Hard West 2 Review: Supernatural Strategy at Its Finest
It's a hard life being a cowboy. It's even harder when someone's stolen your soul, but such is the burden that falls upon Gin Carter and his cursed crew of social outcasts in Hard West 2.
Hard West 2 picks up where we started in our preview, as Gin and the gang raid a ghost train in a bid to find hidden treasure. What they end up with is a hellish curse and a fight to save their souls after getting tangled up with an unspeakable evil after the "treasure" turns out to be something of an eldritch horror that steals your soul in a card game. Y'know, the usual robbery-gone-wrong types of things.
The result is a thrilling tactics experience that, despite a few shortcomings in combat design and character development, is up there among the greats of the genre.
Hard West 2 Review: Supernatural Strategy at Its Finest
The ghost train raid is a strong setup, but Hard West 2 isn't really interested in either Wild West drama or supernatural horror outside of using it as a framework – and for the most part, that's fine. The opportunity to turn this into a narrative-rich tactics game was definitely there. Still, what Hard West 2 misses in deep or interesting narrative development, it makes up for in tone and atmosphere.
The setting may just be window dressing, but it's very effective window dressing.
Gin's core posse includes Flynn, the master of stealth, and Laughing Deer, who's still a Native American caricature that really didn't have to be, though you gradually recruit more fighters as the story progresses. One of Hard West 2's big draws is supposed to be balancing your crew's loyalty by making tough but fair decisions at critical points. Build enough loyalty with one member, and they learn new skills, but if you get on their bad side, they might leave.
It's a familiar system. Tactics-style games from Final Fantasy Tactics to Surviving the Aftermath include similar layers of strategy centered around the same concept, making difficult choices to keep your merry band of outlaws together.
Hard West 2 wants to distinguish itself by making these choices more character-driven, but the characters just don't have enough depth or development to make it work. It's a bit shallow as a result and seems like a missed opportunity, though it's in keeping with the general approach to plot and character development.
And that's fine, really. Unless you're Valkyria Chronicles, you can skate by with underdeveloped characters and a plot that's mostly fluff. What matters in a squad-based tactics game is, well, the tactics, and Hard West 2 delivers mightily on that front.
I was pretty thrilled with Hard West 2's take on tactics back during our Hard West 2 preview (linked at the top of the review), and it just gets better from there — even as combat basics stay largely the same. Like other squad-based games, you control a team of characters with unique abilities, utilizing cover and gradually creeping forward to take out the enemy forces. Hard West 2 features a ricochet system that adds a clever new dimension to planning your moves.
Is it better to break cover and use a powerful skill or stick to the safe route and bounce a well-placed shot off the wall (don't ask, it just works) to take out a single foe? Usually, the latter is the best choice, not that it kept me from trying the flashy route from time to time. What's the afterlife without a bit of risk?
Hard West 2's maps are brilliant, for the most part. While most of them don't reach quite the same exciting heights as the train tutorial, the general layout and what they demand more than make up for the relatively bland design.
Imagine maps from Desperados or Shadow Tactics but turn-based instead. You can't avoid enemies forever, so obstacles and cover are more than just convenient ways to avoid being spotted. They're actual lifesavers and vital tools for clearing each challenge.
Each character has limited action points to spend on movement, normal attacks, and skills. If you're not careful, it's easy to wind up trapped and overwhelmed after making a few unwise choices. Thankfully, despite seeming merciless, Hard West 2 has a few features to help maintain balance. The Bravado system allows you to act again under certain circumstances once your Bravado meter maxes out and any character who dies in battle is revived in the next encounter.
Tactics games obviously make you calculate every move carefully. That's inherent in the genre's DNA. But Hard West 2's cover and ricochet systems, limited character actions in each turn, and more make every victory feel genuinely earned.
The only downside is that the design often strays into Valkyria Chronicles territory. The maps often feel purpose-built to encourage one specific strategy — maybe two — more like a puzzle than anything else. It's not a bad thing. Figuring out the right solution is satisfying in most cases, but with the depth of combat and the possibilities it presents, I'd have appreciated a bit more freedom and room for experimentation. It's still excellent, but I hope Hard West 3 just goes all out and lets you create absolute chaos on the battlefield.
Hard West 2 Review — The Bottom Line
- Excellent map design.
- Clever and demanding combat.
- Unique atmosphere.
- Underdeveloped story and characters.
- Not enough room for experimentation.
2022 is unexpectedly shaping up to be the year of the tactics game. Despite enjoying the preview, I didn't expect Hard West 2 to grab me quite as much as Triangle Strategy or the likes of Tactics Ogre, which is itself getting a remake later this year. However, if you're a fan of strategy at all, it absolutely deserves your attention.
[Note: Good Shepherd Entertainment provided the copy of Hard West 2 used for this review.]