When a game gives you the power to do almost anything in its strange world, and you find yourself eating corpses every 10 minutes, you really start to take a long hard look at yourself. In the mad tornado of black magic, violence, and consequences that is Weird West, you find yourself making unexpected choices at every turn, never sure what they’ll mean until later. Pro tip: so far the corpse-eating has been consequence-free.
Fast Facts: Weird West
Release Date: March 31
Platform(s): PS4, Xbox One, PC
Developer: WolfEye Studios
Publisher: Devolver Digital
Weird West’s story is split into five distinct chapters, and in each, you’ll play as a different character. There’s Jane Bell, the retired gunslinger, The Pigman, Across Lakes of the native tribe, the powerful protector, and the witch. Their stories are connected and intertwined, a murky soup of occult practices, witches, flesh-eaters, and regret, told through dialogue, documents, and the environments you travel through. While they all have their own individual plotlines and different journeys to go on, they can pleasingly overlap. Once you’ve finished Bell’s story, for instance, you can go back as another character and recruit her to your posse. It’s nice, seeing an old friend, at least until you get her killed.
The actual gameplay is a mix of gunplay, strategic use of the environment – like lamps that can be shot to cause a blaze, barrels of oil, toxic chemicals – careful inventory management, and special powers afforded to your characters by collectible playing cards and relics. The isometric perspective does take some getting used to when you’re wielding your rifles and bows and shotguns, but the guideline helps accuracy (those lamps are pretty tiny) and I adapted faster than I expected. You’ve also got the option to go for stealth, sneaking up behind enemies, knocking them out, and hiding them in the bushes, but in my case, things got so chaotic so often this approach was only ever the amuse-bouche before a feast of bullets. I did manage to complete a main story mission where I had to sneak through a brothel, throw someone off a balcony and raid an office all without being spotted, but I’ll die before I tell you how many saves and reloads it took. It took me ages, but I did free some oppressed sex workers so, worth it.
Reaping what you sow
Unexpected consequences are Weird West’s real calling card, and a new sort of stress for people-pleasers like me who like to complete stories the “right” way. Anyone (apart from your character during their chapter) can die, permanently, even significant NPCs. You might think that’s only a worry for psychos who like to play the ultimate villain in their RPGs, but in a place full of monsters, explosives, and guns, accidents happen more than you think. When it comes to completing quests there always seems to be more than one way to get it done. There’s the classic charging at the front door, weapons drawn, the old stealthily creeping between rooms, waiting for guards to wander just far enough away, but there are also other methods that reward the experimental, like running across the rooftops to find a skylight and avoiding people entirely, or uncovering a well and finding a secret way into a house. Which method you choose will determine your reputation in the world, which can affect prices in stores and who will travel with you, and maybe spark a vendetta, if you kill someone and their nearest and dearest flee promising revenge.
At times the crazy, ‘anything can happen’ emergent gameplay stops being delightful and starts causing problems. Fighting a horde of monstrous Ridgebacks in one town, a dynamite blast somehow carried through a wall (without breaking it) and wiped out a few random members of an innocent family I couldn’t even see inside. Suddenly I was being labeled a murderer, the father had a vendetta against me, and the townsfolk ignored my monster clearing services and piled out of the church, ready to fight. There’s always an option to quicksave before you try something risky, or reload if something goes wrong, but it’s all too easy for things to escalate before you’ve even considered protecting your progress.
Till death do us part
The same problems arise when you add to your posse. Even significant characters can die, and do because they’re not the smartest about not running into your line of fire or avoiding lakes of burning oil. It made me anxious I was missing out on big story beats because my new friends lacked any self-preservation skills. You can bolster their chances by sharing better equipment with them and healing them, but in a giant firefight, you just won’t get to them in time. I don’t even have any answers about how a game designer would balance the freedom of choice with these petty irritations, other they’re just two sides of the same coin. The very things that annoyed me will thrill more chaotic players, who’ll no doubt find ways to wipe out whole towns with a few sticks of dynamite and ride laughing into the sunset on a stolen horse.
Smart choices have been made that preserve the feeling of exploration without needing to construct a fully open world. You’ll travel between markers on the world map, but you’ll have random encounters – some good, some bad – along the way and you can choose anywhere to stop and hunt or sleep when you need to top up your HP. Other than time limits on bounties and selected side quests you’re free to delay your main mission and hop between locations looking for fights or treasure or to see how the residents you met previously are doing. Some widows will have remarried, so you’ll see their names changed, and graves you dug for friends or your victims (or both) stay where you left them. Some areas that had their population wiped out become full of outlaws or monsters. I live for open-world games, wasting time picking herbs and wandering around, and there was just enough of that feeling in Weird West to hook me. It was rare to visit even a random location and not find something, a battle, loot, even an unexpected sidequest, that gives you a little dopamine reward for getting distracted.
In the end, Weird West makes the rollercoaster ride through its world so compelling that you’ll just stop caring about doing everything perfectly. The consequences are just twists in the story you’re creating alongside the main narrative, and it’s hard to imagine that two people’s playthroughs will ever look exactly alike. Though if you find yourself having an existential crisis after eating too many corpses, do feel free to slide into my DMs. I think I’m going to start a support group.
Reviewed on PS5 with a code provided by the publisher.
4 out of 5
Weird West has the ambition of a much larger game, and has made smart choices to be able to meet it.