Weird West feels like if you took the twin stick shooter elements of a game like The Ascent and set it in a world that combined gameplay and thematic elements from Red Dead Redemption and Dishonored. It’s the first game from WolfEye Studios, formed by Raphael Colantonio and Julien Roby, former executives at Arkane Studios, the developer behind Dishonored and Prey, and it digs into the Weird West hybrid genre, which combines fantasy, horror, and sci-fi themes with a Western setting. The result is action-adventure with a stealth emphasis that captures the pulp novel vibe by dividing its story into an anthology connected by an occult interlocking narrative with overlapping characters on a shared map.
Weird West is a top-down combination action-RPG/immersive sim. While roleplaying games are such a widespread field that people are broadly aware of what makes one (build up your character by selecting skills/attributes/perks, maybe pick a backstory, make gameplay choices that affect the narrative), immersive sims are an elusive genre to define. They’re typically in first-person and frequently allow, if not require, shooting as a means of combat. They lean heavily into manipulable physics and environmental interaction, giving the player the freedom to do things like setting a trap by putting a mine near an oil spill to cause a fire to damage multiple enemies. But they also tend to allow enemy avoidance through stealth or mechanics like hacking, and sometimes even dialog, as in an RPG.
Weird West takes these components and fits them through a top-down window, a viewpoint popularized by isometric and trimetric projection role-playing games from the late 1980s to the early 2000s. While largely dormant in big budget spaces as videogames have moved to full 3D graphics and RPGs have focused more on individual characters, the revival of the Diablo and Baldur’s Gate franchises and the emergence of top-down viewpoints in popular mid-major indie games like Pillars of Eternity and, more recently, Disco Elysium and Hades serve as examples that there’s still something vital there.
Weird West succeeds in combining its namesake genre (the term originated in DC Comics’ Weird Western Tales in 1972, but the genre has existed at least since the 1930s) with twin-stick shooter and immersive sim elements into an imminently playable experience. The moment-to-moment gameplay variety within each individual journey isn’t incredible, but the variety from each hero’s journey to the next is exciting. Going back to the same locations to chase different bounties eventually gets very repetitive, but transitioning into being a Pigman changed things entirely.
Granted, I felt more inclined to pour time into side quests during Jane Bell’s story, whereas I got through Cl’erns Qui’g’s in less than half the time even after having to re-do the first major mission half a dozen times to pull off a side quest that felt crucial (as morally imperative side quests often do) but that achievements told me is rarely accomplished by players. That’s probably in part because stealth feels much less forgiving than in Dishonored, my prime comparison point for the game; the camera angle creates more distance between the player and the character than you’ll find in a first-person game like Dishonored, and that can make it feel like you have less control. But also, maybe a Pigman is more noticeable than a human woman bounty hunter, and—more importantly—a little patience and pattern recognition goes a long way.
I also have to commend the development team for crediting rather than obscuring that they based the Lost Fire Nation off of the Anishinaabe people of the Great Lakes region in North America. It’s not often that indigenous people are treated respectfully in videogames, and it’s truly seldom that you get to wreak vengeance against settlers as a Native American. Much though I enjoyed Red Dead Redemption 2, it fell short of the mark depicting Native Americans, even as it improved on its predecessor.
Weird West is a combat-focused game where you have five classes of weapons—shotguns, pistols, melee, rifles, bows, and hand-to-hand. Shovels are used for burying bodies or digging-up graves and caches, while pick-axes are used for mining ore. Both break after a given amount of uses and can also be used as melee weapons. Augmented weapons can be found, while stock weapons (also plentiful among looted enemy corpses) can be augmented at a blacksmith by acquiring ore—which can also be smelted together and sold at a bank, where players can also buy a safety deposit box. Towns also include doctors, who can heal characters and sell health items; saloons, where players can rent rooms or play cards; general stores, where players can buy and sell goods; stables, where players can buy horses (which make travel faster, provide extra storage, and can otherwise be stolen from saloons); and sheriff’s offices, where players can acquire and turn-in bounties.
