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The RPG Files: Hard West - A Fun, Twisted Introduction to Tactical RPGs

Columns By Christopher Coke on December 04, 2015

Hard West - A Fun, Twisted Introduction to Tactical RPGs

Hard West makes for a great introduction to the world of tactical roleplaying games. You take on the role of Warren, a pioneer’s son whose family falls off the Oregon Trail. The family turns to prospecting to survive, but it’s clear from the severed limbs on the title screen that there’s more to the game than tumbleweeds and high noon shootouts. While not the deepest of its sort, Hard West hits the sweet spot between accessibility and enough complexity to keep you coming back to try new tactics.

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Don’t let the cliched name fool you. In fact, if I could marry words to art, I would inextricably tie this game’s title to the undead gunslinger currently gracing its cover art. Hard West carries the themes of its old west setting, but turns on a dime and becomes a tale of the occult and undead revenge. It’s not too much of a spoiler to say that this Warren meets a gruesome death, but isn’t content to stay that way, and rises again to punish his killers. 

Hard West is fairly twisted, even before the supernatural stuff kicks in. Warren has the ability to cannibalize his enemies for extra health and summon demonic powers, while he’s still a run of the mill prospector. This is Hard West’s way of showing you what’s in store before stripping all of your power away. It makes sense from a gameplay standpoint but, thematically, it was strange to see good-guy Warren kneel down and start tearing into the stomach of a downed enemy. It wasn’t until later, when I had discovered more about the game’s Boon Card system that it all came together.

For all of that beginning strangeness, the game’s atmosphere is just excellent. Hard West accomplished what few games ever could: it made me want to be a monster. This is a story of a good man on a bad run of luck (oddball cannibalism aside) where one terrible mistake turns his life upside down. Even with the minimalist storytelling and character building, the early scenarios did an excellent job of making me relate to Warren. If travesty had made me a monster, why not live up to it?

All of this feeds into the tactical heart of the game. You progress through the campaign in sectioned off scenarios, each telling a piece of the larger story by navigating an overworld map and visiting locations with Choose Your Own Adventure style decision making. Taking on a combat challenges pulls you into that location but with top-down view. Combat is turn-based. Every action, including movement, costs ability points. Thankfully, basics like taking cover are automatic. Weapons, a cowboy’s best friend, are mostly good for a single shot before ending your turn, so every action takes consideration.

Now, having never played a tactics game before, all of this is probably old hat to genre veterans, but I found it incredibly compelling. With no background whatsoever, I was able to jump in and learn the ropes quickly and easily and, before long, I found myself absolutely enamored with beating each encounter. These battles often felt like a game of chess, each player moving back and forth in and out of danger, trying to get the upper hand. The luck system made every turn even more tense, especially when I was low on health and one lucky shot could turn the entire tide of battle.

Weapons and equipment feature stats that affect your aim, damage, and health, and can be purchased from vendors or won through decisions in the overworld. And while, yes, you do want to wear gear, switching it out rarely felt helpful. This is in no small part due to the lack of feedback in-match. Did that extra Aim really make a difference? Your guess is as good as mine. This is not an across the board problem, however, as others -- luck and health -- are clear as day. 

By far, weapon damage is the most important stat in the game. Since you can position yourself for better accuracy, a big, accurate gun provides the clearest advantage. However, reducing weapons so strangles any depth that could have been. Usually, my pre-match gearing strategy came down to equipping the best +defense or +damage item I had, stocking up on health elixirs, and making sure my weapon was still the most powerful available. That’s shallow when gearing is the staple RPG element in this admittedly light-RPG hybrid.

The Boon Card system tries to make up for this by providing an array of interesting, often supernatural, abilities. Cannibalizing dead bodies to regain health is a boon card, for example. Another lets you trade health with an enemy. You can carry a limited number into battle, but even though they’re fun, they felt a little overpowered. I cannibalized the same corpse six or seven times in one match, just to keep my health topped off.

For the most part, the AI works well, but occasionally falls into jank. Usually, enemies are good about getting themselves into cover and changing pace to take an advantageous shot. Other times, they simply don’t know what to do if you’re in tricky cover. Even bosses ping pong between positions or simply skip their turns in cases like this. It’s not hard to do, if you try, and reduces the encounter to a shallow game of plink-away. Another card lets you regen health anytime you’re in darkness. In these cases, you can simply hide it out and return to full health. While I hope these issues get fixed in future updates, it’s certainly possible to simply move and return to playing the game fairly.

What is unlikely to be fixed, however, is just how lightweight the roleplaying systems are. Visiting locations to prospect for gold or have a chat with some natives is nice but inconsequential. With the gear and weapons issues, the entire “RPG” side of Hard West feels like popcorn.

In the end, I found myself staying up late for strategy not story. That’s the heart of Hard West. It’s not the richest game out there, but it is a great entry point for players new to tactical RPGs. When I finished the game, instead of going to bed, I immediately turned to Steam to find more of what Hard West had to offer. If that’s not a sign of success, I don’t know what is.


Visuals and Sound: 7 Hard West isn’t the prettiest game around but it sells itself well with great atmosphere and soundwork.

Polish: 8 The game runs well and gameplay feels polished, but the odd way it kicks you back to the menu after each scenario feels unfinished.

Longevity: 7 The limited equipment choices and the less-than-meaningful gameplay decisions make repeat plays shallower than they should be.

Gameplay: 7 It’s great fun learning each encounter and trying new tactics with Boon Cards but there is still bugs and issues that need to be ironed out.

Value: 8 For $19.99 on Steam, Hard West provides a substantial amount of gameplay with just enough replayability to earn its keep.


Final Score: 7.4


Pros:

  • Great entry point for tactics newcomers
  • Brooding atmosphere

Cons:

  • Some bugs
  • Balance issues persist
Christopher Coke / Chris has been a fan of MMOs since the mid-1990s when he cut his teeth on MUDs. These days he scours the internet for the latest and greatest multiplayer gaming experiences.