It’s been a busy season in the Old West for videogames, and West of Dead is the latest one to borrow from that rich creative setting and do something of its own with it. This game isn’t what first pops into mind when thinking about cowboys and such, but it still managed to strike a chord with me thanks to the striking way it deals with death and the afterlife. For as trite as the roguelike genre might be at this point, West of Dead tries its best to take a different approach, whether it’s through its incredibly stylish presentation, or the way that it injects dual-stick shooting into the mix. Either way, for as less than perfect that it is in any of the things that it tries, this is certainly a unique setup for a roguelike.
You play as a wayward soul of a lawman who was gunned down and hasn’t been able to find a way to heaven or hell, wherever your last destination would be in death. Stuck in purgatory for eternity, you endlessly attempt to fulfill your purpose and maybe get out. Those attempts come in the form of corridors of intense gun fights against all manner of evil spirits that start right back up whenever you die… again, waking up in the saloon under the watchful gaze of the barman, with the story moving forward as you reach specific markers. Your character takes a cue from Marvel Comics’ Ghost Rider for their look, with a flaming skull for a head that the game cleverly explains through some of the revelatory scenes that you unlock after doing significant progress during a run, where the backstory for how exactly they ended up stuck where they’re at is slowly unravelled.
West of Dead takes place in a world with a stark sense of light and dark. Whenever you find a corner cast in shadow somewhere, you can be sure that there will be a torch to light, and it’s paramount you do so since its shine is the key to stunning enemies and giving you an edge in battle. The lawman can hold up to two guns, one in each hand, that you can fire individually by pressing down on the controller triggers, and the firearms come in one of three types that vary in range and stopping power: short range shotguns, mid-range revolvers, and long range rifles, each with its own quirks as to how they can be shot, either holding down and powering up a bullet, or by instantly going off at the press of a button. That gives the combat of the game a certain sense of depth and allows you to build your arsenal to fit your playstyle, keeping in mind that enemies are particularly weak to specific weapons too.
Your gunman can also dodge out of the way of shots somewhat well, and there are on-screen indicators that tell you when an enemy is about to attack, giving you some room to react, even though due to the game’s camera, some ranged blows can come without warning from offscreen, which can be somewhat annoying. You can try and prevent that from happening by being in constant motion, covering the area of the arena in the process. Since they’re somewhat small, that can work to keep you at least wise about enemy positions, but it’s also a good idea to take cover since it speeds up your reload speed and cuts your foes’ line of sight, an effective tactic against ranged enemies. Still, you can’t just turtle up since most of the cover in the game can be destroyed after getting shot at a few times. Then again, that can work to your advantage, especially during boss fights where some of the more human-like gunners are likely to take advantage of cover in the same way you would.
West of Dead’s roguelike elements come into play in a similar fashion to Dead Cells since you accrue currency the same way here and can unlock new weapons and equipment that are added to the pool of possible drops during runs. That list is a permanent unlock and isn’t lost alongside your pickups and points whenever you die. It’s a neat way to measure progress and not feel like you’re throwing yourself onto a wall whenever you hit an unlucky streak in the game, but on the other hand, it can be a little bit of a grind trying to unlock certain items that require a lot of Sin points (the game’s ultimate coin of trade). The second currency, Iron, is acquired as you kill enemies and can be used to buy immediate upgrades during runs which are not saved to your arsenal and are lost when you die, along with whatever scraps you were carrying.
Another thing that goes away with death, just like Dead Cells are the stat upgrades that you pick up by using shrines scattered through the procedurally generated halls of purgatory that you stomp through in the game. West of Dead plays around with how you increase the lawman’s powers by having you choose from three options whenever you find one of these shrines, and while the main stats that you can tweak are the usual fare, that is, health, firepower and item efficiency, there’s more to each choice, like upping refresh speeds for your items or having your weapons crit go up after a certain amount of points with each upgrade. Obviously, all of these are lost whenever you eat dust.
There are even some special challenges that pop up in the form of lost souls who task you with taking their grief for yourself so they can move on to the netherworld, basically having you try and survive killing off X number of enemies without taking a hit. So far, I’ve only managed to complete one of these, but the rewards were worth the hardship, coming in the form of lots of Iron and Sin, which now that I think of it could be the name of a really good death metal cover band. All bad jokes aside, if you’re feeling like the game just isn’t difficult enough for you, be sure to add that extra layer into your time playing. Good thing these are totally optional.
The game’s main draw, at least to me, is how good it looks and sounds. Ron Perlman of Hellboy, Sons of Anarchy, and most importantly Alien: Resurrection (okay, not really for that last one) fame lends his voice talent as the game’s narrator, none other than your character themself. He gives his trademark gruff delivery that fits in extremely well with the setting of the game. Due to West of Dead’s repetitive nature as a roguelike, you’re bound to hear some lines over and over, but then again, the same happened with that one bit in Fallout about war, so you’re probably used to that. West of Dead’s art seems to draw inspiration from another tie to Hellboy in the way it looks like something its creator Mike Mignola might have drawn up himself, from characters down to the world itself, a simplified but surprisingly effective clash of values as dark and light contrast off of each other constantly throughout the game. It’s a really cool visual style that plays off incredibly well to the cel-shading that the game uses.
All of those elements coupled with a decent guitar-heavy soundtrack help make West of Dead feel like a really impressive game simply from a visual and auditory standpoint, even if playing it can vary wildly from absolute bliss when you find just the right drops and have a really good run going to absolute frustration of having one utterly fail because the camera decided to zoom into your character in order for them to flourish off of a dodge all the while an enemy out of your view is lining up a killing shot, or how bad the auto aim is and that you can’t turn it off or even toggle its intensity, making it hard to pick off different mobs from a pack.
It’s in the nature of roguelike games to be climatic and exciting, often infuriating, but West of Dead’s quirks are also to blame for some of my annoyances while playing. It’s a really good looking game for sure and that helps things to a certain extent even if the problems you’ll have are that the presence of gameplay menu options to toggle off elements like auto aim and camera shift would have made the overall experience that much better.