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RPG Codex Review: Hard West

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RPG Codex Review: Hard West

Review - posted by Crooked Bee on Sat 26 December 2015, 18:39:47

Tags: CreativeForge Games; Hard West

[Review by Ludo Lense]

Note: Some images in this review have been overlayed with black boxes to hide spoilers.


“The Old West was a hard place. The only thing in abundance was poverty. And firearms.”

People around these parts tend to cautiously flock around any title that has hints of being an RPG that isn't medieval fantasy-inspired, with bonus points awarded if it's not sci-fi either.

In this case, we have an occult Western-themed tactical game with some RPG elements, that has received plenty of good will in the form of $100,000 of Kickstarter funding and endorsements from the likes of John Romero, Chris Avellone and Brian Fargo. But before Hard West, the Poland-based CreativeForge Games only had a subpar sci-fi strategy game to their name, even if their studio is made up of developers who worked on Call of Juarez and Dead Island.

Let us see if they managed to shoot straight with this rather interesting project.

Hard West takes place in a “Weird West” setting, and those who are familiar with the Deadlands pen-and-paper RPG will spot a lot of similarities. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if the project was a Deadlands pitch in its nascent stage. Roaming gunslingers, decrepit frontier towns, devilish cultists and mad scientists all dot this grim but colorful wasteland.

The game is made up of eight scenarios, each one about 2-3 hours long and with its own characters and its own specific goals, such as finding a legendary treasure or taking revenge on a band of murderers. Gameplay can be broken down into two main components - the tactical combat scenarios, which sometimes include a stealth preamble, and CYOA segments that are contextualized via a world map. The game alternates between these two modes, with each scenario containing around 4-6 combat maps.

To be clear, Hard West isn’t X-Com or Jagged Alliance. Each scenario is a self-contained mini-campaign with its own specific characters that form a posse, and they don’t carry over after the last mission, so you start from scratch with every scenario. It also doesn’t have the replayability of those games, something which would be impossible given the structure of its content. The focus of the game is on tactical set pieces, with some random elements when it comes to customization.

The game offers Easy, Medium and Hard difficulty levels for each scenario, and I am sure that many people will be quite happy to hear that Hard West lives up to its name. The game is quite challenging - even veterans of the genre will likely die a few times on Medium. That doesn’t mean it's some grueling trial or a hardcore experience - the best way to describe it would be that it doesn’t hold your hand and it doesn’t insult your intelligence.

In terms of difficulty: Easy is move and shoot; Medium punishes bad positioning; and Hard requires you to also use your items and abilities. It should be noted that the difficulty setting doesn’t just affect stats but also enemy spawn locations and numbers, so some thought went into this beyond just moving numbers around.

Beyond difficulty, there are two additional modifiers that can be applied to each scenario. If you enable the Combat Injuries modifier, taking large amounts of damage will inflict negative status effects on your characters. These injuries will eventually turn into scars, which reduce the status effects' debuffs while also providing buffs. The problem here is that every scenario has a doctor available who will heal you for cash. Thus the mechanic falls kind of flat, since you need to actively decide to keep injuries on your characters, and given that the scenarios are pretty short there's really no point in doing so beyond just wanting to see what happens.

If you enable the Ironman modifier, you can't retry missions and will need to restart the scenario if you fail at one. Unfortunately, it has a massive problem - while Ironman works in games like X-Com that feature disposable troops, Hard West has plot-vital characters that immediately fail the mission if killed, and given that most of the game's characters are vital, that destroys the appeal of this mode. One shot is all it takes to end the session, which doesn’t fit with the Ironman mentality of trying to deal with losses.

“The West would drown in blood.”

Combat in Hard West takes places on square-shaped maps, which typically contain all sorts of structures that offer either full or partial cover to characters. Elevation plays a role, with almost all maps featuring multi-story buildings. The player and AI squads take turns, during which their respective characters each have two action points to use for moving, shooting, special abilities or reloading, the rule being that attacking immediately ends the shooter’s turn. Each character has the following attributes: Health, Luck, Aim, Defense, Movement, and Sight, plus two guns that can be swapped at will and which have their own stats, namely Heat, Ammo, Range and Damage.

Probably more than a few people will notice at this point that the above description sounds very similar to Firaxis Games’ XCOM, one of the more successful turn-based tactical games of recent years, but one with its own fair share of detractors among the oldschool crowd. The similarities are there, but I still encourage those who dislike two action point systems to give this game a try. CreativeForge have built upon the foundation laid by Firaxis, rather than just using it as a compromise to draw audience familiarity (though surely that was a factor as well).

