Weird West Review: Forging a Path Through an Arcane World
Weird West opens with a brutal murder and kidnapping, leaving a former bounty hunter to bury her son and set out on a quest to find her husband before it's too late. The local criminal gang, the Stillwaters, have been wreaking havoc all over the map with abandon.
They aren't doing it on their own, though. Hired by the monstrous sirens, whose preferred diet is people, the Stillwaters are making a profit selling humans instead of cattle. Thus begins your journey in Weird West.
Weird West Review: Forging a Path Through an Arcane World
Over the course of the next 20-30 hours, Weird West puts you in the boots of five different and surprisingly complex characters. The bounty hunter is the most traditional, letting you learn the ropes of Weird West's in-depth mechanics. Characters like the cursed Pigman and werewolf lean heavily into supernatural horror elements. And there's the Protector, a member of the Lost Fire Nation seeking the evil Windig, as well as the Oneirist, a cultist whose magic powers can ravage the landscape.
Taking after the recent Wasteland revamps, Weird West has an overall world map with specific explorable locations on it. Traveling from place to place is done here, instead of fully exploring an open world. Travel takes real game time and can be interrupted by a host of encounters. You might run into a pack of ravenous coyotes or living dead corpses, or a group of traveling merchants.
Weird West's developer, WolfEye Studios, was founded by two key veterans from Arkane Studios, makers of Dishonored (among other gems). Arkane's fascination with making games that adjust to your actions is on full display with Weird West. This is definitely on a smaller scale, with its old-school isometric viewpoint, but it's still obsessed with how players affect the world, story, and characters.
Such fluid mechanics have always been a risky proposition. The more open-ended choices AI behaviors have, the more prone the overall game is to glitches and outright breaking. In the case of Weird West, there is certainly some strange, glitchy behavior here and there, but the exact nature of those cause-and-effect relationships tends to be very obtuse.
You can, for instance, kill anyone, anywhere, anytime. Horrible monsters, innocent townsfolk, sheriffs, thugs, shopkeepers, even characters that are actually key to the overall plot. In chaotic combat situations, it's far too easy to accidentally kill a key NPC (or just a normal civilian) and not even know until it's too late.
How you act (be it saving people, killing outlaws, murdering civilians, stealing, etc.) affects your reputation, and each location will change in some way based on how you behave there. The worse (or better) your reputation, the wider it will spread. So, you can truly play with a variety of moral and ethical natures. These actions also affect all the other character storylines.
In addition to moral flexibility, the physical world is ripe with opportunities for creative problem solving and experimentation. Weird West plays heavily with elemental effects. Flammable substances like oil-filled barrels can be leaked and set on fire. Water can be used to help give electrical attacks more oomph. Dropping things on enemies (or just dropping on them) or causing large things to run them over offer fun environmental kills.
Stealth elements abound, from sneaking and silent attacks to outright invisibility and teleportation. For the more aggressive, there are plenty of heavy-duty offensive attacks, ranging from a vast store of firearms and explosives to magic capable of doling out death in a wide radius.
You can even hire more guns to travel with you and help even the odds. Rescue someone and they'll remember, potentially even coming to your aid in combat. Conversely, opponents will flee from the map with a grudge and seek revenge later on. This is an RPG with deep mechanics that allow for a buffet of different (and frequently random) things to happen.
Playing on both the PC and Xbox Series X, it almost feels as if Weird West started off as a hardcore, very-PC style RPG that turned more console-focused somewhere along the way.
The controls and pacing of combat feel at odds with the role-playing and tactical elements. There are cool action tropes, like slow motion evasive dives while firing back, and a rainbow of spells, special moves, and perks that can be tied to hotkeys. But aiming feels loose and clumsy, especially when fighting off multiple enemies, and melee combat proves stale and cumbersome.
There's a lot of fun in combining spells, firearms, environmental elements, and traversal in this isometric world. It just feels in need of a bit more polish and nuance. It desperately misses a tactical pause function to make things more turn-based, where actions could be planned with precision and style. All the deep role-playing elements are already here but hampered by lackluster action-based controls.
The camera doesn't help with control issues either. Walls become partially transparent as you move inside a building, but the view of your surroundings is frequently obstructed by camera reactions. Fighting inside or simply near a structure can be a confusing chore that blocks out enemies (or your character) at certain angles and distances.
Another important element is time. Time passes constantly, especially during travel, and many of the quests are time-based. Unlike most open-world games where the entire world revolves around the player, here you can absolutely fail objectives simply because you were too busy with other side quests. Weird West is one of the few games in recent years where remembering to manually quick save is imperative.
The dialogue, overall writing, and actual story told here are excellent, and this take on the old west looks quite good, with an impressive range of locations and characters. WolfEye went out of their way to make sure they didn't recycle rote genre cliches. They also deserve recognition for actually seeking out an indigenous writer and academic to create and write their fictitious Fire Nation tribe.
Weird West Review — The Bottom Line
- Interesting characters, quality writing, and an excellent, well-realized world with wonderfully dark supernatural and horror elements.
- Fantastic range of user options for personalized play, which changes how the game responds to each player.
- Great array of combat choices, mixing magic, firearms, and environmental elements in a frequently brutal slurry.
- Control-pad-focused action controls feel very at odds with the deeper, tactical nature of the underlying RPG mechanics.
- Iffy camera can make combat particularly difficult in and around buildings.
- Desperately needs some kind of turn-based option.
Weird West isn't a perfect game, but it has so many fascinating elements that it's definitely worth playing for fans of classic isometric-style RPGs. It would have been nice to see it lean more into those PC gaming roots with its control and user interface, but the world itself, from the characters to the physics and the chemistry, is great.
[Note: WolfEye Studios provided the copy of Weird West used for this review.]