By Special Guest editor: Robyn Robo
Hard West by PlayWay, was released November 18th, it was successfully Kickstarted back in September by over 4,000 people. Hard West is a new release in a small field of turn-based squad tactics games. This game comes from PlayWay, a newer developer perhaps best known for its Car Mechanic Simulator games. It’s not exactly a triple-A developing and publishing house, so it’s nice to see the inclusion of support for OSX, SteamOS (Ubuntu), and Windows.
If nothing else, the release is timed extremely well. This game has come out right before the holiday season, two years after the last X-Com releases and Shadowrun Returns. If you’re not a fan of the isometric Nintendo hand held tactics games, this is pretty much your newest choice.
There is a variety of options for difficulty, the standard, easy, medium, and hard as well as two toggles: Combat Injuries and Iron Man. Iron Man raises the difficulty of losing a story character massively, I do not recommend it for the faint of heart. Story characters are always specified directly in their character screen. This ensures you know who’s disposable, but removes a lot of the tension the mode brings. Combat Injuries makes the game more difficult but very interesting, adding a hint of realism to your characters’ who are repeatedly being shot. You’ll pick between these options at the start of each campaign.
The game gets a lot of comments on steam about being X-Com in the old West, just with bandits, cowboys and demons rather than nations, secret operatives and aliens. That said, it shares a lot with many turn-based squad tactics games, a habitually overlooked genre. The salvaging and character improvement reminded me as much of MechCommander as anything else. Still, the game has its own unique playstyle as a whole, and I found it a refreshing entry in the field.
Playing on medium with combat injuries, I found that by the end of campaigns my characters had their roles defined slightly by their injuries, and that added an enjoyable layer of depth to the game. Each mission required thought, but was much faster paced and somewhat less tense than the hair raising angst of seeing a new type of alien turn the corner in UFO: Enemy Unknown.
The campaigns themselves are presented as a sort of collection of mini-series. Each is tied in most tightly with itself but all of them relate to each other. The plot itself has the same flavor as the demon gun story arc in Supernatural. If you enjoyed that show, I’d suspect you won’t mind the plot in this game.
The world map in campaign mode reminds me of similar mechanics in Heroes of Might and Magic or Shogun: Total War. It is very pretty and while each campaign introduces something unique to do, there is not so much as to be complex or overwhelming. Interactions with characters you will meet at each of the locations play out a bit like an interactive fiction novel. Both in writing, form, and in that, there is rarely a losing move, simply different choices. This means that the world mode becomes a diversion and vehicle for a loose story, rather than a complicated system to manage. There is no denying the heart of this game is in its missions, and I cannot say that I mind.
Old West tropes are used in abundance in this game. Steam trains, gold mines, ghost towns and more abound. This is a bit of a steam-punk old west though. Technology that was rare is abundant here. Even more so, there are all sorts of contraptions that to build throughout the game that draw inspiration from both of those sources. Some of the tropes it pulls on are not so flattering, although much of the native American mysticism is no more fantastical than the theme of the whole work and its use of Christian ideas of demons and magic. As this work comes from a non-US developer (PlayWay is based in Poland), I’m not sure what their role and responsibility is in historical representation. If it’s something you are concerned about, hopefully a nuanced exploration of those elements will be published in the future.
The game does offer a brief tutorial at its start, it is enough to get you moving, but most of the mechanics are left for you to discover. The learning curve definitely assumes you are at least mildly familiar with the genre already. There is plenty going on. New original mechanics include the fact that characters can hold poker hands of cards granting them special abilities. The hands tend to line up so that a straight or flush will focus the character in a meaningful way. This is very well thought out, and works well with the various types of equipment and consumable items you can give the characters. These great character choices, straight shooting and relatively high damage per shot means that you will routinely be taking on more enemies than you have members of your team. You’re simply handed your party; you don’t have much choice in it. During some missions’ set up phase, your weaponry will define how easily your characters’ hide. A tiny revolver attracts less suspicion than a pair of double-barreled shotguns. In theory that should add an interesting layer to the phase, but in practice I found the phase to be used too rarely and unpredictably for the choices to be of much use.
It is easy and rewarding to customize characters based on their natural abilities, and it really plays out in the missions. I found setting up snipers, ‘tanks’ and other intermediate positions very useful. Characters can’t really help each other much though, so there’s not many ways to make support roles. That said, with all the gear for your characters to choose from and the vignette style of campaigns, you won’t probably won’t miss the deeper character customizations a traditional RPG would have offered.
One of the ways this game resembles X-Com is in its unfortunately jerky controls, and the camera zoom only being a three or four click jumpy affair that reveals different building levels. Characters must move in a preset rotation with the camera jumping around between them. This is a real drag if you’re trying to split up into groups for a simple flank. Sometimes I didn’t like the direction my characters flipped a table to hide behind, but there is an equal chance this was my error and not the game’s. Picking targets, moving characters and understanding how far a character can move and still shoot are all laid out well for you. There is an area around enemy characters in which they can automatically shoot you, which is also clearly marked. While there is a graphic that should show you that range, in practice I found it didn’t always warn me.
The graphics engine has had some quickly patched issues on high definition screens. Unity is a harsh engine, but I’ve seen smoother games implemented on it. Further, I found that there were some issues with flickering shadows and other graphics in Linux that I did not see in Windows. In Linux I use the proprietary NVidia drivers installed from the Ubuntu repositories, and I don’t have similar issues in other games. I’ve seen more positive comments about the graphics elsewhere, so I wonder if these little glitches on the Linux version are what’s adding up to my less favorable experience. Luckily my BenQ monitor has a ‘gaming’ mode that over saturates and that mode made everything much more enjoyable. There is some attempt at a cell-shaded cartoon look, but it’s halfhearted and probably does more to hurt the game than help. I feel that there is a limit to how small details can be made with cell-shading and they went beyond it. Hard West is way prettier than EXLCOM, but not as good as other recent entries in its genre such as Shadowrun Returns or XCOM: Enemy Within. The clunky-ness makes it feel like an older entry to the genre than it really is. Happily, with only a little learning it doesn’t get in the way of play.
The music in this game is absolutely on point. It’s doesn’t have a brash distracting sound track, but a nicely added layer of ambience. The sound effects fit, and the gruff voiced narration of Death adds a slightly chilling supernatural touch to the story.
As mentioned earlier, the missions are fairly fast paced. This is very welcome as, while working a 9-5, I might not have enough time to meaningfully progress in slower games; I can see the progress I make in this game. Each mission is interesting, has a quickly described set up, and you move between them quickly in the world map. You won’t lose piles of time grinding or pointlessly running about. This keeps the game feeling new and fresh, I feel it genuinely respects my time. As an adult who games, I like when games are easily picked up and put back down, to be resumed later while still making progress and the path forward obvious. There are a lot of ways to respect a player’s time, and this fits one of those niches perfectly. Additionally, it seems some missions can be varied, skipped or only entered into based on campaign choices. There is certainly some re-playability here because of that.
The game comes together very naturally. It has the themes and ideas you’d expect, the game play you’d expect and overall is well polished in the ways that count. Its graphics are nothing to write home about, but they get the job done and make all the information you need readily available. I never experienced any crashes or even substantial bugs. The developer has plenty of experience with the Unity engine, and this game benefits from that. In terms of design, theme and depth PlayWay really seems to be improving and I hope they continue this streak. If turn based tactics are your thing, I don’t think you’d be disappointed in picking this up for your next fix. In a field where long running series own most of the market, Hard West feels like a breath of fresh air.