West of Dead Review
Gunslinging in the dark
The roguelike genre is becoming just as common as platformers used to be back in the day. Audiences have apparently discovered a passion for the trial-and-error gameplay, trying again and again to progress further into a dangerous world with each new attempt. While we've not quite reached the point of oversaturation yet, the genre has certainly become quite commonplace, especially among the indie developers. Thus, it's becoming increasingly important to make a game stand out, and if anything, West of Dead certainly has that unique factor. It's a visually stylized twin-stick shooter with a few unique mechanics, but while it looks intriguing, a few gameplay problems and a lack of polish might push it back down into the indie depths.
Players take on the role of William Mason and find themselves in a sort of hellscape called the Purgatory, in Wyoming, year 1888. We learn that William is a gunslinger who recently died, and having lost his memories, a mysterious Preacher now haunts him. That's about all the motivation that anyone would need to try and escape the dangerous and dark tunnels of this place. There's a lot of mysticism, ghosts and creatures from the after-life. William is voiced by Ron Perlman, of Hellboy fame, who skillfully delivers broody monologues throughout. You occasionally meet other characters, but they have little to say, and most of the thin story unravels through the expositions of the main character.
As a roguelike, the goal of the game is to make it through the various randomly generated levels without your health dropping to zero. At first, this means restarting the very first level a few times as you get acquainted with the mechanics and enemies. With each death, you learn more about the story, but you also start all the way back at the beginning. But, there is a sense of progression thanks to two types of currencies you collect from fallen enemies. Iron allows you to get upgrades for guns and items, while Sin allows you to purify items and thus make them available at the start of each new run. The levels are random, so you're exploring new paths each time, though they keep the same visual theme and specific mechanics, if any. The randomization is pretty good, as there's not much backtracking or many dead ends, so you're able to come across the traders and the exit without too much hassle.
The majority of the game boils down to exploring dark hallways and entering rooms of enemies. While the scenery changes, the levels could have used a bit more variety and activities - you mostly either get a room with enemies, or an NPC trader. West of Dead is a twin-stick shooter with an isometric view and a fixed camera, which means there are certain annoyances with not being able to see exactly what you'd like. Doubly so, because the world is embellished with darkness. It's both a stylistic and a gameplay choice; the rooms containing enemies are usually totally dark, and while they can see you, you can't lock-on or see them very well. You can take a few shots and hope for the best, but the key is to rush to the one or more lamps in the room and activate them. Doing so reveals foes, stuns them, and lets you lock-on. It's a risky but a necessary and rewarding mechanic.
Each room features cover, to which William sticks to automatically. Crates and coffins litter the room, letting you dodge incoming fire from the often large number of foes. The system works okay, as you can move around the cover without breaking out of it, and return fire. Most ranged enemies are stationary, while others, such as dogs, are melee and will rush you, putting more pressure on careful positioning. You can also perform a dodge, which slows down time when done successfully, to avoid an attack. However, this time-slowing effect loses its charm and becomes a pacing issue very quickly – it's hard to get into a rhythm and dodge subsequent attacks/shots properly when the speed of time keeps going up and down.
At your disposal are two primary weapons which can be fired in any sequence, and have different stats. Rifles are for medium range and have decent firing speed, while pistols are faster but deal less damage; shotguns are slow to shoot and reload, but are quite powerful. You get guns at the start of the level, and can find more as you explore. There is no inventory, so any new weapons require you to leave behind the old ones. As mentioned, you can buy upgrades for weapons so that you find more powerful versions at the start of each level. You also find items such as healing flasks, sticks of dynamite, and more to help expand your arsenal and survivability.
It's a slow-paced shooter, then, but West of Dead does struggle with the lock-on system, and the controls just feel fairly imprecise, which is not a good thing for any shooter. The game lets you freely leave the room with the enemies, which causes glitches – sometimes enemies will follow, sometimes they won't. When trying to shoot at something in the hallway, you might lock on to an enemy in the next room instead, thus missing the actual target. There is a melee button, but it's badly implemented – it's shared with shooting, and so only works contextually when next to the enemy or a doorway. This results in plenty of misses and/or pointless shots. When using cover, and trying to dodge, you'll instead often vault over it, leaving you exposed. Ladders can be their own type of hell. There were also a few technical bugs, such as the character or the enemies getting stuck in place, or being unable to use the traders, or being unable to progress. All in all, the game could have used a bit more polish and fine tuning.
As mentioned at the outset though, the one thing that the game has going for it is the unique style. Its cel-shaded look is dark and brooding, and creates a somber atmosphere that does draw you in. The darkness and Wild West style art design come together nicely, along with the solid voice acting from Ron Perlman. The game uses a lot of black, along with some red and grey for its color palette, combined with an appropriate musical score to set the mood. It's not going to blow you away with its texture quality of effects, but it works.
West of Dead is an enjoyable enough roguelike, if you can accept its various bugs and design choices. The mechanics are solid on paper, but don't always come together in execution, and the game could use some tightening up of the controls and camera. Still, its unique look and setting should draw players in. If you're a fan of the genre, and are willing to wait for a few patches to flesh things out, this may be worth a look.