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You may know Raphaël Colantonio as the founder of Arkane Studios, the team behind such titles as Arx Fatalis, Dark Messiah of Might and Magic, Dishonored, and Prey. However, over the past few years, he's been busy getting Wolfeye Studios off the ground. The goal there was to have a smaller indie team that traded Arkane's publisher-supported budgets for some extra creative freedom.
This endeavor has resulted in Weird West - a gunslinging isometric immersive sim. And having played through Wolfeye Studios' debut project, we now bring you our thoughts on it.
Multiple Personality Dishonor
First things first, we have to figure out what an immersive sim even is. It's a terrible name, for starters. Games classified as such are not true simulators, and neither are they a part of The Sims franchise. And immersion is just a nebulous buzzword that doesn't really mean anything.
But if you don't get too stuck on the literal meaning of the words, you'll understand that when someone calls a game an immersive sim, they actually mean a stealth game with a progression system where you have multiple ways to tackle just about any challenge and an option to eschew subtlety in favor of a brute-force approach. A game that is somewhat similar to Deus Ex would be another way to describe immersive sims.
Weird West then is one of those. At the same time, Weird West is also a literary subgenre that combines a Western setting with some supernatural or occult elements prevalent in the so-called Weird fiction. In other words, if H. P. Lovecraft were to write a script for a Clint Eastwood movie, that would be an example of Weird West the genre.
Weird West the game, as you may have already guessed, uses that particular subgenre for its setting. You get a world where an expansive frontier of plains, bogs, steppes, and deserts is dotted with tiny settlements, mines, ghost towns, and haciendas. And in that world, you have farmers growing crops, prospectors lusting for gold, outlaws causing trouble and bounty hunters chasing said outlaws.
But underneath the surface, you also have ghosts haunting their graves, werewolves howling in the night, shapeshifting monsters running slaver gangs, and strange cultists prophesizing doom and despair.
As you play Weird West, you'll get an opportunity to explore this world as five different characters. You will start your journey as a bounty hunter on a quest for revenge. Then, you'll play as a cursed pigman, a demon-hunting native, a god-fearing werewolf, and a witch who can see the future.
These characters all come with their personal stories and an overarching thread that connects them in some way. While playing as any one of these characters, you'll be able to tackle all the optional content you wish. You'll get to take on side quests, bring outlaws to justice, rob banks, hunt bears, explore ghost towns, and so on. But once you're done with a character's main story, you will have to switch.
And while these characters and their stories are pretty good overall, I see this general structure as one of the game's biggest failings. In a game like Weird West, chances are you want to play as either The Good, The Bad, or The Ugly. You know, the classic Western archetypes. And seeing how it's a game with a great degree of freedom, let's face it, it's probably The Ugly, an unabashed agent of chaos. Not being able to create your own character here is a great shame.
This character-hopping thing also ties into the game's progression system. Your characters in Weird West have Perks and Abilities. You unlock them by finding special items while exploring the world. The caveat here is that Perks unlock new stuff for all your characters, while Abilities only upgrade your current one.
Perks range in usefulness between some handy unlocks, like being able to jump higher, sneak faster or deal more damage to unaware targets, and the significantly less impressive percentile increases to your HP or shop prices. Abilities are split between weapon abilities which all characters get, and a special tree unique to each character. These too vary greatly in their usefulness.
To take things one step further, all the upgrade items you pick up but don't immediately use will be transferred over to the next character once you recruit your old character as a companion. This creates a situation where you don't actually want to upgrade your current character, and instead want to hoard all the upgrade items. To make matters worse, your third character unlocks the ability to converse with ghosts, while the final one lets you decipher ancient texts, further incentivizing you to treat your earlier heroes as disposable.
And to complicate things even more, all your characters share their saddlebags and safety deposit boxes, but you can't transfer your actual savings between characters. This results in a rather tedious song and dance where before wrapping things up with a character you have to turn your dollars into gold bars, stash them away, and decide which consumables and items you need to finish your journey, and which you'd rather leave to your next hero.
Once you actually start that new journey, you have to first find a town with a bank, then find a town with a stable, then find one of your old characters and hire them to get all the upgrade items back. And you have to do this four times.
But at the very least, this approach allowed the developers to introduce a great deal of reactivity. During your journeys, you'll be making plenty of decisions that will affect the world around you on both a major and minor scale. You'll get plenty of opportunities to dismantle or prop up entire factions, save or destroy various settlements, and in the end, decide whether to save or destroy the world.
And on a more personal level, you'll be making friends and enemies. The former will aid you in combat, while the latter will be sending their goons after you. There's even a pared-down take on the Nemesis System from Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor.
For example, during my pigman journey, I ended up turning the witch that cursed him into a pig herself. Then, on a later journey, I apprehended her for a bounty, as the pig version of her was now an outlaw. And finally, when visiting the pigman at some point, I had to put her down, as she had apparently escaped and together with her gang, was now attempting to take her frustrations out on the town the pigman was living in.
So in the end, despite some reservations about the game's approach to storytelling, the abovementioned busywork didn't stop me from enjoying Weird West overall.
Now, usually, immersive sims tend to favor the first-person perspective. Weird West, however, adopts an isometric approach. Here, you'll be looking at your character from up high while using your mouse to control the camera and aim, and WASD to move. Alternatively, you can use a gamepad.
The fact that most immersive sims aren't isometric should've been the first warning sign here. No matter how you look at them, the game's controls are extremely clunky. All the menus seem to have been designed with a controller in mind, making them needlessly annoying to navigate.
