Zombies, wraiths and werewolves meet the bounty hunters of the wild west, but is it as cooky as it claims to be? The Finger Guns review of Weird West.
Arriving fresh off the heels of esteemed developers who delivered some of the most immersive experiences such as Prey and Dishonored, Weird West aims to merge science and fantasy western into a compelling adventure driven by the player’s own ambitions and creativity. The sandboxes of Prey and Dishonored are phenomenal, with Prey especially delivering a masterclass in open-ended problem solving opportunities. These developers had made some of my favourite gaming experiences, so translating that into a western setting should have been a certified slam-dunk, right?
Well, let’s use a a bit of an analogy. Did you ever have that friend growing up? You know the type: the one who loved to proclaim just how *wacky* and *weird* they were. Almost using it as a means to define their entire personality, they couldn’t help but just relentlessly inform you of how *hilariously strange* they were. Except, not only were they not in any way weird, they weren’t even humorously oddball.
Weird West is kinda like that exact friend. It wears the title of Weird proudly within its name, yet there’s very little that’s actually weird about it. Quite the contrary, it’s one of the most routinely run-of-the-mill titles I’ve played for a long while, seemingly in-spite of its setting merging the wild west with fantastical elements.
Cowboys, Snouts and Zombies
Weird West certainly sets out with a puzzling opening act. Jane Bell, a long-retired bounty hunter is accosted by some savage gang members of the Stillwater prestige. With her son slain in cold blood and her husband whisked away, presumably for torturous purposes, we’re encouraged to dust off our cowboy boots, saddle up and have our trusty revolvers at the ready.
Jane’s tale isn’t the only story you’ll be embarking on however, as Weird West is split into 5 mini-campaigns, each with a unique character and perspective to link the overall narrative together. A man turned into a swine through sorcery, a native facing off supernatural wendigo and hostile settlers, there’s variety in the avatars you’ll assume control of, for sure.
Completion of each arc provides a scene of the wider story unfurling, with some… interesting… beings cropping up inexplicably throughout your adventures with riddles, musings and existential queries galore. There’s some supernatural, unnatural goings on that you’ll need to uncover through each persona, so prepare to strap in for the long haul, as very little will make sense until you hit the end of all 5 arcs.
While Jane’s and Across Rivers stories were relatively standard fare, Pigman’s journey had a fair bit of intrigue, with the last two characters offering a darker perspective. It should be an engaging structure, but it falls a bit flat by the fact that none of them are voice-acted and in between the core story developments at the beginning and end of arcs, there’s mere morsels of narrative to latch onto during the middle chunks of campaigns. The vultures must have got to the carcasses first.
I had high hopes for the story to come together into a saloon-buckling tale of strange huckleberries and gunslinging beasts. Sadly, it ended up more of a drunken, slurred nothingness – so devoid of interesting story hooks I stopped paying attention to the dialogue come the 4th campaign.
Choose Your Own Misadventure
One of the most advertised elements of Weird West’s story is your agency within it. Sure, you can be law-abiding bore of a paragon, but why do that when you can stick your 6 shooter straight in their face. Any NPC or even important story figure can be gunned down, should you be privy to some wild west morality. When I played Prey, I was blown away by just how much depth this added to every decision, every action, every choice I was confronted with. It all had tangible ripple effects felt throughout the rest of your playthrough.
Don’t want to pay through the nose for that rifle that’ll make your next objective easier? Why not partake in a 5-finger discount. Secure the land deeds stolen from the local ranchers by a greedy, nefarious mayor? Extort said locals for payment, only to then kill them, saunter down to the bank and resell the very same deeds for triple pay. Your given choices throughout your time in this desert land shape what kind of people your protagonists are going to be.
Careful though – be too much of a menace amongst the locals and you may find bounty hunters seeking your end. Decide to be too heroic by taking down a gang leader but arresting instead of offing them and they may turn up later to start a shootout at an inopportune moment.
