In this alternate universe, the West was won by trying a bunch of ideas so crazy they just might work… and if they don’t, hitting the quick-load button to revert to an earlier save and trying something even crazier until you pull it off. Thanks to that freedom to experiment with its world as you explore, Weird West is one of those games that feels like a stealth and combat playground even as it tells five mostly serious, well-written stories with interesting decisions throughout and a thoughtful conclusion. And with so much ground to cover and replayability to investigate, it’s well worth putting up with some quirks and underwhelming loot.
What ties Weird West’s plot together is a group of shadowy figures using a magical brand to force your character’s consciousness into the bodies of various unsuspecting people. It’s a clever play on the way so many games have us take control of a character who already exists in that world but still need to bring us up to speed on their identity: here, our character is going through the same confusion we are. On top of that, the fact that our character is also an amnesiac and has no idea how or why they’re playing this game of musical bodies is another mind-bending layer of mystery that definitely adds some appropriately intriguing weirdness to Weird West.
Although the tone is generally played straight and dark, with murder, mutilation, and blood everywhere while eerie music builds the mood, the writers at Wolfeye have worked in some good humorous dialogue here and there that keeps things from getting too dour. That’s one of many ways in which Weird West reminds me of my fondness for the classic Fallout 2, including the isometric perspective and the overworld map where you’re pulled out of your travel for bandit attacks, traveling merchants, and a witch who just likes to mess with you. The low-detail art style works better from farther above than it does when you zoom in closer to ground level, but it’s certainly not without its abstract charms when it comes to depicting the exaggerated features of creatures like werewolves, wraiths, and insect-infested zombies that move like The Last of Us’s Clickers.
Each of the five characters you’ll inhabit has their own vignette story that can be as short as a handful of hours or, if you take your time like me, an average of eight a piece. We begin with Jane the Bounty Hunter tracking down her abducted husband, followed by a forcibly mutated pigman searching for the truth about who he used to be, a Protector of the Lost Fire Tribe battling a greed demon, a werewolf who is prophesized to lead his people in a battle for survival, and finally a cult member. They all take place on the same large, dense overworld map of a region known simply as “the West.” And while there’s not a ton of overlap between where their main quests lead them, they’re all free to explore and revisit anywhere and anyone they like. Don’t worry about the count of how many days you’ve spent – there’s no time pressure to any of the stories.
The playable characters are largely defined by their sets of four class abilities, ranging from the bounty hunter’s landmines to the pigman’s poison trail and the werewolf’s temporary invisibility. There’s also a universal set of useful weapon skills like electric pistol bullets, silenced rifle shots, and stun arrows, but those must be leveled up for each character individually. However, a set of perks you unlock that remain persistent, and between that and a couple of shared loot stashes that means you’re considerably more powerful in the fifth act than in the first thanks enhancements like more health, doubled explosive damage, and faster stealth movement. That provides a sense of progression even as you reboot from one character to the next.
While it’s kind of a bummer that you can’t switch back to directly controlling a previous character if you miss their abilities, that’s an understandable limitation when you consider how the story works as a sequence of events. You can, however, go back to their homes and recruit them as one of your two AI-controlled companions (and you’d be crazy not to, since they’re powerful and you get their inventories back) but the AI doesn’t use their abilities with the precision they need to be really useful in combination with your own. There’s also an added tension from the fact that these irreplaceable companions can permanently die (unless you reload a quicksave), so they’re more of a loss than the disposable mercenaries you can hire in that role when things go bad.
Another forgivable letdown is that none of the main characters are voiced – we only ever hear from the Sam Elliot-impersonating narrator, and the voices that play behind the text of everyone else’s speech sounds like spooky whispers or if Bane from The Dark Knight Rises was a Sim. But their personalities come across in the writing when you interact with them, and we’re given plenty of opportunities to define them for ourselves with choices about who to help and who to harm.
When the action begins, gunfights with more than a couple of adversaries get hectic quickly because everybody moves pretty fast and the lead flies faster. Weird West is effectively a twin-stick shooter, and rapidly aiming and firing while managing your lengthy reload times for your revolvers, rifles, shotguns, and bow and arrow is a tall order. However, there’s a slow-motion button that takes the twitch reactions out of fights (except for the reaction required to push that button); with this activated, the real challenge becomes managing the amount of time it takes to swing your gun from one target to the next – it’s not instant – and of course, timing your special abilities for maximum effectiveness.
Also, slow-mo will automatically activate when you initiate a cinematic dive move, which eats some of your precious Action Point bar that’s consumed by your abilities, but is extremely worth it because of how much damage you can put out. You get extra bullets in your gun and can fire rapidly, so anything short of a boss-level character will usually melt under a satisfying hail of bullets before you hit the ground.
Pros will know to do this before a fight breaks out, but I relied on slow-mo to give me the time I needed to really take advantage of the environment. Weird West is as much an immersive sim as it is an action game (which makes sense, considering Wolfeye was founded by Raphael Colantonio, who previously founded Arkane Studios, known for Dishonored and Prey) so you can expect plenty of opportunities for physics-based antics. Throw a lit oil lamp into a field and watch the firestorm that ensues; water (including rain) puts out the fire, while wind makes it spread faster. Touching arrows to a flame makes them into fire arrows, while dipping them in poison does exactly what you’d expect. Electricity plus water is another good one to remember. There’s a lot of room to experiment here, and I love when a plan – or a completely accidental win – comes together.
