Hard West 2 is a punishingly difficult sequel that plays as much like a puzzle game as it does a turn-based combat game.
I was quite a fan of Hard West, a weird west themed story-driven game with XCOM inspired combat sections. Whilst it wasn’t the most polished experience, it was a great world to get lost in, and the battles themselves were enjoyable to play through. Now, seven years later, Ice Code Games have been brought on to make a sequel and I jumped at the chance to play through the challenging world of cowboys and demons.
You play as Gin Carter, an almost stereotypical Western outlaw who begins this journey by trying to rob a train. It turns out that this is no ordinary train though, and by the time he and his posse have found their way to the loot, they come across a devil named Mamon who promptly takes their souls and rides his ghost train into the sunset, leaving Gin and his pals in his wake. Now, it’s up to Gin to restore his scattered posse, find new allies, and find a way to reclaim what was taken. Mamon’s train ride through the wild west has led to further complications, as now the dead rise from their graves and demons roam the lands.
The story doesn’t detour too much from what you might expect in a Western with supernatural themes — a genre which is woefully underserved in the gaming space — but it’s not without its charms. More interesting are the stories that crop up along the way, particularly those revolving around your companions. As you gain their trust, they’ll reveal their history to Gin, with the likes of shadow witch Flynn, banished native American Clalish, and recently risen undead cowboy Bill having tales to tell. These characters that join Gin on his journey are certainly a highlight of the story, and all have their own personalities and beliefs. During certain moments you’ll need to determine who to side with during an argument, which can lead to some trusting you more than others, opening up different choices later in the story, as well as combat options during missions.
The overworld has you travel from town to town, completing jobs to earn money and progress the story. You’ll have choices to make when you arrive in various locations, but in reality these don’t change the game too much. You might get a different reward — something that the game makes clear to you when you make a decision — but ultimately they change very little. It does feel like a missed opportunity to not have you push Gin down one path or another as you play, meaning Hard West 2 feels quite a bit more linear than its predecessor.
Almost all tasks, main or otherwise, will eventually result in combat, and I really enjoyed this for the most part. Whenever you enter combat, you’ll need to pick four members of your posse to go in guns blazing as well as their equipment and cards — more on this later — and then it’s into those XCOM style battles. There’s partial and full cover, percentage chance to hit, action points for moving, firing, and activating abilities, all the usual mechanics you might expect, but Hard West 2 does enough to keep things interesting. Returning from the previous game is the ability to ricochet bullets off certain objects to flank enemies without even moving. This still feels ridiculously cool to pull off and is reminiscent of classic Western films.
Then there’s the Bravado system which hugely promotes aggressive play. With only three action points, you’ll only get to make one shot per turn, and maybe an item or ability too if you’re lucky. However, if a character makes a kill, they’ll immediately have all their action points returned to them. This feels quite exhilarating when you manage to pull off a sequence of kills without having to surrender your turn to the enemy. It also makes the combat sections as much of a puzzle as it is a tactics game. You really need to think hard about who takes what shot and when to ensure you can get the most out of every turn, but when you get it right, it’s a thrilling feeling of accomplishment against the odds.
You have additional mitigation in the form of character skills. These are fun to use and always have a place in any turn. Lazarus can swap health with other creatures in view, and Flynn is able to switch places with someone else, which is great for positioning. The abilities are all thematic to the character that uses them, which is a nice touch. You only get access to these through the use of playing cards though. These are unlocked through completing main and secondary objectives, and then assigned to characters. If you combine them into poker hands, those characters unlock more effective versions of their skills, as well as other bonuses. It’s a neat system, again carried over from the previous game, that allows you to specialise characters or make up for their weaknesses. Then again, it’s quite time consuming early on to get hands that allow access to the skills you need when you only have a few to choose from, whilst later in the game you can give everyone a royal flush and have done with it. It feels like this element could use a little more balancing, much like it did previously.
Now, the puzzle element of those missions is worth digging into a bit more, as it absolutely won’t be for everyone. I played Hard West 2 on Hard, which is the game’s second difficulty setting out of three, and at times it was incredibly tough. Many times, you’ll need to solve the missing in the “right” way, meaning that if you don’t position everyone correctly, and use the Bravado ability exactly right, then your team will be absolutely obliterated in the enemy turn. Losing just one character in the mission doesn’t always spell an instant game over, but it might as well do as you’ll hugely struggle to recover from that point. I had to reload some missions an absurd number of times to try a different approach — thanking the generous autosave system as I did so — until I got things right. Punishing is absolutely the word here. Oh, and those load screens inexplicably get longer each time you reload a save.
This could be incredibly off putting for some people, but when it clicks, it really clicks. Seeing your team of four taking apart a swarm of demon gunmen in a single turn is thrilling, and gives you the feeling of a tactical genius, if only for a moment. It was these moments that kept me pushing through the difficult moments in the 20+ hour campaign. The battles in which you board a train from horseback are a particular highlight, giving the otherwise static nature of this style of game a hugely kinetic feeling. Also, train levels are always cool, no matter the game.
The presentation is really well done here, with the overworld having that traditional Western look to it once the plot gets going, and the missions themselves taking place in classic locations. Whilst there is some variety, you do have rather a lot of fights in wooden townships and caves. Quite thematic, yes, but a few other locales would have been appreciated. Characters look good, even though you won’t see them up close and are animated really well. I loved the little additional animations when a character made a kill, with them spinning and holstering their pistol, or firing additional rounds in a display of dominance. The artwork in the story sections and cutscenes is gorgeous too. There’s a lot of work put into this side of things.
This is true in the sound department too. Classic Western themes play out throughout missions and cutscenes, whilst gunfire sounds distinct for each weapon. Those shotguns sound genuinely beefy. Characters have lines of dialogue that pop up in missions too. I particularly liked the undead enemies rasping out lines like “Give me back my breath”, or the wonderfully dark “I drew second”. I’d have liked a greater variety of lines here is the only thing I’d point out. There’s even a Wilhelm scream when killing some enemies, so this is clearly a game of the year contender.
Hard West 2 is something I’ve really enjoyed, but absolutely recognise that it will rub some people up the wrong way. Dropping to easy mode does make this more forgiving, but you’ll still have a tough time at points. With that said, if you’re up for a challenge and an experience in a world that is massively underserved then this is a game that is absolutely worth a look, and I’d recommend you pull the trigger on it.
Hard West 2 is out now on PC.