The Old West is a wild, yet well-traveled setting for almost every sort of media around. For good reason, of course: the moldable clay that was the unclaimed frontier provided settling Americans with a sort of adventurous optimism. Things are dangerous and uncertain, but they are the individual's responsibility. Maybe that's why Hard West immediately stands out from its peers in the setting - it lacks that optimism.
As a collection of several stories about characters in a dark and twisted Gothic Frontier, the boundless opportunity is quickly overshadowed by the oppressive and seductive influence of evil. Not just bad people doing bad things - or decent people doing whatever it takes to survive, as is seen in spaghetti Westerns - but the actual, palpable touch of demonic possession and supernatural haunting. Like the movie Bone Tomahawk proved earlier this year, there is definitely room for other genres of entertainment besides the revenge story for the Frontier.
That isn't to say that Hard West's narrative isn't still loosely bound by the tropes that built the sort of Frontier mythology, but instead it serves as a recognizable base for players to latch on to while the game wraps its more shadowy hands around you slowly. In one story, for example, a prospecting young lad who spends his days mining and trading to make a name for himself digs a little too deep in one mine and comes across some gear from a long dead body. When other standby Western events come to head (chasing down bandits, rescuing kidnapped damsels, etc.) the added layer of your slow and persistent insanity adds a Lovecraftian layer to it all. If the non-combat portions of the game were just a little more involved, I could see this being an extremely gripping and note worthy deviation from well worn logos. Here, it feels more like a cool, but fleeting reason to pay attention to the dialogue when the battles aren't on.
When guns are drawn, though, that's when things get really interesting. CreativeForge Games took very close notes when they played Firaxis' revival of the XCOM franchise in 2012, because its own turn based combat resembles it very much. Each unit has a pair of action points to move and attack with, and elements of a map-like object height give different cover values, which help to mitigate incoming lead. Attacks hit hard for both you and the enemy, so the margin for error is pretty low. This is a conservative sort of tactical game, where defense almost always replaces offense unless you can definitely eliminate what's in front of you in one turn.
Hard West adds a few wrinkles in the bed Enemy Unknown made, though. The dark mysticism of the world finds itself in many aspects of combat, as well. A general resource called Luck is spent every time someone is shot at, and having high lucky decreases your chances of being hit by bullets. When you are actually hit (and not killed) your luck will replenish. It also is spent when using special abilities. Some are mundane like firing multiple, lower accuracy shots in a single action, while others call on the sinister presence surrounding the characters involved, and allow them to hit their targets through cover or guarantee maximum damage. Some of the items are occult in nature, too. One is literally human flesh that grants health but "for a price."
This extra layer of strange adds to combat what it does to the story and setting, but in a tangible way that produces interesting consequences thanks to the non traditional risk/rewards. You almost feel dirty thinking about using some of these items or skills, because you clearly see the effects of your choices and how they are deteriorating your characters between scenarios. Death serves as a narrator to the events, further nailing your humanity away in a pinebox and tossing it into the void. It's not as desperate a feeling of loss and remorse as Darkest Dungeon, but the effect is clear and present. And welcome.
If this sounds like something you could dip your toes into, then by all means give Hard West a few hours of your time. While you do, you should mosey over to the Official Hard West Wiki and grab some useful tips and tricks. Then come share your adventures with us on Twitter @CurseGamepedia.
Jarrett shares his love of video games and geek culture through feature articles on Gamepedia. He prides himself on his deep attraction to Japanese beat-em ups and his god-like Bushido Blade talents.