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June 2021

West of Dead

Platform(s): Nintendo Switch, PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Genre: Action/Adventure
Publisher: Raw Fury
Developer: Upstream Arcade
Release Date: June 18, 2020


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PC Review - 'West of Dead'

by Cody Medellin on Dec. 3, 2020 @ 12:30 a.m. PST

West of Dead is a fast-paced twin-stick shooter that takes place in Purgatory, a place of gun smoke and darkness, sin and damnation, wendigos and witches.

The Wild West is still an intriguing backdrop for games, largely due to its association with general lawlessness and tense gunfights. There are plenty of stories from a time period that shares similarities with the Medieval era but features firearms instead of blades. With that said, PC players can chuckle at the fact that they got three Westerns to choose from in the span of a week. Desperados III gives players a more strategic take on the genre. Colt Canyon has the genre set up as a top-down roguelike. West of Dead is also a roguelike, but it's different enough to stand out in a few different ways.

West of Dead is a Western with a more supernatural angle. You play the role of William Mason, a man with no memories of his past. He also happens to be dead, has a flaming skull for a head, and is stuck in the aptly named Purgatory, Wyoming. To regain his memories, he needs to hunt down wayward souls in a Wild West setting until he can finally put together the pieces of his past. According to the man running the supernatural bar, the one soul that might be the cause of this is aptly named The Preacher.

At its core, West of Dead follows the expected roguelike blueprint that many genre followers are familiar with. Every level you enter might have environments change aesthetically, whether they're desert- or winter-themed, but they'll take place in dungeons that look like mine shafts that are connected by hallways with wooden supports. Everything is randomized, from the level layouts to the enemy placement and the locations of guns and stores to acquire temporary upgrades. Between levels, you'll be able to get some health refills and exchange Sins for more permanent upgrades that carry over between runs. Death still means having to start over from scratch with nothing but the permanent upgrades you've acquired, and the only real negative is that you have to go through the same story scenes again per run; it's an annoyance if you aren't heavily invested in the story to begin with.

One interesting thing about the randomization mechanic is that it also affects your starting weapon. You don't have a default weapon that you always start with, and while the game isn't cruel to the point that you need to procure firearms from the field, you are at the mercy of whatever the virtual dice roll provides for the run. You gain access to limited firearm types, such as shotguns for great power at a short range, rifles that are better suited for long-range attacks, and pistols that are all-around guns. That may disappoint some who are looking for a broader weapon arsenal, but at least the guns have different variations, such as faster reloading or double-barreled versions.

Combat plays out like a typical twin-stick shooter but with plenty of variations to make it feel different. You can only carry up to two guns at a time, but each is fired off with different buttons, so you won't spend time switching between them in battle. The guns have infinite ammo, but they need to be reloaded, and while you have a manual reload button, reloads can occur automatically either when you empty the clip or if you don't spend a short bit of time shooting. Get close to an enemy, and you can melee them, which makes for a nice last-ditch attack if you're in the middle of a reload, since it isn't an overpowered move as it is in other shooters. Defensively, while you can roll-dodge, you can also take cover behind objects that can absorb the gunfire.

The cover mechanic comes with a few traits that may seem different. Most objects can be destroyed if they're hit repeatedly, but they can respawn after a while. It makes sense since you're in a supernatural setting, but it also gives the game a more arcade feel. The other trait is that your character sticks to cover when passing by an object. On the one hand, you won't have to fiddle with a button to get in and out of cover, so you can concentrate on the fighting. On the other hand, it can be an annoyance when you clear out the room and still move slowly through it because you're unnecessarily sticking to cover.

While nothing in West of Dead radically changes how the genre is played out, the experience remains solid due to its emphasis on playing tactically rather than spraying the area with lead. Shooting is a slower affair, especially since you need to press the button to aim before releasing it to fire, so every shot feels like it has to count. With more enemies sitting in the dark, your focus changes to activating lanterns so you can see more of your surroundings in addition to blinding your enemies so you can get in a few hits. Enemies with different attack patterns start to swarm the room, and retreat isn't always a viable option since some doors close behind you. The fighting is less chaotic and more visceral, especially since the game slows with every hit you take, reminding you of how it doesn't take much to take you out.

There is an issue with the game's camera. It's a good choice to go with an isometric camera, since there aren't too many roguelites like that, and since you'll be visiting so many dungeons, you'll certainly get RPG vibes. However, the inability to rotate or tilt the camera means that some doors that don't necessarily lead to secrets or power-ups are going to be much tougher to see than others. The zoom level is problematic if you sit a decent distance away from your TV set; the overall gameplay area can feel quite small, especially with the environments not boasting too many open areas. This is less of an issue if you sit close to your TV or if you're playing on a monitor, so it can be a situation-specific issue.

Graphically, West of Dead looks very stylish. The graphic novel look means that huge swaths of the screen are soaked in black, and although the other colors don't cover a wide spectrum, they "pop" more due to that singular color's overwhelming presence. The character designs and animations are quite nice, and the starkness of the environment makes for a different-looking version of the West and purgatory, but due to the aforementioned camera zoom, you won't appreciate it much unless you're visiting the watch or bartender. Considering the circumstances, the lack of abundant effects is a bit disappointing, but at least the game maintains a high frame rate without much issue.

While not as good as the graphics, the audio does its job to make the presentation appealing. Hearing Ron Perlman do a more subdued voice may throw people off initially, but you get accustomed to it since it isn't immediately recognizable. You'll wish that other characters in the game get to speak as often; the game feels a bit empty otherwise, but that can be chalked up to another way of emphasizing your lone journey. The effects and music are quite good, but though you won't hear the latter as much unless you're in gunfights. Given how short some of these gunfights are, it can be tiresome to hear the same ending guitar riff again and again.

West of Dead does most things right as far as roguelites go. The random nature of almost every element of every run can cause some large difficulty spikes, but the overall difficulty evens out in the end. The premise works fine even if it means having to hear it countless times over multiple runs, and while the measured combat feels fresh for a Western, the zoomed-out camera angle doesn't help you appreciate it. Overall, West of Dead is a solid roguelike for those who aren't burned out on the genre yet.

Score: 7.5/10

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