Everyone's favorite "press button to do one thing, hold it to do another" feature is a big offender there. Having the cursor completely disappear on you whenever you're not holding the right mouse button (it's what you have to do to pull out your gun and start aiming), is a close second though. Inventory management could also use some drag and drop functionality.
In combat, this clunkiness translates into you having to constantly hold and release the right mouse button to either aim your gun or adjust your camera. You can't do both at once. And should you decide to use a controller, you'll come face to face with the fact that while all the menus were designed for it, due to the game's overall pace and the general scale of the objects you'll be aiming at, trying to use a controller during a fight makes the game borderline unplayable.
But even when you're using a mouse, the game simply moves too fast. The developers actually went all out here and included a lot of systems that can interact with one another. You can set fire to oil puddles and you can then douse said fire with water. Wind can blow flames onto nearby wooden structures. You can get hit by lightning thanks to a dynamic weather system. You can break enemy morale by killing their leaders. You can kick people off ledges, attract their attention by making noise, and set up elaborate traps.
Unfortunately, since things go down way too fast once bullets start flying, you won't get a lot of opportunities to utilize any of this to your advantage. Without fail, every time it's easier and more effective to sneak behind enemies and knock them out, or just shoot them dead if you get caught.
And if you do decide to get all fancy with it, chances are you'll end up being disappointed. Let's say you spend five minutes sneaking around and setting up an oil puddle for your enemies to walk into. Then you set the thing ablaze. Your enemies take around 5 damage each, roll out of the fire and start shooting, alerting the entire dungeon to your presence.
This is especially noticeable early on when you have bad guns and under-leveled abilities, which results in hilarious moments like your silent takedown skill not being able to actually kill your target in one shot, or when you have to shoot an explosive barrel several times before it explodes.
Now, while the game's combat is highly clunky, that doesn’t make it difficult. I was playing on the third out of the game's four difficulties and never felt like things were particularly challenging, aside from the times I had to deal with the crazed miners who like to throw dynamite at you. The idea there is to shoot the dynamite before it reaches you, but those sticks are like 2 pixels wide, while the miners have way too much health and chuck the things like there's no tomorrow. Those encounters were pretty tough.
Thankfully, this being an immersive sim, you don't have to engage in combat all that often. Usually, you can just sneak around your enemies or knock them out. This approach makes things significantly more enjoyable.
Either way, the gear you'll have at our disposal includes several weapon types - melee weapons, pistols, shotguns, rifles, and bows. You will also have access to a number of consumable potions and throwable explosives, as well as an armored jacket and two talismans that usually make your character better under certain conditions, like doing more damage if your reputation is high enough.
Your gear comes in several tiers and variations. For example, you have a choice between a slower and stronger rifle or one that's a bit weaker but shoots faster, and these can range from the common greys to the legendary oranges.
If you're looking to upgrade a particular gun (or a suit of armor), you can utilize the game's crafting system and exchange several ore nuggets or animal pelts for an extra tier of quality. But unless I was doing something very wrong, usually, you'll be able to find plenty of high-tier gear way before you'll get a chance to collect the necessary upgrade materials, making the whole thing redundant.
I guess it's just another extension of the game having way too many systems for its own good. In fact, the game even has a system where NPCs can remarry should their spouse perish at some point. But seeing how Weird West doesn't really have any memorable characters outside the main quest, its side-quests tend to be of the fetch variety, and its dialogue system is extremely basic, chances are you won't remember any of the NPCs you meet, at least not well enough to notice their last name changing.
In general, the game presents you with an abundance of points of interest, but they're just not all that interesting. Once you've managed to build a nest egg with your very first character, you don't need much else. The loot you find is mostly junk, and you can get all the leveling items you need during story-related missions.
And if you do decide to go out and explore, after a while you'll realize that all the mines and settlements and farms here look pretty much the same, like the settlers brought along some prefabs on their journey West.
At times it feels like Weird West doesn't know what it wants to be - a hand-crafted story-driven game, or a procedurally-generated one. And for an immersive sim, a genre with its roots in the likes of System Shock and Deus Ex, the choice should be an obvious one.
In an immersive sim, you want to see elaborate sprawling levels that give the game's systems enough room to breathe. You want these levels to be populated with memorable characters and encounters, easy to miss nooks and side passages. You want Liberty Island, not a handful of shacks in a desert.
For a game with so many systems, Weird West is surprisingly stable. It runs well, doesn't chug too hard, and I haven't encountered any major bugs or issues. On rare occasions, I wasn't able to knock out certain NPCs (that otherwise should've been susceptible to it), and a few times I was detected seemingly through a wall. But a reload sorted those out.
Speaking of reloads. The game has several rotating autosave slots, quick saves, and manual saves. The caveat there is that reloading the game world can lead to some unexpected consequences like enemies suddenly being reshuffled on the map. But while annoying, I just treated that as an incentive to not get caught.
The game's visuals are neat for an isometric title, but once again it suffers from its choice of perspective. There's plenty of stuff in the world you can pick up or interact with, but looking at it from a distance, it's all too small. And as far as I'm aware, there isn't a button that highlights interactable objects.
The sound design is also quite good, even if the game's soundtrack isn't overly varied. And while we get plenty of voice-acted narration during the story sections, the rest of the game isn't voice-acted, allowing you to read things at your own pace.
One last thing to mention here is that when you launch the game for the first time, it just starts. You don't get a chance to tinker with the options menu and instead get the opening cutscene straight away. I really don't like it when games do this.
While Weird West can't hold a candle to the likes of Deus Ex, and it sure does have plenty of questionable design decisions, at the end of the day, the immersive sim market is not exactly oversaturated. And with that in mind, I did enjoy my time with the game. It may not be great, but it's still a perfectly decent way to spend 20-40 hours of your time.