Red Dead Redemption 2 better buckle on its holsters, there’s another gunslinger in town.
Weird West might just be the best use of the Wild West setting I’ve seen in a game. All the classic hallmarks of the genre are there, accentuated and transformed through handfuls of horror and eldritch magic. It’s an isometric immersive sim from the minds behind Dishonored and Prey that manages to capture the grit of the Western genre without aping its cinematic roots.
It’s high noon and Weird West is riding into town.
A grizzled eldritch world
Weird West begins like any Western should – with strife, bloodshed, and revenge. The first character you’ll control – out of five, which are gradually introduced across an overarching story – is a retired bounty hunter. She’s forced to pick up her revolvers after a group of ne’er-do-well bandits kill her son and kidnap her husband.
You’ll travel across burgeoning pioneer towns, lonely ranches, and abandoned mines on a quest for vengeance. There are saloons to frequent, bounties to pursue, and hidden treasures to track, all while gunning down belligerent outlaws. It’s everything you’d expect of a place where people call handguns “irons” and to be “above snakes” is a good thing.
But then there’s everything you absolutely wouldn’t expect of the setting. Cannibals, mainly. Grotesque, shapeshifting cannibals that disguise themselves as outlaws or sheriffs. There are zombies, too, and werewolves and wraiths. Not to mention witches who mutate their victims into grotesque anthropomorphic pig hybrids. Weird West presents an alternate version of the Old West infused with magical horror. Monstrosities stalk the landscape and mysterious eldritch forces are at work behind the scenes.
None of that feels jarring. In fact, it only enhances the dangers of the unexplored (read: uncolonized) American Frontier. Danger is baked into the very environment and unknown hazards taint the horizon. Leaving settlements to travel across the world map can prove lethal should you run into some fetid demon spawn. In Weird West, you’re only one random encounter away from death; one bad decision from game over (before a quick load sends you thirty seconds back in time).
Preparation is key. You have a bevy of skills to upgrade and perks to unlock that’ll shape your character into a gun-toting hero, or saber-tooth monster. Weird West’s five weapon types – revolvers, rifles, shotguns, bows, and melee – all offer varying combat capabilities that make fights fluid. Later, you’ll have more extravagant supernatural abilities to play with, too, like transforming into a werewolf or teleporting short distances.
Add to that your bullet time ability, which sends you leaping into the air in slow motion, and you’ve got a combat system that’s halfway between The Matrix and a top-down shoot ‘em up. Few Wild West tropes are left on the table, but Weird West isn’t without its own identity.
A land of opportunity
This isn’t only a grizzly and dark world: it’s also one of opportunity. Concise side quests push you off the beaten track through rocky plains, swamps, and more surprising wintry environments, on your search for fame and fortune. Rock up into any town, and you’ll always find a bounty board that needs clearing, or townsfolk desperate for aid.
You’ll write your own story with these optional quests. At the end of each chapter, your actions are compiled into a neat record, collecting your decisions and accomplishments. Some of those will affect the story, as you encounter characters you spared in previous chapters, or subtly influence the world around you, as characters and newspaper clippings speak of your heroics and misdeeds.
Weird West doesn’t match the scale of Red Dead Redemption 2, but its world feels just as alive – or as alive as the desolate plains of cattle ranches and canyons should. There’s purpose in this place, driven by meaningful character choices that sell the idea you’re a lone hero, making your way through a hostile world.
That sense of freedom doesn’t let up. The game has a level of verticality that takes its cues from the original Deus Ex and is rarely seen in other isometric RPGs. You’ll be hopping through windows, climbing up buildings, and traversing craggy landscapes to find the perfect marksman position. Often, it’s better to approach a situation without unloading your revolver at all, quietly dispatching enemies as they patrol an area by slinking along the rooftops.
It all fits the immersive sim style the team perfected while working at Arkane and it suits the Western theme brilliantly. Crouching close to the dirt before maneuvering into position and throwing a stick of dynamite into the laps of your enemies doesn’t just feel satisfying, it puts you in your very own cowboy adventure. It’s you against the world; there’s nothing to protect you in these badlands and you’ll have to use every ounce of guile to navigate them.
Weird West is the Western video game I’ve been waiting for. The kind of game that uses the best parts of my favorite movies as a springboard to reach somwhere new. There’s danger, adventure, and far too many barrels of TNT scattered about. But there’s also an exotic world to explore, riddled with mystery and magic.