In truth however, I didn’t find myself especially invested in the choice system. It came down to the usual of trope of doing the “right” thing meant less pay, while being an asshole led to money but low reputation. Seeing as having low reputation makes your life 20x harder and money isn’t a factor passed the second character, there’s little incentive to be a renegade.
At the end of each chapter you’ll have a screen outlining your various choices, but very few have any tangible consequences and aren’t even tied to what ending you’ll get. It rapidly becomes obvious that there’s an illusion of agency within the world, but it’s surface level at best. Best exemplified by an objective to get into a bank – you can either blast the holy hell out of the gang holding it, or follow a pre-designated side objective to sneak in. No secret entrances, no crafty means of creating your own path.
In Prey I could shoot a foam bolt through grates to hit a switch, I could blow apart the doors, sneak through a vent or hack a console. In Weird West, you can blaze your way through encounters, or just be less efficient. The opportunity for organic and creative problem-solving is hindered by the limitations of the gameplay systems on offer. I couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed when I hit the credits and wondered what all the fuss was about.
A Million Ways To Die In The West
So if the story and decision making in Weird West doesn’t live up to the developer’s lofty portfolio of work, we can sing a ballad of hope for the top-down isometric gameplay to redeem it. Right?
Weird West plays as many other twin-stick shooters do – left stick to move, right stick to aim. You have an assortment of 5 main weapon types (handgun, rifle, shotgun, melee and bow), coupled with a few explosive options. You have the option of stealth to creep up on unsuspecting yokels to choke them out, though in honesty this approach takes 10x longer and is so mundane you’re better off taking the aggressive approach.
Each character has 3-4 unique powers like summoning spirit bears, charge attacks and AoE boosts. You can spend upgrade tokens on powers or abilities for weapons which reset for each character (despite the abilities for weapons being the same across each avatar). Additionally, Golden Ace Cards provide passive boosts to damage, health, posse members and other stats.
It’s generally easier to buy better weapons instead of trying to upgrade them through crafting, but generally exploring each area or locale is worthwhile for scrap to sell and upgrades to improve your lethality. Unfortunately, the pleasure of riddling humans and beasts alike with iron just never develops beyond your play time with first couple of characters. With only 5 weapon types, all of which function identically just with differing damage and range outputs, there’s a blunting lack of variety to experiment with.
Once I had a 5* level rifle, almost everything else became redundant and the mix of enemy variety stagnates far too soon into your playtime to keep you invested. If there was an extra layer of depth to the combat it could be a fun system, but it falls into that solid yet uninspired category just a little too quickly and comfortably.
Also, if you have upgrade tokens unspent when you finish a character’s campaign they aren’t carried over to the next, which sucks. It can be forgiven for powers/abilities, but given Golden Ace upgrades carry over characters, it makes no sense to just lose unspent ones.
The Not So Wild Bunch
Popping cowboys and slowpokes is only part of the adventure though, as you’ll also face off against other… less humane threats. Werewolves, wraiths, zombies, ridgebacks, wolves, bears, demonic myths. Weird West isn’t short of fantasy creatures you’ll need to shake down with a dynamite or three. Despite this being the opportunity for its weirdness to blossom however, it largely falls flat, like a corpse of the foul-mouthed Stillwater I shotgunned after he barged into me. So rude.
See Weird West never really explains any of the lore or reasoning for why there’s suddenly zombies or a wraith that’s cut your travel short. There’s no explanation as to why Wendigo exist in this universe. Everything just happens. Cause, you know… it’s weird. Problem is – it just isn’t that weird. We’ve had wild west zombies (Undead Nightmare anyone?), we’ve had werewolves cross media. There’s nothing actually unique or surprising anywhere in this western landscape despite it’s claims to be full of whimsical mystery.
Don’t get me wrong, having these different fantastical creatures to plaster with old-school lead ain’t a problem, it’s just an experience I’d seen many, many times before.