The most interesting element here is the Luck attribute. While the other attributes are more or less self-explanatory - Health affects how much damage you can take; Movement is for how far you can go; Aim increases hit chance; Defense decreases enemy hit chance; and Sight affects how far enemies are revealed - Luck is a bit more complex, having two purposes.

First, the higher your Luck, the higher the chance that incoming attacks will miss, but at the same time, each attack that doesn’t hit reduces your Luck by its respective hit chance. So for example, if character A has 100 Luck and character B shoots, missing with a 20% hit chance, then character A now has 80 Luck. Conversely, if a character does get hit then they receive a big boost to luck.

Thus combat has a strongly deterministic aspect. No attack, even if it misses, goes to waste. A character with 0 Luck will always get hit, so repeatedly firing at somebody guarantees a hit at some point. Ironically, the game's Luck resource removes a large part of the actual luck required.

The second purpose of Luck is as a resource for activating special abilities, such as Ricochet which allows you to bounce shots off of metallic surfaces, or Shadowkill which damages opponents who aren't standing in sunlight. These abilities are obtained from cards during the world map segments (and are also overpowered) but more on that later on. The idea here is that you can trade off defensive capability for offensive capability or versatility. It's an interesting concept, but the fact that most of the game's content is focused on killing usually makes the choice rather obvious.

The importance of Luck is further enhanced by the fact that cover affects damage - most weapons will do a measly 1 hit point of damage to someone in full cover. There are no lucky shots like in XCOM, where failing a 95% chance can lead to the deaths of your most important soldiers. Shootouts in Hard West can last dozens of turns if everyone just sits in cover, so flanking is encouraged - most weapons can one-shot someone who's out of cover or flanked. In hindsight, I'm surprised that this is the first time I've seen such a system implemented. Even though the game's maps are not procedurally generated and its mechanics are strongly deterministic, tension remains high because your squad is always outnumbered, and all it takes is one enemy popping out of an uncovered angle to kill somebody.

“With every enemy dispatched, the whorehouse became uncommonly silent.”

Weapons in Hard West consist of pistols, shotguns and rifles. Rifles are good at long range but bad at short range, pistols are the opposite, and shotguns are (strangely) somewhere in the middle. There are also special abilities associated with the various weapon types - pistols have a fanning attack which fires three rounds at reduced accuracy, shotguns can do a cone attack, scoped rifles can fire a 100% accuracy shot at the cost of two action points, and many other weapons have the ability to shoot twice. It's a good thing these special abilities were added to differentiate the weapons further, since with Hard West's two action point system all characters just move and attack on their turns no matter what weapon they use, while in a traditional action point system they would have had different AP costs for shooting and thus different rates of fire. It should be mentioned that there are some weapons with no special ability but significantly better stats, like the volcano pistol which does rifle-caliber damage but has no fanning attack.

In general, due to the way the game promotes moving and flanking, the most important aspect of a weapon is whether it can kill somebody in one shot if they're flanked or not in cover. This varies with difficulty, but in general any weapon that does over 6 damage will do the trick. That means that there's a clearly superior subset among the 20-30 weapons Hard West has. Sure, you can get crazy shotgun barrel revolvers, but why bother when rifles can one-shot everyone except bosses? CreativeForge tried to address this by making the really high damage weapons single-shot, and by making the reload action only put a few bullets down the barrel in the case of rifles and revolvers, but that still isn’t enough because every character has two weapons he can switch between, plus other characters to cover his angles while he's reloading.

Hard West offers some environmental interaction during combat, in the form of tables that can be flipped over or boards that can be pulled up to form cover. There are also doors that can be opened, and scenario-specific objects to interact with. Unfortunately, there is a huge problem here regarding movement. When you select a spot for a character to move to, pathfinding is automatic. This can result in the character not being able to interact with the object due to ending up at an inappropriate angle from it, not to mention possibly entering into an enemy’s vision cone and suffering reaction shots. The intention was good and the implementation isn’t that bad, but you can’t help but feel that environmental interactions were an afterthought during the game's development, which wouldn’t be surprising considering its apparently short development cycle. For example, doors cannot be closed after they have been opened, which is important since they count as cover and block vision. This feels more like an oversight than an intended design. Then there's the shadow/sunlight mechanic. The game keeps track of whether someone is in the sun or in the shade. Being out in the sun makes characters cast shadows which give away their locations, making it possible to shoot at them without actually having line of sight. But this happens so rarely in practice that it’s likely you will forget that it's even a possibility. There are also two or three special abilities where it matters if someone is in shade or in sunlight, but it still feels like an entire mechanic that was implemented but not fully taken advantage of. The game isn't worse off for having such environmental interactions, but they needed to be more fleshed out.

