There’s a lot happening in the Old West lately. I barely hung up my dirty duster after riding with Weird West when I got called to arms again. Reluctantly, I answered Ice Code’s call for aid, not really knowing much about the job they had reserved for me. “Quick and easy, in and out. You’ll be back to the missus before the whiskey kicks in”, said no one ever. Because Hard West 2 isn’t quick and easy. It isn’t in and out. And that whiskey… you’ll be needing its potency if you’re planning on getting your soul back from that cheating bastard Mammon.
Admittedly, I hadn’t really done my homework properly. I confess. This was my first rodeo, as some like to put it. Up until recently, I was a stranger in the town of Hard West. At first glance, Hard West 2 seemed like another one of those isometric shooters situated in an occult sand bucket. And since I’ve had a reasonably good time in the Weird West I took the job that Good Shepherd and Ice Code offered me. Because hey, why the stinkin’ hell not, right?
Well, first of all, we’re not dealing with Weird West anymore, buckaroo. The playing field might bare some resemblance, mixing the Western setting with the occult and all, but Hard West 2 taps from a different barrel altogether. Those familiar with tactical games like XCOM might have no problems adjusting to the playstyle offered by Ice Code, since Hard West 2 leans heavily on the ‘hunker down there, do your worst, and wait your turn’ principle. Honest to God, this was also unclaimed territory for me as a gamer. But hey, all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, am I right? So I challenged myself to something new.
And let me tell you, I’m actually glad that I did it. It wasn’t the smoothest of rides though, like riding a steed with one horseshoe missing, but a decent one to say the least. Then again, when losing your soul to the devil after a train robbery gone south (in the West), you gotta make the best out of a bad situation. Because that’s exactly what happened to Gin Carter and his robbin’ band of ragtag outlaws. Executing a hit on a running money train is hard enough as it is, but when you decide to clear out the infamous Ghost Train, that’s asking for it. But hey, ghosts aren’t real and souls aren’t either. Right, Gin? Partner… if only you knew what kind of hand life was going to deal you.
That’s right. Gin finds out the hard way that an obvious win can swiftly turn into a devastating loss. And that same lesson is being taught in every possible encounter in Hard West 2. Because it’s really good at punishing the unbelievers, the unobservant, and the rash. You might think that you have the upper hand often, but looks can be deceiving. Death lurks everywhere and once you cross its gaze, bravado is all that stands between you and your tombstone in this god-forsaken American Frontier. Literally.
Because Bravado is the one thing that sets apart Hard West 2 from – let’s say – XCOM. While the main goal of Hard West 2 will always be to stick together, keep it tactical, and think your actions through, taking huge risks might often result in big rewards. Bravado is one of those rewards, granting the player a reset of the Action Points spent, of which every member of your four-man team gets 3 each turn. Land a fatal shot (or blow) and Bravado kicks in, opening up extra opportunities to level out the playing field. So it’s the chance of earning Bravado that entices players to push their luck and be aggressive instead of methodical and defensive.
But luck will only get you so far unless you play your cards right. Also, literally. Because a good hand in poker will not only make you a wealthy man. In the Hard West, it might also make you a living one. Apart from swappable guns and items that boost your stats or heal you in dire need, playing cards are a quintessential thing in Hard West 2. Whether earned in combat or picked off of a crucified corpse along the road, playing cards serve as interchangeable stat enhancers. A single card might boost one’s max health a tad, make them slightly faster, or increase their luck just a tiny bit. But deal one of your characters a solid hand and you might just get the sweet taste of its advantages.
What these advantages are and how they might save your ass… that’s for you to figure out as your quest for soul-redemption progresses. Because even though the quick synopsis above might make it sound easy, trust me when I say that it isn’t. It might seem that way in the beginning, but Hard West 2 can make some hard turns. And while many of those hard turns are planned by Ice Code, others are probably not. Getting heavily outnumbered and limited in the number of turns, or being tasked with making everyone survive while enemies literally suck the life out of you are some of the planned ones. Getting screwed over by the camera probably isn’t.
To be brutally honest, the camera might well be the worst enemy you’ll encounter in Hard West 2. I can deal with wendigos and blood-leeching natives… if the camera would let me see them. With most battlegrounds having multiple levels of altitude, Hard West 2 will have you scrolling up and down them a lot. Trust me, that’s a lesson learned the hard way. Rushing into a courtyard without scoping out what some top floors might harbor is a death sentence. And that’s perfectly fine if the camera would always cooperate, which it doesn’t.
At some point, getting gunned down by an enemy that had a clear shot at me while I couldn’t even see him became one of those things I just had to deal with. Most of the time I managed to do that. But believe me when I say that going back to an old save is something that I wish I wouldn’t have to resort to. So, I guess I should thank Ice Code for quick saving often. Because without those quick saves, Hard West 2 would have been a Harder West, too.
Then again, that might actually be my biggest gripe with the game. Some might argue that the lack of full dialogue is a shame. Or that bonding process with your squad members by choosing one’s approach over somebody else’s during dialogues – earning you their loyalty – might feel like filler since they won’t actually leave you no matter what you choose. Hell, some might even say that ricochetting bullets off of multiple items to hit an enemy behind cover is impossible. But to those people: How much of Hard West 2’s entire premise makes sense to you? I mean, a girl switching bodies by cutting her hand and a corpse named Bill are part of your team. Does that sound like your average road trip to you? Yeah… thought so.
If you’re willing to accept those inconveniences and eager to work your way around them. Hard West 2 might just land a critical hit with you. If you can look through the fog of poor camera angles, there’s actually plenty to find that might draw you in. I mean, likable characters, tons of shoot-outs, and some weird occult shit on the side… Hard West 2 sure has plenty of spirit. No pun intended. So if you’re the type of outlawing gunslinger that doesn’t shy back from tough challenges – or doesn’t mind quick loading from time to time because things didn’t pan out all that well – head on over to the nearest saloon and ask for a shot of Hard West 2. And tell the bartender to leave the bottle. You might need some of the good stuff later…