Having said that, one element Weird West gets mostly right is that embarking on a new character’s chapter allows you to travel to your old avatar and recruit them as a member of your posse. It creates a tidy feeling of progression as you pick up an old buddy, outfit them to deal some carnage and watch them tear apart opponents for you as if they never left.
The immersion is broken when you have them in your party stood right next to you, only for an NPC to reference them as though they’re dead/gone/not here despite staring them dead in the eye. But I guess coding for every eventuality would be a nightmare so it can be forgiven.
As you travel to different locations you can take on optional side-quests, hunt down bounty targets, be harassed by ambushes and come across random encounters. It’s fun for the first 5 hours or so but much of the side content is superfluous and the rewards soon become trivial, minimising the value of engaging them. Still, hunting down a particularly pertinent villain from a previous story chapter as an optional bounty is a treat. I do wish you wouldn’t have to buy a freaking horse every new character though, that got old fast.
A Stilted Spectacle
The art style for Weird West is based on a cool direction, but it lacks that oomph that truly sucks you in to the universe. When I first stumbled into Grackle and explored the usual landmarks of the saloon, blacksmith and bank, it enveloped a strong sense of identity. Powers are flashy and vibrant, while the explosion of deep red expanding over the sand as a dynamite ripped a gang apart had me sadistically appreciating the violence on display.
It’s undermined by the repetitive locations that rely on the same assets to fill out multiple locations of the same type. One town looks identical to another, so once you’ve frequented Grackle, every town will feel like a similar version, only with slight variation in building layout. Caves and caverns are as visually interesting as they’ve always been – meaning they aren’t. The lack of detail on characters and reused models also become noticeable far too quickly for a game that runs for upwards of 13 hours.
Weird West runs well on the whole, even when the action gets explosive and there’s multiple groups engaging in a giant shootout. There were moments when the framerate shuddered and I had a weird glitch were horses kept spawning over horses that were already there. I mean it may have been horse mating season but I doubt that was coded into the experience intentionally. I had an NPC not spawn correctly from what the quest told me on an occasion too (where art thou river lady?!) which was an annoyance.
Overall, Weird West performs well but lacks that spark or identity to really impress or blow you away. Much like everything else I’ve mentioned so far, it’s a reliable, leather-hardened rancher, perfect for a dependable, decent time but it just doesn’t have the allure or charisma of a Buster Scruggs to carry it’s western vision into something more memorable.
Dyin’ Ain’t Much Of A Livin’
Given the talent behind Weird West, I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t hoped for a bit more. Of course, this is purely subjective and based on my own expectations, but I couldn’t help but feel disappointed in the lack of depth across every facet of Weird West. From the by-the-numbers combat to the lackluster story agency, Weird West feels like more of an elongated prototype than the game that was probably envisioned from the onset.
Having said that, the world of Weird West has some intriguing elements to build on. If the combat mechanics can be deepened, the sandbox of systems expanded and the choose-your-own path nature developed, I reckon there’s a special little gem in the making. Weird West plays, looks and sounds fine. It has the aesthetic and the basic fundamentals accounted for, it just needs that extra spark of ingenuity to help it become more than just a decent twin-stick shooter with an egotistical self-image of being weird.
If you need a western action fix, you can certainly do worse. Be warned though, by the time you’ve seen the end of the second campaign, you’ll have seen all of the uniqueness there is to witness. Dragging out a 6 hour amount of content to 15 hours just doesn’t always work, despite the intention behind it.
Weird West sadly just isn’t as unique, strange or compelling as its setting and ideas suggest it should be. A decent twin-stick shooter with solid but repetitive combat, a limited sandbox and inconsequential decision making undermine the potential for an awesome gun slinging adventure. Sometimes, declaring yourself weird just ain’t enough, you’ve got to have the stones to commit to the best duels of the wild west.
Weird West is available now on PS4 (review platform), Xbox One and PC.
Developer: WolfEye Studios
Disclaimer: In order to complete this review, we were provided with a promotional copy of the game. For our full review policy, please go here.
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