The last combat-related issue I'd like to discuss is the asymmetric nature of the AI. Your enemies do not use card abilities, weapon abilities or environmental interactions - they pretty much just move and shoot. Sometimes there are scenario-specific scripted events that affect them, but for the most part they act with very simplistic scripts, and even those can be erratic. Many times, I saw enemies just walk out of cover, resulting in easy kills, or walk right up to a player character and reload next to them, rather than doing it the other way around, usually resulting in more easy kills. Given the importance of cover, the enemy's numerical superiority is crucial, and if every one of them had card-like abilities things could get very hard to balance. The downside is that every opponent feels the same whether they are bandits, cultists or demons, which can make things seem a bit stale.

There is one ability that's only available to the AI: an Overwatch-type ability called "Reaction Shots". All enemies have a 10 foot, 360 degree vision barrier surrounding them during the player’s turn, that if crossed results in a guaranteed full damage hit. The idea is to stop players from just rushing into the enemy's cover lines and one-shotting them, but there is a work-around of sorts. Reaction shots only work against characters that are in sight at the beginning of their turn, so if you're initially unseen by an enemy, you can easily walk up to them and kill them. This rule makes sense since the game is trying to emphasize flanking, but once you get the hang of running up to people from behind corners, the difficulty level drops significantly. In my opinion, this isn’t a systems issue but an AI issue - the AI just doesn’t know how to position itself properly half of the time. That's pretty much how all enemy actions in Hard West felt like to me. There's a lot of promise here, but the AI scripts need a lot more polish to make the AI more cunning and more able to take advantage of the game's ruleset in a logical manner.

“You were surrounded with nowhere to run. You were as good as dead.”

Hard West has a stealth mechanic, which is available for use at the beginning of certain scenarios. It is here that the Heat rating of each weapon comes into play. The higher a weapon's Heat, the bigger the vision cones of the enemy guards when you're controlling the character holding it. Thus a character that is carrying a hidden derringer can just walk by people, while another with two shotguns would be better off skulking around corners. When a character does enter a guard's vision cone, the guard gets suspicious and will sound the alarm after a few turns, initializing the combat phase. The interesting thing here is the ability to subdue - pointing a gun at a guard and cancelling his vision cone. After a certain number of turns the guard will sound the alarm anyway, but the subdue action refreshes that timer. Heat is a double edged sword here, since the number of turns that a subdue holds someone is determined by how much Heat the subduer has. While a character with no Heat needs to continuously subdue to hold a guard in place, a character with maximum Heat can hold two guards up and still have enough time to walk around.

This system is particularly effective when it is used on difficult maps that would have probably needed several retries to finish otherwise. During the stealth phase you get to see the layout of the map and the enemies' locations, most certainly killing a few of them by surprise when combat begins. Most maps that feature stealth also have secondary objectives that encourage the player to take advantage of positioning or maybe even complete them during the stealth phase. There are at least two maps that can be entirely completed while in stealth. But not everything everything is perfect about stealth. For one, your characters walk instead of running while in stealth, which makes sense contextually but adds too much down time. Given the fact that subduing a guard while another one is just across the room looking the other way is already unrealistic, I think they could have allowed us to run during stealth. The stealth phase also feels somewhat puzzle-like in a bad way due to the fact that the enemies do not move - there is really no challenge beyond finding the right path. Perhaps that is for the best since the phase might take too long otherwise, and having to do it again each time you retry could impact the game's pacing adversely.

Overall, while it is by no means flawless, Hard West's turn-based combat is quite well done. Some might consider the two action point system inherently weak, but the game was clearly designed with respect for the player in mind, and it is by no means brainless.

“You felt empowered by this casually heinous act.”

Between each of Hard West's battles are world map segments which are essentially dressed up CYOA sequences. The party, symbolized by a skull-like marker, travels between different locations on the map. Some of these are your usual RPG fare such as shops, while others trigger various plot and side quest events. Beneficial events grant rewards in the form of cash, items and buffs, while the bad ones usually result in loss of Luck (in these cases, it's possible you might have to start a fight with 0 Luck, which makes the starting rounds rather challenging) or injuries. Overall, the world map portion of the game is simplistic, and would have been functional at best if not for the fact that CreativeForge introduced some specific interactions for each scenario. For example, in one scenario you need to cause property damage to lure the villain out, and in another you need to find the blueprints of a scientific discovery. It still all boils down to following a linear path towards the next battle, but these interactions do provide a bit of context which makes things more interesting. There are even two resource management scenarios that play like a very short Expeditions: Conquistador-lite, which demonstrate that much more could have been done to make this part of the game engaging.

