‘Hard West 2’ review: cowboy up

the Weird West and ‘XCOM’ combine for a memorable turn-based sequel

Hard West 2’s opening promises a classic wild west adventure. You control a posse robbing a train, boarding the train and blasting through the guards. Yeehaw.

Then you go into a tunnel that shouldn’t be there, the train grows horrifying legs and suddenly you’re blasting away at glowing monsters in a battle with a demon for your very souls. It sets a tone for the game to follow, and dives into it with gusto. A short cutscene later and your characters wake up in a heap to find the Wild West full of snow, demons and desperate people trying to work out how to survive.

Moments later, you dig a revenant out of the ground and he pulls a gun and gets to work as part of your posse. When he takes damage he politely reminds his attackers that he’s already dead. Hard West is a game that is happy to bathe itself in the oddness of its setting, and it is all the better for it.

Hard West 2. Credit: Ice Code Games.
Hard West 2. Credit: Ice Code Games.

There’s lashings of Western style to the game, too. You can bounce rounds off of metal objects to shoot enemies behind cover and around corners, and every time you put an enemy down your character gets a burst of bravado, giving them a full refill of action points letting them take their turn again. This can allow for impressive pushes, as your indigenous warrior – with a series of perks for close range combat – will happily push into a crowd of enemies and butcher them all, getting a new burst of energy each time he drops an opponent. Your gun-wielding outlaws can do similarly – reloading isn’t a consideration here, so get someone with a rifle in a good snipers nest and they can shoot everyone they see until they miss a shot or run out of targets.

The end result of a lot of these changes is that Hard West 2 seems to reward efficient and boundless aggression, encouraging you to take risks for huge rewards. Get it wrong and you’re often caught out of position and out of action points surrounded by enemies. The tempo makes every battle feel desperate, a far cry from the controlled SWAT team approach of, say, XCOM. This unique twist, combined with the fact each of these battles are scripted rather than randomly generated, means that a lot of the encounters feel memorable and I’m still thinking about a few of the bigger set pieces.

Hard West 2. Credit: Ice Code Games.
Hard West 2. Credit: Ice Code Games.

The enemies are interesting enough: you’ll be blasting outlaws and sheriffs deputies sure, but there’s also plenty of demons, some spiritually empowered Indigenous Americans that make me feel a little uneasy and a heap of other things I’ll try not to spoil. To counter that, you’ll find playing cards in several situations that you can equip to your characters “hand” to give them power-ups. Better yet, the cards all have values – equip two of the same card to a single character and you’ll unlock the perk for giving them a “pair” – equipping different poker hands will unlock new and more powerful perks – perhaps a character will get bonus damage with a rifle, or perhaps they’ll unlock a charge that lets them close the distance and attack an enemy with a mighty blow.

Outside of that, progression largely seems to be limited to the weapons, trinkets and consumables you pick up as you wander the overworld. This is a big part of the game: clicking around the place like you’re in Mount And Blade and investigating points of interest, but the little vignettes you encounter are fascinating. While the spider-like demon train might have brought about an unseasonable snowfall to the West, you get the definite sense that something has been weird about this West for quite some time.

Hard West 2. Credit: Ice Code Games.
Hard West 2. Credit: Ice Code Games.

It’s quite a forgiving game, difficulty wise. While turn-based tactics have long been synonymous with difficulty, I found that Hard West 2 was actually reasonably forgiving: dead companions will return to life with a single hit point when combat is over, but it’s very rare to have someone die as in comparison to the enemies – often killed in a bullet or two – your characters seem to be protected by friendship, because this pal posse can shrug off several bullets before hitting the dirt.

Sadly, you don’t really get much of a chance to see why these characters are pals. Interacting with members of your posse is often done in the form of Mass Effect style conversations, where you choose who you agree with in a situation more and that person gets an additional loyalty point. Get enough loyalty points and they will give you an extra nugget of their backstory in the camp. Over time these characters get fleshed out if you put the work into them, but through just their dialogue it often feels like the characters underpinning the main story are quite weakly defined, and as a result I didn’t care much about the central quest. Luckily, the turn-based gameplay kept me coming back for more.

Overall, Hard West 2 is a success. Fans of the genre or people looking for something a little different could do a lot worse than immersing themselves in developer Ice Code Games’ vision of the weird west, and getting to know the desperate people trying to survive within it.

Hard West 2 launches on PC today (August 4). 

The Verdict

Hard West 2 is a compelling turn-based tactics offering with a memorable style of combat. While the central story and the characters underpinning it may feel a little sketched out, the world and the little details within it are compelling. A rooting, tooting good time.

Pros

  • Frantic combat
  • Captivating setting

Cons

  • Not enough character definition
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