Of course, there’s no XP gained from killing in Weird West, so that means it’s really an expedient means of acquiring loot as you go from point A to point B or defending yourself when you get caught where you shouldn’t be. That’s a wise design choice because it means that if you prefer to sneak through the whole thing, avoiding combat and pilfering the artifacts and golden playing cards that unlock new abilities you won’t be missing out on much by way of progression. Also, it smartly takes the Last of Us approach to companions while you’re in stealth, meaning they’re simply invisible to enemies and you don’t have to worry about them blowing your cover if the AI does something goofy.
Stealth is an exercise for the patient, so much of my first playthrough was done in a guns-blazing fashion, but every so often I’d see an opportunity to thin the herd; with a little timing (and perhaps some quick-loading) you can crough-walk from bandit to bandit, knocking them out and then picking up their unconscious bodies to toss them into a bush or behind a minecart while you deal with their friends. If they’re dead you have the option to bury them if you have a shovel, so playing non-lethal stealth is slightly more of a self-imposed challenge. (Wolfeye says it’s possible to get through the campaign without killing a human, but I was nowhere near pulling that off myself.)
There are plenty of people around the West in need of your assistance – the first act’s villains are cannibals who round up people like cattle, after all – and beyond simply being a nice thing to do, a benefit of choosing to help the helpless is that the people you’ve saved can randomly show up to assist you in tough fights later on. That’s a great reward for a good deed, serving as both a bonus and a reminder of recent adventures – it’ll pop up with their name and why they’re helping you, such as “You freed her husband from prison.” The other side of that coin is that characters can form a vendetta against you if, for instance, they flee after you kill their boss or if you capture them alive to collect a bounty, and then they show up to make things a little tougher for you. I’ve even had significant characters show up as bounty targets after their role in the story was complete, which was a nice way to tie a little bow on their story.
All these overlapping systems mean Weird West is hardly glitch-free. I’ve seen moonwalking enemies, missing guns from hands, enemies suddenly detecting me when they shouldn’t have, companions refusing to budge, taking hits to my reputation when I’d left no witnesses, a man self-immolating at a campfire, and more of those sorts of things. One time my character was taken to jail for a night and then… simply floated out of her cell and into the sky. But for a game with this many moving parts, that’s to be expected to some degree – and considering the frequent autosaves (the last three of which are available to reload at any time), I never lost significant progress.
Over the course of my playthrough I spent a lot of my time gathering loot, whether it was picking over corpses, rifling through shelves and poorly guarded cash registers, mining ore, or digging up suspicious mounds of dirt to reveal treasure caches. There’s stuff everywhere, and exploration is almost always generously rewarded. You also have the freedom to profit by unscrupulous means, such as robbing stores by breaking in at night, digging up graves, or just murdering people for fun (and stealing a horse for a quick getaway) at the cost of reputation which – just like you’d expect – gets a bounty placed on your head if it drops low enough.
That said, much of the actual equippable loot is a little disappointing: there are rarities of weapons, for instance, but each tier simply does greater damage without any other special effects, and no matter what armor or gear you equip you won’t see any changes reflected in your character model. Additionally, there’s no real crafting system aside from creating armor vests out of animal skins or using ore to upgrade weapons. That’s fine, except that it makes all the other junk items you collect feel entirely like… well, junk, and the process of separating the wheat from the chaff becomes tiresome after a good while. It leads to lots of inventory management as you decide what to drop in favor of that shiny new item. Given how your companions act as pack mules I’d have liked an easier way to see who has what and move it between them than talking to one, accessing their inventory, moving it to yours, then talking to the other and moving it to theirs. (That’s something I wasn’t so fond of in Fallout 2.)
The larger story wraps up in an interesting way that makes your choices in the many life-or-death situations – and whether you just tried to do good or not – central to a high-stakes event rather than a showy boss battle. It’s a good call and it serves Weird West well. If you’re just charging through you might finish in 25 hours; I took closer to 40 by going off the main path to explore, collecting quite a few bounties, and seeing what the West had to offer. I was not disappointed.
I was excited to start a second playthrough (on hard mode this time) because at the end of each chapter you get a recap list of your decisions and achievements as that character, which looks like a substantial amount of relatively small changes can add up to a big difference. After all, who lives and who dies in a game where nearly everyone who isn’t literally immortal can be killed can lead to some significantly different outcomes.
Only a few hours in, I’ve already found many things I missed on the first run. Instead of shaking down a local farmer for the deed to his land on behalf of a crime boss who had information I needed, I broke into his office by moving a barrel next to a wall and using it to reach the roof of the building next door, then jumping to a balcony and climbing in a window and breaking into his safe. I also stumbled upon a talking doll who asked me to help it break its curse, won a duel, found an amulet that gave my bullets a chance to set targets on fire, and more. (I could’ve used a lot more amulets like that on my first playthrough; most of the ones I got had bonuses so situational that I barely noticed I had them equipped.) This time I’m making greater use of Jane’s ability to power up her kick, hilariously knocking enemies back and off of cliffs, and I intend to experiment with a lot more powers I overlooked the first time through.
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Author: Dan Stapleton