West of Dead – The Verdict

West of Dead – The Verdict

“This is not how death is supposed to be.”

So intones the recently deceased William Mason upon finding himself in purgatory and not…where, exactly? Collectively, we’ve lots of ideas on what the afterlife – should there be one – has in store for us. But we don’t know. It’s what makes this mortal plane of ours such a terrifying thrill.

Not so with video games. We know where death leads us: back to the last checkpoint or a swift return to the previous quick save. Death is a momentary impediment to progress, which is just as well because there’s often a shitload of baddies determined to scrub us from existence.

Weep for William Mason, then, who certainly didn’t bank on the afterlife being chock full of gun-toting ghouls and monsters. But then he probably hadn’t expected to look like a stylish cross between Ghost Rider and Overwatch’s McCree, either. You could do worse. Swings and roundabouts ‘an all that.

Slipping into Mason’s dusty boots I push my way into an empty saloon, which serves as the gateway to purgatory: a waiting room within a waiting room. I’ve little idea of what’s in store for me. I came here for West of Dead’s striking cel-shaded aesthetics, which create a world that often feels like a thick layer of ash caught in a time loop – forever frittering away without losing an inch. There’s farms and mines and towns, but in the words of one of our latter day cowboys, they’re more like someone’s faded memory of farms and mines and towns.

And that’s it as far as my knowledge is concerned. I was just excited to play something new.

The saloon’s sole occupant, the barman, doesn’t give any hints. He might have said “roguelike” and provided a definition, but instead seemed merely content to muse there’s east and there’s west.

East for the good souls.

West for the bad. Of course.

I’ll be going west, then.

I enter my first arena with a pistol and shotgun. There’s a ghostly Confederate lurking in the dark, rooting us in time but belying the republic’s unity; far from expunged, we know this particular evil only grows in shadow. I fire off a few clumsy shoots, but the darkness keeps my opponent safe. If I want to stand a chance of taking him down I’m gonna need to light the torches hanging from the ceiling – an apt metaphor if there ever was one. Once lit they cause the ghoul to momentarily flinch and I skid behind cover – a coffin, natch – to try and acquaint myself with the twin-stick controls. I’m new to this, so I miss a bunch, but the control scheme seems fluid enough that I figure I’ll get the hang of it eventually. The ghoul goes down.

‘Eventually’ is not the third or fourth arena, where, encountering lumbering zombies that want to GET IN MY FACE, I experience death within death. I’m zapped back to the beginning and reborn once more. That makes sense. I didn’t remember hitting a checkpoint.

The saloon again. The barman winks, or I think he does.

Onward.

‘Eventually’ is the fifth try. I’m more confident with the controls, able to slip and slide between cover easily, dispatching ghouls with relative ease and familiar now with the upgrade path that suits me best (maximising health seems to do the trick). Before long I’m on the second level and beset by new challenges, but I’m pretty confident I’ve got this. I take more risks, not getting too anxious whenever I see my health take a knock.

Hubris. An ill-timed dodge sends me into the path of some kinda hell-hound, ending my run. I’m okay with it and look forward to my next try, which is right away. Pretty fun this shooting malarkey.

The mountains. Here we go.

Only it’s not the mountains. It’s the mine. By way of the saloon. I’ve gone right back to the beginning. All my weapons, all my upgrades – gone. Snapped away in an instant. There’s no checkpoint – which I had imagined triggering in the passage from one level to the next – to speak of.

Okay, this is not how death is supposed to be.

Welcome to the roguelike, Ross. Where dead is dead.

The real question is how I could possibly be so ignorant of an entire subgenre. I don’t rightly know. It’s not like I hadn’t heard the term “roguelike / rogue-lite” before. I’d just never shown an interest in that kind of game, so the finer points, or the fundamentals, as it were, were lost to me. There’s the argument that I probably ought to do my research before jumping into something new for the first time, but then I can’t think of a better introduction to the genre than this. Swings and roundabouts an’ all that.

Onward. From the beginning.

This time I’m sure the barman winks. I want to send him west, but then I can’t very well blame him because I picked a new title to review based on aesthetic preferences, you know? Besides, he seems like a decent sort. Too bad he has little of interest to say.

By now I’ve played a fair bit of West of Dead. Whilst I can’t compare it to other games in the genre, I reckon I can venture to make a few remarks on what this one has on offer.

I’m better at it, that much is certain. West of Dead is a ton of fun when you’ve got the mechanics down; clearing arenas of enemies by dodging, skidding, and shooting from cover becomes a slick, graceful exercise in repetition that thankfully doesn’t get stale. When I inevitably die, I’m prepared to submit myself to the ordeal all over again.

It helps, I think, that the ‘sin’ you spend – acquired within missions – on new items, such as health potions, and new weapons, carries over from run to run, so each time you’re coming back better equipped with a broader range of choices. It’s only the upgrade stations (amount of health, damage, etc.) that are reset.

The levels are procedurally generated, meaning the many runs you’ll make shake-up your route and enemy placement. Ostensibly that’s a welcome relief when there’s such a heavy emphasis on repetition, but the maps are super basic: there’ll be pillars, cover, torches, and enemies, and the procedural generation just changes where they all are.

During the first few repetitions you might notice the tweaks, but it won’t be long before it all blends into one. I found they just weren’t distinctive enough to ever feel like fresh arenas; the mine was the mine, the mountains the mountains. Sure, a sense of brevity will come to the first couple levels, scaled according to players’ growing skill. But inevitably the environments will start to grind even when the gameplay remains engaging.

There’s the outline of a story in here, told through the acquisition of memories dropped by different bosses, but I don’t much rate it. It’s by-the-numbers stuff, unfolding slowly and with little spark, expressed in tired Western cliches – ‘cold empty skies’, ‘thick as molasses’…you get the idea. Even the mighty Ron Perlman, who voices Mason, can’t spice them up.

My main point of contention, though, is that the game’s a little buggy. There was an open beta for console users late last year, followed by one for PC users in February. With a full release just this month, I wonder it didn’t rush out of beta sooner than it ought to have done.

Enemy pathfinding can be sketchy, especially if like me you try draining arenas by luring enemies into previous ones. They’ll get stuck on walls and even try to shoot you through them. Sometimes that’s to your advantage, other times it’s really, really not. Either way, it shouldn’t be there. And if you happen to roll onto a piece of cover that’s magically reconstructing itself there’s a good chance your model will disappear and the game will either crash or require a reboot. In such instances you’ll at least be able to return to a mid-run save point (applicable only if you do not die). I’m sure they’ll iron these out soon, but nonetheless feels sloppy.

I’ll definitely return to West of Dead. The roguelike isn’t necessarily my go-to kinda game, but its relative simplicity and compelling combat won me over. Given you’re certainly not as ignorant as me, you’ll know whether or not this sort of game is for you. Is it a good roguelike? I really can’t say – you’d have to ask the genre aficionados. Perhaps if I were to dig a little deeper into the genre, West of Dead might end up feeling like someone’s faded memory of a roguelike. Is it, from my meagre vantage point, a good introduction? Yeah, I’d say so.

And it does look awful pretty.

The Verdict – On Target

Platforms Available – PC, Xbox One, soon to PlayStation 4
Platform Reviewed – PC
Review based on Steam media account copy. Please read this post for more on our scoring policy.

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