A kickstarter from a small developer aiming to make something big and ambitious? These are words that usually spell doom. However in the case of CreativeForge Games and their Hard West kickstarter they need not apply.

I haven't backed the game but I did keep an eye on it during development and its impressive how much it improved over time. The first gameplay videos I've seen many months ago looked... uninspiring to say the least. But today, after a lot of patches and many changes it has become a whole new game, one that took the XCOM gameplay formula, melded it with a western influence and a dash of the supernatural, and created something unique out of it.

Its just unfortunate that more people don't know about it, so in an effort to combat that here's my review of Hard West:

The first thing you will notice if you watch any gameplay video is that the movement and shooting mechanics are very similar to those of the XCOM series. One major difference is that your party in Hard West is usually made up of 3 people. When you have so few members it becomes very important keeping them safe because if one goes down in a fight you've just lost a third of your firepower, and that isn't easy to stomach with how tough some of the missions can get.

Hard West's big selling point is that these missions are hand crafted in order to provide players with interesting and diverse scenarios to deal with throughout the game's campaign mode. As a result they are short, fun and challenging which is great but given their pre-built nature replayability isn't as high as you might expect from this type of game. 

Another differing factor is that there are no dice rolls involved in combat whatsoever. Instead it is based around your positioning as well as your luck, an all-important stat in used for offense, defense and abilities. How it works is that your chance to hit an enemy depends on their luck. If your hit chance is lower than their luck your attack will miss and they will lose luck. The same goes in reverse, if you get hit your luck will go up making you more likely to resist the next bullet.

The enemy missing and the targeted character's luck going down (the green symbol)

Its a strange system and a bit awkward to explain but it ends up working out well because it encourages aggressive play and constant action. Even if you're guaranteed to miss an enemy its worth it just to lower their luck so unlike XCOM no shot is wasted. But despite being outnumbered fairly often in Hard West you don't need luck (the real life kind) to get you out of scraps, the game has a few ways to help you even the odds.

One of them is the rudimentary stealth system. In some missions your enemies won't be expecting an attack so you can use that opportunity to sneak around and subdue as many of them as possible before things get loud. While stealth in Hard West is useful, and practically mandatory in some missions, its also a bit silly. You can be standing in the middle of a street with no cower around you but since you're X squares away from the enemy patrol they won't notice you. It feels like stealth needed a bit more development in order to make it a fully fledged part of the game, but as it stands its a nice side-feature that helps the gameplay stay fresh.

Your other great equalizer are abilities and various mystic effects. Each character has their own set of skills that complement their playstyle and are generally fun to use, especially Ricochet that allows you to bounce a shot off objects and straight in to an enemy's face in a cheesy nod to the "superpowers" some western characters tend to have. Though be warned, using one of these spends your precious luck so you might leave yourself defenseless if you're not careful.

Hold my flask partner, I got this shot

Mystical abilities and effects in Hard West come from playing cards, a rather nifty way of handling individual customization. Before a mission you will be able to give your characters between 3 and 5 cards (depending on how many slots they have available) which give good benefits on their own but when combined in a set offer much more powerful effects. For example equipping a couple of shadow cards will not only allow you to regenerate health while out of direct sunlight, it will also make you invisible to enemies, and that's one of the tamer ones.

While these things are fun to play around with they tend to destroy the game's balance once you figure out what the overpowered combinations are. So if you're going to play Hard West I'd suggest you exercise some restraint in order to keep the later missions exciting.

The story is a bit strange but the gravely voiced narrator helps build a rather ominous atmosphere throughout it. Personally the western theme gets mixed in too quickly with supernatural elements but other than that it kept me constantly interested in what will happen next. I just wish there were more explanations for the various events that occur. Hard West sometimes brushes things off far too easily with a just a couple of sentences.

Lalalala, don't mind me or my big gun, I'll just "sneak" over here

The same goes for the story take takes place on the overworld map. It has some great character building moments and really helps maintain the whole "what on Earth is happening here, am I insane?" sort of atmosphere but, again, it tends to skimp out on the details so I was frequently left unsatisfied and looking for more.

Perhaps unsatisfied is the best way to explain how I feel about the whole map system. It serves as a place for you to to buy new gear, get companions, learn more about the general story or just the location you're visiting and obviously to start missions. My problem with it is that nothing seems to change, its just a fancy level select screen. You won't find a town sacked if you take too long to help them or anything like that which just detracts from the game's otherwise gloomy feel.

Graphically it definitely has that "made in Unity" vibe around it but I'm probably not the best guy around to give criticism on that given that I rather like the look. People complained about Wasteland 2's graphics but low textures aside I thought they fit the game well and I'd say the same applies here.

Verdict

Hard West is a bit rough around the edges but its still a great blend of turn based strategy and lite RPG elements that make it stand out from other games in the genre (*cough* XCOM *cough*). The hand made missions along with how the combat system works help keep the story campaign fast paced and interesting throughout. Abilities and Card effects are definitely the highlight of Hard West but they are also its most vulnerable point, its far too easy to completely break the game's difficulty and ruin any strategy that might be involved in combat.

On the story front the narrator was an excellent choice and through him you will most likely get really interested in the world and what awaits you next. The only problem is that sometimes what awaits you is sparse details and a quick move to the next storyline. Despite the issues I can still say that I enjoyed my experienced with Hard West and with the low price point I have no regrets about getting it or recommending it to anyone that might be interested in a different take on what has become the "XCOM formula".

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