It starts with a familiar enough Western trope. Bandits raid your character’s homestead, killing your child and kidnapping your partner. Instead of working for an evil rancher or railroad man, though, you soon learn the attackers work for man-eating Sirens. Weird West’s world is full of such supernatural horrors, including wraiths and werewolves. Kindly townsfolk and roving robbers are both somewhat acclimated to dealing with these beings, though some civilians have it harder than others. Aside from seeing the setting as an overhead view combination of Dishonored’s steampunk dark magic and Red Dead Redemption’s prestige Spaghetti Western formula, I found myself comparing Weird West to Fallout: New Vegas, which had a Wild Wasteland optional perk setting that tuned up the wackiness, though the forthcoming PlayStation-exclusive action game Evil West and soon-to-be-sequelized tactical RPG Hard West might be closer comparisons. It’s a fun world that ends up being darker and more intense than silly, with humor often coming from absurdity, though one of the main supporting characters in the second journey made me laugh a lot with his written dialect (he’s a Pigman that is cursed to only speak in rhymes).
Between each hero’s journey, a couple mysterious, shadowy characters meet up to discuss the decisions the player—referred to as “The Passenger”—makes while inhabiting the given protagonist of that journey. Weird West plays with the concept of reincarnation among its other mystical themes, including casual reference to gods you’ve never heard of and the inclusion of multiple religious and sorcerous orders.
It would have been nice to have recorded voice-over dialog, but it’s not a prerequisite for a good story or a good time. There is a narrative voiceover with an archetypal gruff Western voice talking to the player character at key moments of the story. Whether the overall lack of voice-over was an artistic choice or a budgetary limitation (probably both), I feel like having more conversations in general—voiced or otherwise—would make the Weird West world feel more real. Meanwhile, repetitive quests and town layouts make the world feel limited and redundant throughout your explorations.
There are a few kinks with the combat, which can feel stilted and challenging at various points. Melee doesn’t seem particularly effective in open combat, though there are skills that can be augmented to change that. More annoyingly, aiming a ranged weapon doesn’t feel especially fluid, which sometimes turns your character into a sitting duck, or at least a flailing one. As the leveling system isn’t related to traditional pen-and-paper attributes, customization is limited in intentional ways, but there are still opportunities to define your playstyle; it’s just streamlined. Weird West grounds the player by giving opponents of different classes the same sorts of skills the player can acquire. By keeping the player character from feeling particularly spectacular, the weight of the stories overpower any sort of power fantasy. It’s a game where you might die a lot. It’s also one where combat can be augmented by recruiting a posse. Your followers will interact with each other, which makes them and the world they inhabit feel richer. Simultaneously, some characters you rescue, and some mercenaries you part ways with, will become a “Friend for Life” that jumps in to save you in a hairy situation. Some of them even carry over across journeys. And, while each character draws from the same pool of weapon-based abilities, they have abilities unique to their character as well, acquired from the Nimp Relics (which work like Runes from Dishonored). There are also perks that increase the effectiveness of weapons or healing items or increase player jump ability or damage resistance, which are acquired through using Golden Ace of Spades cards and carry over from each character audiences play as.
Ultimately Weird West is an interesting concept with a pretty solid execution, but the moment-to-moment gameplay can be frustrating in a way that doesn’t always feel customizable enough to be particularly rewarding. The analog sticks and cursor usage also make it feel like it’s built much more for PC than Xbox, but that doesn’t fully detract from how charming and well-written its characters and world are. The game encourages experimentation even in the loading screen tips; the designers really want you to try different strategies to move through combat and conversational interactions, telling you repeatedly, for instance, that even story relevant characters can be killed. This provides some opportunities for emergent narrative in addition to the emergent gameplay that comes from the way immersive sims are built on interacting systems.
I keep finding myself comparing Weird West to Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands, the last game I reviewed and one with which it has little in common on the surface. I feel like I may have underrated Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands at the time of review—I keep coming back to play in its vibrant and creative world. While this game doesn’t take place on a board, each miniature map has edges like parchment that you walk through to get to the map screen where you select your next destination. I really hope Weird West succeeds because I’d like to play more games like it. Whether or not it gets any further fine-tuning, Weird West is a successful execution of a subtly ambitious project, and a very good first outing for WolfEye.
Weird West was developed by WolfEye Studios and published by Devolver Digital. Our review is based on the Xbox One version. It’s also available on the PlayStation 4 and PC.
Kevin Fox, Jr. is a freelance writer, editor, and critic. He is a former Paste intern with an MA in history, who loves videogames, film, TV, and sports, and dreams of liberation. He can be found on Twitter @kevinfoxjr.