Welcome to Purgatory
West of Dead is a lot of things. It’s a roguelite, procedurally generated, twin stick cover shooter with a dash of metroidvania thrown in. All narrated by the indelible Ron Pearlman. Now I understand the phrases roguelite and procedurally generated don’t generally instill confidence in gamers these days, but it seems to work here…really well.
But the game is pretty hard. Not Cuphead hard but like with any roguelike, the difficulty comes in the fact that you have to start all over again once you die. So you need to keep your wits about you and accept that at some stage you will need to start again.
You wake up as William Mason (Ron Pearlman) in purgatory and your goal is ultimately to get your memory back slowly to work out how you ended up here. But this is the “Wild West” version of purgatory and it’s really neat. You even start the game in a saloon, where the bartender likes to make conversation and as you progress, the bar fills up with more NPCs that like to dole out advice or just have a chat.
You make your way through procedurally generated stages, moving from room to room, clearing out enemies or finding upgrades to make yourself stronger. As you kill enemies you collect Iron, which acts as the currency to spend on weapons and assists bought from the merchant of the stage. Some enemies also randomly drop Sin. Which are your upgrade points which you can “cleanse” yourself of in between stages. Sin can be used to purchase new weapons and assists that can spawn during stages, or life flasks that give you a limited number of 100HP health refills depending on the flask you buy. Which honestly is where your sin should go first. Once you have the ability to extend your life, so to does your time spent in the game tend to extend.
As dark as your soul
West of Dead has a really striking visual style. A cell shaded, minimalist delight that only gives you the visual information you need at the time and it works. The visual and audio cues lend beautifully to the combat and give you ample warning and time to react or attack. If you die in this game, it really was your fault.
Each stage has a distinct look but still keeps within the visual rules set by the art style. From the Mines to the Bayou, each one has a unique signature and introduces a new enemy type or hazard for you to be on the lookout for. But I do admit the constant foreboding darkness of the game can feel overwhelming or draining early on when you’re dying more often and repeating early stages a lot.
Rootin’ tootin’ shootin’
The combat is really fun here. My only real gripe is probably with the melee. Given how many buttons go unused, it seems strange to not have a dedicated melee button and allow the game to decide when your trigger – normally reserved for shooting, will melee either an enemy or a break a door. It’s an interesting decision to be sure and the only reason that comes to mind is streamlining? But it seems to work against the game here. Hopefully it’s something that can be added a later date because I feel it could be a point of frustration for many.
Aside from that though, it’s a blast to play through. Mason automatically goes into cover when near a box, pillar or other….cover item. You can hold one of your triggers (one for each weapon) to pop out and aim your gun, or simply press for a semi-blind shot. The weapon system almost reminded me of Halo CE in that you can only carry 2 and that there’s a strategy to what you carry into combat scenarios. But here you’re given stats to actually help your decision.
Light can also be used to stun enemies, again reminding me of an old favourite in Alan Wake, as lanterns are spread throughout many of the rooms you attempt to clear. But you need to be strategic in your timing using them and they don’t affect all enemies.
I will say, I did notice the game has some auto-aim issue at times. I’d be using my right stick to aim and my gun would be trying to point at an enemy far away on the other side of the room, despite an enemy being right in front of me. It was genuinely annoying when it happened, but didn’t happen often enough to mar my enjoyment.
You also carry two abilities, which vary from personal lanterns to dynamite. As you progress further and further into the game, these items get stronger so you need to ensure you upgrade yourself in order to maximise their effectiveness.
You upgrade yourself at “Grow” stations, where you choose between Toughness (health upgrade), Perception (firearms damage) and Resourcefulness (ability upgrade). As the stages are procedurally generated, the Grow stations are in different places each time and there aren’t always the same number of them so choose wisely.
Rogue…like? or lite?
Roguelikes tend to be a little harsher than a rougelite in that a roguelite allows you to keep some form of upgrade/items in between deaths. West of Dead allows you to keep all Crypt bought upgrades between runs. But all in game upgrades and progress are lost upon death, which can be heartbreaking if you’ve hit a really good power level and rhythm in your run.
But honestly, the game is enjoyable enough to play where it’s nowhere near as frustrating as I thought it would be to have to start all over again. The simple act of playing this game is really good. Which is important because you will die. The game even knows you will because it teases you like any metroidvania would with areas you can’t access as early as the first stage. It borderline tells you you’re going to die and you’ll be back here at some point.
The art is in learning enemy patterns, hazards and a weapon combination that suits your play style. For those who also like the extra thrill of the challenge, there are lost souls throughout the game that give you their “burden”. This burden is effectively an insta-death curse than can only be lifted once you kill 6 enemies without being hit. Upon accepting the burden, you receive a bunch of weapons, abilities and upgrades of your choosing to sort through. So it’s not all for sheer challenge.
West of Dead is a really enjoyable game that hooks you with its combat. While the idea of starting all over again can be a brutal punishment, particularly when you’ve found yourself nicely upgraded and powerful, the game is fun enough for it to not detract from your enjoyment too much.
Given it’s on Game Pass, it’s definitely something you should add to your queue.
|Reviewed on||Xbox One|
|Available on||Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, Playstation 4|5, Nintendo Switch, Windows PC|
|Release Date||June 18th, 2020|