West of Dead Review: Pain and Agony in the Afterlife
West of Dead is big on death, especially the player’s. For some, that will be a positive attribute. Those being the Dark Souls-loving contingent that doesn’t mind repetition and slow advancement through a brutally unforgiving landscape. The procedurally generated, roguelike levels that await every new run mean that players can never get too comfortable with West of Dead, even if it always starts in the saloon.
This strange purgatory our ghostly gunslinger finds himself doomed to travel is full of lost souls and the damned. Few you’ll meet are friendly. Most are waiting to plug you full of holes, blow you to bits with TNT, or chew you up. The Old West never came across as friendly, but the dead version of it is downright sinister.
West of Dead Review: Brutality and the Newly Resurrected Gunman
Voiced by the pitch-perfect gravelly-toned Ron Perlman, our gunslinging protagonist, William Mason, is a stoic fellow. He’s a mystery man, just passing through. Through what is another enigma entirely, but it’s not hard for a man who lived by the gun to figure out. Someone or something wants him alive (in the relative sense) to play with, like a mouse in a very deadly maze.
Combat in West of Dead is an almost methodical cover-based affair. Enter a room with bad things, roll to the nearest cover, and target any enemy in sight. Zombies and more await. Some are armed with rifles, others just shamble forward to snack on you, and plenty more throw explosives your way. There are enemies, like a grotesque, engorged butcher who can kill you with one blow and annoying dog things that will follow you, and even bosses with devastating ends if you're not careful.
Oh, and that cover? It’s destructible, so when things get heated, you’ll need to move from cover to cover to survive.
Dodging is vital. A perfect dodge can save you from hot-leaded death, as you roll from cover to cover. Actual combat is handled in a familiar “twin-stick” manner. The left stick moves our gun-fighting friend, while the right aims. Shoulder buttons fire his guns and use his special weapons.
The game tends to set you up with a basic rifle and pistol to start. Hold the rifle button down and you’ll aim more precisely, delivering a death-packed wallop to your target. West of Dead is big on murderous variety, so there are a lot of other guns and secondary weapons to acquire as you progress.
Shotguns, better rifles and pistols, flare guns, ice guns, TNT, throwing knives, axes, there’s a lot of selection here, but most of it is entirely random. The same gun can also come in higher levels for more effective killing, but you can only carry two firearms at a time.
There are two secondary weapon slots that recharge after use, one health potion that can be used once during a level, and a space for a magic item that can increase your chances of survival. There are even upgrade stations where you can level up one of three abilities and a wandering salesman who offers new gear for cold iron.
Every enemy killed gives you more sin, which sounds bad, but is actually good. Between levels, you can trade-in your sin to a very enterprising witch for new weapons, items, and abilities.
Enemies tend to broadcast their attacks, giving you a split-second to respond. They’re dogged in their pursuit, but none too smart. Some can follow you into the hallways but have a hell of time navigating things like walls and other obstacles. Monsters just walking mindlessly against a wall became a frequent sight.
Light is also a factor. Dim lamps hang in darkness and if you can light them, they’ll not just brighten the room and reveal hidden enemies, but stun any enemies within range.
There’s a lot of great stuff here. The gorgeous look, so reminiscent of a Mike Mignola comic, is instantly appealing. The Ghost Rider-like design of the lead, the rough Old West look of his enemies, even the dark halls and endless rooms all look like a comic book come to life. The score is terrific, moody and evocative, and Ron Perlman’s voice to narrate the whole thing is just icing on the cake.
Even the story, so desperate not to reveal itself, is fascinating, which is part of the problem. For a game clearly invested in its narrative, it makes it so damn hard to see most of it because of all the death.
Dying in West of Dead is of the perma-death variety. The only thing that carries forward from one run to the next is the witch’s sin-based inventory. So, if you were halfway through upgrading a new health potion flask, those points will still be there.
Everything else, though? Gone. Given how easily death comes, especially for the first several hours, this system gets old really fast. There are a lot of little annoyances that make it more frustrating, like the way it gives you the same tutorial messages when you pick up the same starter guns for the umpteenth time.
If you’re just a little too in a hurry, it’s easy to get stuck on walls or accidentally slide over cover or somehow be just a hair-width away from being against cover and not noticing until it’s too late.
While most of the weapons have a very satisfying kick to them, the shotguns are sadly disappointing. Their range is so limited, they’re only useful point-blank, which despite what video games insist on saying, is simply not realistic (or helpful).
The camera, uncontrollable by the player, and the way the game makes walls disappear and reappear can make it a nightmare to find an opening—especially if you’re doing a tactical retreat. Sometimes, you just can’t see where the doorway is.
Since the game randomly creates a new map every time you restart, there are weird inconsistencies between layouts. Sometimes, the maps work in your favor with a smaller footprint, with easy-to-find upgrade stations and much better weapons to discover. Other times, you’re forced to trudge through room after room of bad things, your health getting whittled down, to find anything of use.
West of Dead Review—The Bottom Line
- Beautifully macabre, comic book-style art and a great soundtrack
- Stylish, intelligent combat
- Good for those in search of an uncompromising challenge
- Perma-death with little progression saves is incredible frustrating
- Enemy AI has remarkably sketchy pathfinding and little in the way of strategic behavior
- Camera issues
As mentioned at the start, some players will dig this slow progression, watching their skills improve a bit each time. Others will hate the frustration of sudden death, loss of their load-out and upgrades, and the general overt repetition of it all.
West of Dead isn’t good at compromise. There are no options to soften it up so you aren’t stuck wandering through the same few rooms shooting the same enemies over and over and over.
There’s a great game in here somewhere, complemented by a fascinating world, but roguelike and narrative-heavy seldom go well together. West of Dead might reward players who put the hours in, despite the achingly slow progress, restarts, and frustration, but the severe unforgiving nature and difficulty level of the game will likely be off-putting for many of us.
A mixed bag of a game, there’s plenty to like here wrapped around a repetitive and needlessly brutal shell. West of Dead is a game that makes players work to enjoy it. Yet when it all comes together, the gameplay works like a beautiful choreography of death.
[Note: A copy of West of Dead was provided by Raw Fury for the purpose of this review.]