The most fascinating aspect of Weird West’s design is how friendly the game is to my fuck-ups. Have you ever thought to yourself: “I would like to play a top-down Dishonored game, but as a western?” Say no more. Even if that’s not a thought you’ve ever had, you should consider it. Weird West, which came out today for PC, Xbox, and PS4, contains tantalizingly creepy worldbuilding, dynamic environment-based combat, and the most stylish art I’ve seen in recent memory.
Having played the first few hours, the writing in this dark frontier feels so specific, yet leaves enough secrets unspoken to keep me delving deeper. WolfEye Studios understands that a good horror story isn’t meant to repulse, but to draw the audience in. Despite its ambitious lore the game’s horrors are so perfectly intimate, and I can’t wait to lose countless further evenings trawling through its wilderness. Weird West has already made my shortlist for GotY.
Wild West is a top-down immersive sim inspired in part by Ultima VII and Ultima Underworld. Immersive sims are games–most famously Deus Ex–that use system-driven design to facilitate open-ended gameplay solutions. In other words, they take great care ensuring that their worlds and the objects within them behave realistically, which the player can then use to engage in creative problem-solving; in a well-made immersive sim, the detailed, natural interactions that emerge can surprise even the designers. WolfEye Studios’ new game is unique in its shift away from first-person perspective, but it is nevertheless a responsive systems-driven game, a new branch on the family tree descending from Looking Glass, Ion Storm, then Arkane.
While the comic-based art style looks a lot like Borderlands, the environments of Weird West feel a lot more dynamic. The top-down perspective reinforces the feeling that enemies can get at you from anywhere. Even if you aren’t being pursued by anyone, the game occasionally besieges you with random hazards like dust tornadoes. You’re not even safe while exploring its world map, where you’re constantly harassed by belligerent outlaws, hungry wildlife, or gruesome monsters. These encounters are often so unanticipated that I’ve been glad to simply survive them.
My gratitude after one ambush was short-lived, as the game “rewarded” me for not killing everyone off immediately by revealing that the surviving gang member held a grudge, and would ambush me later.
Weird West also immerses you in realism by assigning expiration dates onto quests. So when I planned trips, I had to balance the risk of running out of supplies versus the reward of making the early deadline on a bounty. Sure, I could restore my health by sleeping in a bed, but then I would be off-schedule by eight hours. Or if I took the easy way out of a quest, my reputation could take a hit for unscrupulous behavior, and life-saving supplies would cost more as a result. Consequences? In my video game? It’s more likely than you think.
Every map I’ve come across is uniquely and beautifully designed. It’s both delightful and frustrating to be unable to anticipate where the enemies or loot are tucked away. It meant that I had to carefully observe my surroundings instead of relying on my gaming instincts. The game rewards you for paying attention, and punishes you for bumbling in with guns drawn.
Weird West looks like an isometric RPG, but is an immersive sim at its core. While I scrambled around each map for cover, I was constantly keeping an eye out for any edible cacti or flammable gaslights I could shoot. Health-restoring water barrels would refill during random rainfall, and constantly being aware of these ever-shifting factors could be the difference between clearing a map or wiping out.
My one small mercy was that the enemy AI was not very smart. While I could forgive them for having fairly predictable routines, enemies would occasionally run into flaming hazards, or get stuck in a doorway. Gunning them down felt a lot less satisfying as a result. Unfortunately, my companions were also similarly unintelligent: if I dashed across maps too quickly, then they would be left behind. Sometimes, they would simply stand in open spaces while enemies shot at them.
However, my main complaint is that the game never supplied enough bullets for me to justify using any special firearm abilities. Ammo scarcity is a realistic worldbuilding touch, but also somewhat annoying. Sure, I could empty an entire chamber to use one of my pistol abilities, but that would mean leaving myself exposed for the next surprise encounter. Sniping enemies from stealth was much less costly. The bullet economy inadvertently made me play conservatively in a genre known for gameplay experimentation.
Despite the constraints on gun abilities, this action-RPG allows for relatively flexible playstyles. Whether you want to stealth-assassinate your enemies, run and gun, or snipe oil barrels from afar, Weird West will accommodate you. Perhaps owing to the perspective, the game doesn’t have the same amount of environmental responsiveness compared to Dishonored, but the inspiration is clearly there.
This is a game that is not shy about punishing me, but we hugged it out afterward. I’m a player who reloads a lot for consequence-heavy games. In this game, I’ve only had to do that when I died. Your companions may die during shootouts, but the systems-driven nature of party-building made me feel reassured that I’d always find new friends along the way. I found this a much healthier approach than you see in a lot of other companion-based games, where allowing a companion to die is framed as a player flaw. I was also surprised to learn that locations regenerate their populations over time. Even after you’ve slaughtered one enemy faction in town, a new one will eventually move in. It’s a simple yet clever way to resolve the common game problem of settings feeling empty and boring after a player slaughters everyone.
Despite the AI hiccups, the early hours of Weird West feel like a momentous achievement in the immersive sims genre. There’s no shortage of scripted story content, but the gameplay systems also tell a uniquely generated story that feels incredibly personal. Weird West is a game that I can see myself replaying for years to come.