Hard West 2 Preview: There's Ghosts in Them Thar Hills
“It’s probably not a real ghost train,” Hard West 2 protagonist Gin Carter tells his posse as they head out to rob a federal locomotive nicknamed The Ghost Train. It’s the kind of foreshadowing that tells you the train will, in fact, be haunted and probably by something more terrible than just your average ghost. The premonition bears fruit, as the gang winds up facing a hellish opponent and unleashing chaos on the world, with Carter losing his own soul in the process.
I spent a few hours with Hard West 2's preview build, and while developer Ice Code isn’t reinventing the steam engine with the sequel’s clever turn-based tactics, Hard West 2 is, so far, proof that innovation isn't always necessary.
Carter’s journey opens with a tutorial that sees you board the Ghost Train and learn the basics. Like its predecessor, Hard West 2 is essentially “what if XCOM, but wild west occult.” Each party member has a pool of action points you can spend by moving or using skills, and the Bravado system replenishes your points if you manage to defeat an enemy with a skill.
It’s easy to underestimate just how influential Bravado is, but with the right planning and a bit of luck – more on that in a moment – you can take calculated risks and still retreat to cover, potentially turning the tide of battle. Or you could doom your posse if you make the wrong moves, which I totally never did at all (except in every mission). On the bright side, death is temporary for your party. You may have to restart a mission, but you won’t permanently lose a key member of the gang.
It’s a testament to the quality of Hard West 2’s level design that using Bravado never feels like you’re cheesing the game. Other squad-based strategy games invite you to break them with overpowered builds or exploiting the environment for cover, but Hard West 2 built Bravado into its challenges.
Enemy placement, reinforcements, and your posse’s fragile mortality mean you’re always just one step away from defeat even when you’re using every tool available. I could see this potentially becoming a frustration further on if later stages require precise solutions over free strategizing, but for now, I appreciate the balanced difficulty.
Hard West 2’s luck mechanic adds another smart layer to your tactical considerations. You’ll earn Luck for certain actions, which you can expend during your next turn to buff your combat abilities. The most common use in the early stages is increasing the likelihood of certain skills dealing extra damage or scoring critical hits, but I’m eager to see how Ice Code uses it once your party expands further.
Once the tutorial ends, and Gin loses his soul to the devil in the process, you’re free to explore a semi-open world and recruit other party members from a motley variety of human and undead outlaws. It still seems a bit early to say whether these random recruits can hold their own compared to the four lead characters, though, recruiting a team of zombies is fun just for the sake of it.
If you’re thinking “Yep, this all sounds like Hard West,” that’s true, which is a slight problem. So far, Hard West 2 isn’t doing a whole lot different from the first game. Your core team covers the usual melee, ranged, and power classes, and the environment is a crucial tool providing both cover and a way to bounce bullets back into your foes. Gin’s journey to recover his soul means the sequel has greater narrative potential than the original game, but again, it’s still far too early to say.
The prospect of meaningful stories for the rest of the party is rather less certain, though. Kestral Colt seems like your stereotypical gambling, womanizing cowboy, and Flynn, a young woman scorned by the church, has some kind of supernatural affinity that could make for an intriguing subplot.
Then there’s Laughing Deer, an unwelcome surprise in the form of your usual two-dimensional portrayal of Native Americans in media. He’s a fighter, possibly a sadist, who lives for combat and makes comments about being a true warrior. And it just… doesn’t need to be that way.
Hopefully, the rest of Hard West 2 justifies Laughing Deer's existence and builds on the biggest strengths in its opening hours. Familiar it may be, but innovation isn’t everything. There’s just as much value and fun in a solid game executed well.
[Note: Ice Code provided the copy of Hard West 2 used for this preview.]