Beyond the CYOA aspect, this section of this game is also where the player can customize his posse. Each character carries two guns as mentioned earlier, two consumables and one trinket which grants passive boosts. Consumables offer a variety of stat boosting effects, but honestly, the only consumables of any real consequence are the ones that restore Health and Luck. As with the guns, there might be many options, but it quickly becomes clear which ones are best.

”When he finished, you promised you wouldn’t kill him. Then you slit his throat.”

Now we arrive at one of the game's rougher points - the card system. As a reward for completing objectives, you receive random playing cards that when equipped, provide your characters with both active and passive bonuses. The passive bonuses are determined by the cards' suits (for example, Aces will always grant 10 Luck) and by the poker hand that they collectively form. In theory, this is quite an interesting mechanic. You want to form the best hands for your characters, in concordance with the role you want for each individual character, while also ensuring that their abilities are fit for that role. Unfortunately, the system is extremely poorly tuned. The combination of trinket, card suits and poker hand results in a huge amount of bonuses, and by the end of most scenarios you will have full card slots on everyone. It's quite easy to create a character who has 100% accuracy from any point, or one that can run across half the map with a single action point. Since the cards are so powerful, you can use them to assign any character into any role, killing the characters' sense of individuality. And this is just one half of the problem. The active bonuses are also broken - you're pretty much guaranteed to discover an overpowered combo of some sort by the end of a scenario. Even by themselves, abilities like Golden Bullet, which fires a full damage 100% accuracy shot through cover at the cost of 50% Luck and a short cooldown, are very strong. Not to mention game breaking cards like Disguise which makes enemies ignore you during stealth phases, making most of them trivial.

There's also a presentation issue here, with some cards suffering from poorly explained tooltips. For example, the Demonspawn card grants an ability turns a character into a demon, but the ability's description just says something like “Become a demon”. Only after you use it can you go to the character screen and view the transformation's actual benefits. This is basic stuff that should never have gotten past QA.

Then there's a baffling decision regarding the way saves work. Hard West doesn't allow saving at will, only autosaving at the beginning and at the end of every battle. That in itself is okay, since the scenarios are pretty short and it discourages save scumming. The problem is that before each battle, you get a chance to equip your posse, but you don't get to do it again if you restart the battle from the autosave. I have no idea what the point of this design decision is. How are you supposed to know which maps have a stealth phase and which do not? How are you supposed to know which abilities you want on what character? Some maps even feature a nightmare phase that interacts with certain cards, but you wouldn’t know that without playing the map first. Requiring forehand knowledge of encounters is just plain bad design.

But probably the worst design decision CreativeForge made was the way the Fate Trader works. Each scenario in the game has 3 secret objectives. Some are part of the main quest, some are side content, and some are mutually exclusive, requiring multiple playthroughs of the same scenario. As a reward for completing these objectives, items are unlocked at the Fate Trader, a merchant who appears on the world map during all eight scenarios. This can completely break the game, since some of the items are completely overpowered compared to what you would normally find in certain scenarios. Items like the Holy Musket (of win) which does a whopping 10 damage out of cover or the Doomsday Watch trinket which grants +2 damage on all attacks make combat trivial. The concept of secondary objectives is a good one, but this out-of-scenario progression treadmill kills a lot of the momentum the combat has going for it. They should have just added concept art and developer commentary unlocks like most games do.

“But what the Devil wants, the Devil gets.”

Hard West does an excellent job of creating a sorrowful Wild West atmosphere. Things rarely go the characters' way, and when they do it's usually at a high price. The setting has more of a mystic bent to it rather than being full-on supernatural. The Devil appears offering deals and such, but it isn’t a generic fantasy world where just because there is magic it means there are monsters around every corner. I do have to say that the game jumps the shark towards the end, when things jarringly go from Weird West Tales to boringly apocalyptic, but it's still a good experience overall. This is no small part due to the game's sole narrator, who is none other than Death himself. For what must have been a tiny fee considering the game's budget, the developers managed to snag a very talented voice actor to play the monocled gentleman personification of oblivion. His lines are short and to the point, usually with some irony in them, and the low voice with a hint of southern drawl works really well. But while the game creates an effective atmosphere, it has no characterization. Just description. Partly this is because only Death narrates, and partly it's because any moment of emotional depth is usually resolved in one line. For example, when a character feels guilt for the bad things that happen to those around him, he just walks away and leaves them behind. All of this happens in one slide that is rather dryly written.

