Unfinished Business is NME’s weekly column about the weird and wonderful world of Early Access games. This week, Rick Lane goes wild in the haunted frontier of Blood West.
Blood West is an intriguing mongrel of a game. It’s a Western-themed shooter with a retro-inspired visual style, but it arguably has more in common with Fallout 4 than it does, say, Dusk. It features a fair amount of Dark Souls, a spoonful of System Shock, a sprinkling of Blood (as opposed to blood, which I can assure you there’s considerably more of). In short, there’s plenty going on, although I’m uncertain whether the final product is equal to the sum of its parts.
You play an outlaw recently risen from the dead by a strange entity manifesting within a ram-skull totem. This entity informs you the world has been afflicted by a terrible curse, and it has brought you back from the dead to lift it. Which is easier said than done, not only because your bony pal doesn’t know how to rid the world of its scourge, but also because you start the game with all the strength of a tofu korma.
Despite resembling a late-nineties shooter, Blood West isn’t a game where you go in guns blazing. For one, ammo is a precious resource, so you must try to make every shot count. Moreover, even the most basic enemy can kill you in a handful of hits, and death has some severe consequences. Each time an enemy blasts the soul from your body, you gain a “soul flaw”. Acquire three soul flaws, and you’ll be burdened with a curse of your own, hindering your character’s abilities.
Hence, you need to approach encounters with enemies carefully, or even avoid them entirely. Stealth is a viable way to play Blood West. You can sneak up on enemies and split their skulls with an axe, or once you can afford it, buy a bow and arrow and snipe them silently from afar.
Blood West‘s stealth systems are robust and functional, clearly depicting when enemies can see and hear you. But sneaking around just isn’t as fun as going toe-to-toe with enemies using the game’s delightful range of period-accurate weapons. Every gun, whether it’s a revolver, a shotgun, or a repeating rifle, has a fantastic sense of weight and tactility, complemented by the way enemies splatter across the ground when killed.
Indeed, Blood West‘s audiovisual feedback is strong across the board. While it may adopt an antiquated graphical style, it feels modern beneath the fingers. There are many pleasing animation details, such as how weapons are reloaded bullet-by-bullet, and the way your character pulls the stopper from a health potion before chugging it down.
Yet while Blood West is well-presented in some areas, it’s less successful in others. I like the art style, but the environment design is drab. When it isn’t ticking off tired western tropes, the ghost town, the Alamo-style fortress, the rickety rail-bridge, it’s pushing through nondescript warrens of caves and caverns, none of which fire the imagination.
Moreover, while I like many of the game’s features individually, something about the core design doesn’t sit right. I think the issue derives from the influence of Dark Souls on the game. When you get into combat, it’s very difficult to avoid taking damage. Beyond a fairly sluggish strafe, there doesn’t seem to be any ability to block or dodge – a crucial element of the Souls games. The game accommodates this missing feature to a certain extent. The gunshots of revolver-wielding birdmen move slowly and are clearly telegraphed, making them somewhat avoidable. But attacks from other foes are much harder to evade, such as the melee strikes from shambling monsters and shotgun blasts from faceless courtesans.
It feels like developer Hyperstrange has erected one too many design pillars. A tough-as-nails western-FPS with Dark Souls inspired combat? Sure! A bleak, low-key survival horror where stealth is key to survival? That sounds great! Both at the same time? That’s where Blood West starts to lose me. The stealth isn’t interesting enough to support the game on its own, while the combat doesn’t feel sufficiently fleshed out for players to properly engage with its challenge. It’s fine for games to pull in multiple directions – that’s the basis for all immersive sims, after all. But Blood West feels more like it’s stretching, and its core systems need to be both deeper and more flexible to pull off the intended design.
The good news is, it’s early days yet for Blood West. There are two large new areas yet to be added to the game, which will hopefully increase the environmental variety, and there’s plenty of time to make stealth more interesting and combat more fluid. Get those elements right, and Blood West could end up being pretty special.