuable perk points for a slight chance to save a lockpick when I can upgrade something that will actually make this arduous combat more bearable?
All I have are questions, because the game design in Weird West is slow and cumbersome. I don’t understand how in 2022 we are still forcing players to go through multiple dull steps to sell junk loot for pennies. Why add steps to get just a tiny bit of health back? I understand some of these techniques make every dollar more essential and every hit increasingly brutal, but players often feel trapped into wasting precious time succumbing to rooting around trash for nothing, and that’s simply not fun. Unacceptable by today’s standards.
For those less into the combat, Weird West offers a relatively entertaining stealth mechanic. Skulking around allows players to hide in brush or behind low walls to knock an enemy out without resorting to murder, but if an enemy just happens to turn around at the last moment or a friend makes their way back while you go through the long process of downing someone, prepare to reload that quicksave. Players can then hide the body in the brush, but if a leg’s poking out, prepare to be discovered and for the entire camp to go hostile after this small, unforeseeable error.
Players can also use the environment to turn the tide of battle, like blowing up TNT barrels placed in the middle of camp for some reason, or kicking over a barrel of poison on a ledge onto enemies–also for some reason. These interactions are meant to add variety and immersion into combat, because the environment is just as important as the people inhabiting it, right? Unfortunately, the “roleplaying” aspect is lost when the placement of these tools makes little sense in context.
Weird West isn’t all bad, though. Yeah, the story and its conflicts are fantastic, but I enjoyed going around town, discovering landmarks on the map, and chasing down sidequests. Every corner of this game has something cool hidden that adds character and depth to the world. I enjoyed the sound effects and narrator, even if the gunshots lacked punch, and the visuals, while dated, enhance the vibe of the world through distinct art direction. Each location has a variety of solutions to get to an objective, and the layout of each dungeon is complex, fully decorated, and enjoyable.
If not for the grating gameplay and clunky controls, Weird West would be another Devolver classic. I love Devolver’s games, and I was excited for this one. Weird West would be fantastic as a novella, actually–I loved the writing, atmosphere, and unique narrative. Chef’s kiss stuff right here. I’m sure some folks out there will find the gameplay good enough, but even knowing how fascinating the story is, I wouldn’t have put over twenty hours into this game if I knew at the outset what I know now.