The best way to describe Hard West as a narrative experience is by comparing it to a multi-character show where you only see the plot beats. And to continue this analogy, the middle row in the campaign selection screen represents the main series while the bottom row can best be described as spin-off shows. They focus on people and places only tangentially mentioned in the main series. These scenarios form their own little saga, that sadly ends quite abruptly.

All in all, CreativeForge have done a good job giving life to the world of Hard West, especially in the atmosphere department. But they had to cut corners when it comes to deeper characterization, and the game's abrupt endings will leave most players somewhat dissatisfied. It's a fun ride that doesn’t end with a bang.

There is one thing I want to commend Hard West for, namely, the fact that it avoids anachronistic displays of modern morality. Many stories set in the past tend to paint the good guys in a way that makes them palatable to modern audiences, while the bad guys have all the less desirable traits. Think medieval Hollywood movies where the protagonist knight is perfectly honorable, supports universal freedom and has not one bigoted bone in his body, while the evil lord is arrogant, hateful, and beats women while breaking his serfs' backs. Or how Lenin contextualized Jesus and Oliver Cromwell as class heroes and proto-communists. In reality, the past heroes of every culture probably held beliefs that are horrible by today’s standard. Ironically, even though it contains occult elements, Hard West offers a strong dose of realism in this respect. Even the game's most sympathetic characters get the option to kill natives for their possessions, which they do without remorse, while the evil characters (some of whom you get to control) will gleefully commit wholesale massacres. The world of Hard West is a tough one that doesn’t pull any punches.

“Chaos, on the other hand, revealed mankind’s true potential.”

Before I finish up, I should go over the game's technical aspects. Hard West was made on a budget, and while its graphics succeed at creating a spaghetti western feeling, the textures aren’t all that stellar and animations are stiff at times (though the isometric perspective lessens this issue). The game's biggest technical problems are a result of being developed with the Unity engine, with its infamous micro-stutters during transitions and memory leak issues. It also has some unusual restrictions, like the fact that characters can’t stand on stairways - they need to either have the points to cross the entire flight of stairs in one go, or the game won't allow them to move.

Hard West's soundtrack is severely disappointing in my opinion, given that it was composed by Marcin Przybylowicz of The Witcher 3 and Vanishing of Ethan Carter fame. My expectations were geared towards something Western with modern elements (“Spike in the Rail” from Bastion's soundtrack is a good example), but instead the game's soundtrack turned out to be very subdued and ambient, more fit for a film. It does the job, but it feels utterly forgettable. As far as sound effects go, they're solid if generic. Things sound mostly the way you think they would sound.

To sum things up, Hard West is quite entertaining. It's easily one of the best designed turn-based tactical experiences to come out in recent times. Couple that with a well-crafted atmosphere and you have the makings of a great game. However, its many poorly balanced mechanics may ruin the experience for some people. I'd say there are two ways to enjoy Hard West properly: 1) Play each scenario on Medium difficulty to enjoy the good parts with all their broken bits, or 2) Play each scenario on Hard with combat injuries enabled while restraining yourself from using the services of the Fate Trader and the Doctor, thereby avoiding the broken bits and raising the difficulty level considerably. Both of these approaches are valid choices depending on what type of player you are, and if you follow them you should end up being happy with your purchase.

The final question is what direction CreativeForge should go from here. The oldschool crowd will push for them to ditch the two action point system, to add this stat or that stat and wouldn’t it be fine and dandy if they just made a Western-themed Jagged Alliance? The mainstream, casual crowd on the other hand will argue for the reverse - get rid of this or that and wouldn’t it just be better to make a Western-themed version of Firaxis’ XCOM? Both sides would probably be in favor of an expansion of the game's open-ended "free roam" mode. Personally, I don’t believe either of these directions is the right way to go - both would result in the developers having to deal with absurdly high expectations and playing catch-up with the competition. The set piece-focused turn-based tactical genre, on the other hand, is a much more unexplored niche, with plenty of room for CreativeForge to not just polish but structurally improve what they accomplished with Hard West. They would do well to learn from the encounter design of games like Blackguards, and especially from the utter failure that was Blackguards 2. Dumbing things down will just shatter everyone’s goodwill. But whether or not they go on to make "Harder West" or whatever else they decide to name the sequel, their inaugural effort stands tall, albeit on unsteady feet.

Hard West is available for purchase on Steam and GOG.

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