Developer: WolfEye Studios
Publisher: Devolver Digital
Genre: Immersive RPG
Reviewed On: PlayStation 4
Also Available For: Xbox, PC
There’s only one things I like more than a video game western, dear reader, and that’s a video game in a “weird west” setting. You can probably imagine, then, what my reaction was like when I first heard about a game that was literally called Weird West. I do unfortunately have to admit that it isn’t everything I was expecting-slash-hoping for, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t still an excellent showing.
The Basics: Weird West is an isometric RPG and immersive sim set in an alternate version of the wild west where witches, demons, werewolves, and other supernatural phenomenon are just as common as saloons, cowboys, and gunslingers. Over the course of the game the player steps into the shoes of five different characters, each with their own “Journey”, backstory, and a small selection of skills unique to them. This peculiarity gives the game an interesting structure that I’m still trying to decide whether I liked or not; on the one hand, regularly giving the player a fresh perspective and face (to which various denizens of the west will react differently) is great for worldbuilding and giving the player a sense for the setting. On the other hand, the end of each journey acts as a sort of soft reset for much of the player’s progress. Money, equipment, skills, reputation, even having a horse don’t carry over between characters, and while it makes sense logically it destroys any sense of mechanical progression in addition to just being plain annoying.
One saving grace for this aspect of the game is that prior heroes don’t stop existing in the game world after their Journey ends, meaning you can go track them down as the next character (which is never hard to do) and recruit them to your posse. Once you do that, you can reclaim anything that was in their inventory for your (new) self. In addition, the contents of your horse’s saddlebags carry over, so the inventory isn’t really completely reset each time, but the fact that the player has to buy a new horse in most of them before accessing it is possible is quite obnoxious.
When you’re not going through the mandatory regularly scheduled soft reset process, however, the gameplay is really fun. There’s plenty of ways to approach exploration, stealth, combat and roleplaying each, and the gunplay is extremely satisfying. The world is broken up into bite-sized little areas like farms, mines, or towns, all connected by a world map that the player is free to explore entirely at their leisure as soon as the game starts and even though many of them are extremely similar to one another they’re still satisfying to explore and discover details in, especially thanks to the game’s extensive use of the passage of time and characters being able to form grudges and life debts towards the player. The time system, in conjunction with the way the main story beats are presented, does a very good job of conveying a sense of urgency to the player and making you feel as though there are real stakes for not completing your mission quickly enough, even though logically I was reasonably certain no such threat actually existed. I will say, however, that I wish there had been more side stories and NPCs who actually felt like real presences in the world as opposed to randomly generated puppets virtually indistinguishable from all others.
Of course, for as cool and satisfying as the game is when it works, this does come with the caveat that it is rather unstable, at least on the PS4. Glitches and fuzzy logic were commonplace, with issues including but not limited to cutscenes failing to play out and needing to be skipped, posse members suddenly becoming hostile because I had killed a member of their “family” that was an unnamed monster in a completely random encounter, and the game thinking I had committed a crime by paying bail for a prisoner so that he could be released. Many of the issues I encountered along these lines happened towards the latter end of my playthrough, which leads me to believe that the more details of the world the save files have to remember, the harder it is for them keep it all straight (or something, I’m not a coder). Fortunately, autosaves are common and the game encourages you to make frequent quick saves, so when one of those issues arises and your game world gets royally messed up you should usually be able to load back up and avoid it.
Many of Weird West’s issues are made up for, at least in my mind, by the excellently crafted story. Even more importantly than having a fascinating setting with all manner of creepy and cool magic and monsters, Weird West is one of very few westerns out there that actually addresses the role of colonialism and imperialism not only in the actual history of American westward expansionism but also in the genre of stories that sprung up around it. The picture it paints of the wild west is much broader and more historically accurate than your typical cowboy flick, populated by more than just rugged white men with enough machismo to gag a horse. Moreover, the way it addresses these things is not incidental, but rather baked into the game’s very core, its themes and conclusions, to the point where many of the supernatural elements can be read as manifestations of colonialism or imperialism.
The strength of Weird West’s writing was something I very much appreciated, and one of the main reasons I decided to stick around through the game’s ending even as I grew increasingly frustrated with its issues. If, like me, you’re someone for whom well crafted themes can go a long way towards making up for gameplay shortcomings, I definitely recommend playing through it. Even if you’re not, there’s still a lot of fun to be had in the world the game presents, and hey, let’s face it – decent westerns are few and far between these days, so we gotta take what we can get, and in this case what we got is a rootin’ tootin’ good time.
Though its appeal may be a bit niche, Weird West is sure to delight anyone with a taste for smart writing and dusters flapping in the wind.