Review – West of Dead
I was intrigued by West of Dead the moment I saw it announced at X019. Maybe it was the art style, maybe it was the stop-and-pop cover shooting, or maybe I’m just a sucker for Westerns. Either way, there was a lot that looked good about the game and I have been looking for a faster-paced and punchier Western after playing games like Read Dead Redemption 2 and Desperados III.
In West of Dead you play as William Mason, voiced by Ron Perlman, on a quest to find out what the hell happened to you. Set in Purgatory, Wyoming, you wake up dead with a flaming and fractured skull, and only a vague memory of who offed you. Dealing with a nefarious witch who can decipher the memories of souls that pass through helps you remember your own past and what happened.
As you progress through the game you’ll encounter boss fights of important people that have played a role in your death. Pieces of the event start coming back to you as you continue to feed sins to the witch. This is also one of the more unique things about West for Dead: as you progress and provide the witch unique souls, she will unlock additional items for you to use. Collecting sins from regular enemies allows you to spend them on new weapons and gadgets at her “shop”. After unlocking them, they will be put in the random rotation of items you can get in the levels permanently.
This allows the roguelike system to grow a lot as you continue to play the game. Unfortunately, that means the beginning of West of Dead can be quite a slog. There isn’t a lot of variety in the assortment of weapons, items, or charms when you start. However, there is a lot to unlock and discover in this game.
When you defeat certain main bosses, you will also collect permanent abilities or keys. These allow you to take secret paths on your next run that will grant over-leveled gear. One of the first unlocks is the ability to teleport between checkpoints, which is vital since there are a lot of branching paths per level. Another is the ability to fall from great heights without taking damage. For the most part, each level has a secret path that can only be accessed by using these items. This means pushing through the story, and of course, dying a lot.
Since this is a roguelike, yes, you will be dying a lot. Unlike other roguelikes, however, resetting your run doesn’t seem so tragic. You will lose all of your weapons, items, and charms, but the items you’ve unlocked with the witch remain within the next run throughs. There are also constant upgrades, like unlocking and upgrading your flask for health, or being able to choose between four different starting weapons instead of only two. Each run follows the same main levels, but their layout, enemies, and locations can change. Due to procedural generation, some runs will feel easier than others.
During each run, you will come across altars that will let you level up your Toughness (health/melee damage), Perception (firearm damage), and Resourcefulness (ability damage/item recharge speed). Each time you level these up, your bonus payoffs will be reduced. You’ll also find chests that will grant you a random item, as well as a trader that you can buy items from. There are typically multiple upgrade altars, chests, and at least one merchant trader per run.
The gameplay may feel a bit too generic in the beginning as things are slow and uninteresting, and you’re taking on only a couple normal enemies. The twin-stick shooting and cover-based combat with an isometric camera feel weird at first. However, once you get the hang of quickly bouncing between cover, dodging attacks, and vaulting over things to gain position, the combat can be engaging.
You can equip two guns, one for each mouse button, and also equip two items that range from offensive, defensive, and buffs. You can also equip one charm that will provide you with some passive bonuses. One element of the gameplay I found unique was the use of light and darkness. West of Dead is a dark game, which helps set the mood of Purgatory. However, there are lanterns set up within the battle areas that, once ignited, will stun all surrounding enemies. This leads to one of my favorite items, the portable lantern. Tossing this into an upcoming dark room like a flashbang makes it easy to spot enemies and plan your next moves.
West of Dead‘s art style is bold in a very dark and Gothic way. Its heavy use of black and thick outlines on models makes it look almost like a graphic novel. Besides the areas lit by lanterns, everything else is shrouded in a deep layer of black. This makes what few color there is really stand out and helps you feel like you’re in purgatory, especially when it comes to the more sinister looking environments and monsters that lurk in the dark. However, there are some strange graphical glitches that happen, as well as rooms not loading in right away. The art style can also blend in some objects and areas which can be annoying.
The sound design may be one of my favorite aspects of West for Dead, with its great Western-themed soundtrack and the voice work from Ron Perlman. The entire soundtrack is excellent, from the punchy upbeat twang of the battle theme to the more relaxed ambient songs during exploration sections. Various sound effects from the random enemy grunts and weapons are of top quality as well. There isn’t much voice acting outside of a few lines here and there, most of the voice work comes from the main character, but thankfully enough, Ron Perlman nails it.
Roguelikes are a dime a dozen nowadays, especially in the indie scene. A lot of them end up falling flat because they don’t understand what makes the genre so addicting to begin with. That wasn’t the case here. Aside from a few issues and its slow beginning, West of Dead sits at the top of the pile, being one of my favories games in the genre. It may take a handful more deaths than you want, but if you can push through and let the game open up, there is a deep roguelike with a unique art style and theme for you to enjoy.
The heavy black borderlines of the comic book art style, and the dark tones, really help set the mood of the game. Graphical glitches and blending environmental objects can be annoying.
West of Dead starts off very slowly, with not much variety in guns and abilities, but once it opens up, there is a deep game to be explored. The use of light and darkness makes for some tense combat scenarios.
The Western themed music is very well done with a soundtrack that fits perfectly with the settings. Not much voiceover work, but what is there is good, and Ron Perlman does a fantastic job.
If you can push through the slow beginning, there is actually a good roguelike in here. While it may not blow you away, the combat loop can be fun once you unlock enough items.
Final Verdict: 8.0
West of Dead is available now on PC, PS4, Xbox One, and Nintendo Switch.
Reviewed on PC with i7-9700k, RTX 2070, 16gb RAM.
A copy of West of Dead was provided by the publisher.