Developed by CreativeForge Games and published by Gambitious Digital. Releasing on November 18, 2015. Available on PC. Review code/copy provided by publisher.
In media, The West is a trackless landscape where families struggle to make their way in life while beset by bandits and other opportunists. Although there are armed sheriffs protecting islands of stability cut off from civilization back east, enough men and guns can overthrow just about any town. On this frontier, good men are only as good their gunslinging allows them to be, and great men are often shot down trying to maintain order. Hard West brings turn-based tactics to this setting, with a challenging style and dangerous mechanics requiring clever forethought, tactical acumen, and more than a little luck to survive. It's also part of that supernaturally-tinged subgenre - the Weird Western - that tends to bring in a little of the steampunk and horror genres alongside more historical conflicts.
Hard West starts with two good men in tough times, fresh off the Oregon trail, making what life for themselves they can in the lawless West. Mid-journey, a mother is kidnapped, and the father, his name unknown, sets out to save his spouse however he can. This encounter is the tutorial, introducing the players to the game's combat systems. The father creeps along the edges of wells, fences, and cellars on his way into the kidnappers' hideout. After slaying the men who took his wife, he finds her slain as well. Without his spouse, or much in the way of provisions, the man and his son Warren settle down, hoping to strike enough luck and gold to get back on the Oregon trail - and back toward a better future.
Tragedy follows the characters in Hard West, and no matter the player's efforts within the various campaigns, Warren, his father, and a young woman named Florence never seem to find much luck. Life is bitterly difficult. Every sunrise brings some new strife. Taken as a whole, it's a sobering experience, one where comfort feels fleeting and good luck lasts just long enough to keep hope alive.
In motion, Hard West's best work is done in atmosphere and style. The entire game overflows with aesthetic design. The music is high adrenaline with a modern pulse and a pulpy feel that would be right at home in a Western film. The game is dark in the shadows, bright in the desert sun, and although combat feels relatively simple, there's a lot of nuance buried in the joints of the game's interlocking systems. The atmosphere is near-perfect, and with it, there's a constant sensation of feeling right at home amidst the dust and six shooters. Later, as demons and devilish men emerge from the dusty roads and start to bargain for the characters' souls, the game still keeps everything very grounded. The demons players fight are dangerous, with more health and scarier weapons, but deal death no more exotic than a bandit's bullet.
Although the game makes no bones about its difficulty, it never feels like a grind, striking a fair balance between hard strategy and the dose of luck needed to survive even a well-planned, well-armed, well-executed gunfight. Characters have two significant meters in combat: A luck meter that determines the likelihood that the next shot will miss, and a health meter, which staves off the cold embrace of death as long as it has at least a single tick left. When characters get hit, they regain a bit of luck and can afford to take risks again. Cover is key, as it both reduces the luck a character loses from getting shot at and reduces the damage taken when they get hit - capping it at 1 or 2 HP depending on the weapon Since most characters sit between 6 and 8 health, the cover system keeps them alive. Being caught out of cover, or at a bad angle, spells death.
The luck meter also powers your special abilities: Activating any character skill expends a certain amount of luck. These skills are amazingly powerful, such as Golden Bullet, which allows the player to fire a shot with 100% accuracy into any enemy on the field, obstructions be damned, but costs 80% of most characters' full luck cache - meaning the character is almost guaranteed to catch a bullet in short order.