With the success of Deathloop last year, the comeback of immersive sims from their late 90s/early 2000s heyday seems to be in full swing. Through dogged determination and fantastic game design, Arkane Studios has almost single-handedly revived the genre a decade after releasing the first Dishonored title.
So it makes sense that Weird West — a game seeking to advance the immersive sim resurgence by looking even further back — comes from one of the minds behind Dishonored: ex-Arkane founder Raphael Colantonio. Now leading the 20-strong WolfEye Studios, the developer’s first title switches to a top-down perspective reminiscent of the Diablo series — as well as the original Fallout and Ultima games — while still seeking to retain the freedom Colantonio’s previous first-person titles have granted players.
The result is certainly ambitious. Weird West tells the stories of five interconnected characters in a supernatural Wild West inhabited by cannibalistic sirens and stitched-together “pigmen”, switching player control as certain points in the story are reached. It’s a smart device in an immersive sim, practically forcing the player to try different styles of play by giving them new perspectives and abilities, as well as switching player allegiance between the multitude of factions inhabiting the world. While the main story is fixed, new side content and locations are generated with each new save, providing plenty of proving grounds to try out builds and weapons.
What’s admirable on WolfEye’s part is its insistence that everything the player does must have consequences. The headline mechanics of Weird West all have this in mind: towns will become depopulated if all the inhabitants are killed, with new factions or supernatural enemies eventually moving in. Do a favour for a stranger and they’ll pay you back in the future by backing you up in combat at a time of their choice. Leave a survivor of an enemy gang and they’ll declare a vendetta and hunt you down. Do enough immoral things and one of your posse might leave your side — or even try to kill you.
This interactivity extends into combat, layering variable after variable on what’s a pretty simple twin-stick shooter system. A raft of different abilities can be unlocked by collecting and redeeming Nimp Relics, from fanning the hammer on your six-shooter to a silent but deadly shot of your rifle. As satisfying as some of these are, there’s a lot more gratification in using your environment to take down your enemies: kicking an explosive barrel off a ledge and igniting it to blow up a curious guard, or shooting arrows through fire to set enemies ablaze. Simply put, creative players will have a field day with Weird West’s combat, especially when it’s short and sharp.
When gun battles become drawn out, however, cracks start to appear in the combat system. The game’s simple cover system becomes frustrating in certain environments where cover is just too high to peek out from — often in more intense gunfights, you’ll accidentally unload a few bullets into a rock you thought was low enough to fire over. In larger battles this becomes redundant as enemies constantly try to flank you, devolving into you and your adversaries running circles around each other and constantly firing. Friendly AI is pretty patchy too — your posse members will often run straight through patches of burning oil, which becomes immensely frustrating if they end up dying. We experienced occasional chuggy frame rates and small visual bugs too, though these could be fixed through patches.
So combat is best enjoyed in short bursts: ambush your enemies, control the chaos, loot, and repeat. This also brings out the best of Weird West’s survival aspects since, without relying on luck, you need to be properly tooled up before a fight. The game’s travel system allows you to camp out anywhere on the world map so you can hunt, eat, and rest before a big fight. Resources are scarce enough to keep you on your toes. Even if you’re swimming in bullets one second, one unplanned firefight — not a rare occurrence on your travels — can empty out your bandolier pretty quickly.
As with all immersive sims, stealth is an option, but in Weird West, it’s both unrewarding and a little monotonous. Your character has stealth takedowns and some stealthy abilities at their disposal, plus there’s the option of burying bodies with a shovel or locking doors to stop enemy patrols from discovering them. Often a solution can be to just wait for a good opportunity — maybe a wild coyote will kill a patrolman, causing others to run to their slain comrade.
But guards’ patrol patterns are often too complex to anticipate, and not many of the game’s abilities — at least the fun and useful ones — lend themselves to playing stealthily. Weird West is most fun when you’re wrestling to control the chaos unleashed by an ambush you’ve set yourself, not burying bodies and waiting to take down the umpteenth guard with a snap of their neck.
The type of freedom Weird West grants the player is on who and how you kill, not whether you have to do it or not. Some quests do allow you to take more diplomatic solutions to problems, but most of the randomly-generated side content doesn’t. This left us with a feeling that WolfEye’s ambitions have chafed up against their resources — the world of Weird West reacts fantastically to the player’s behaviour, but as a world itself it isn’t too interesting. There’s plenty of lore to read, moral quandaries to ponder, and factions to align yourself with, but the places you actually walk around in (the randomly-generated homesteads, towns and mines you come across on your travels) look pretty similar to each other, and the side quests aren’t particularly imaginative.
Weird West sets its sights high by promising player freedom and a responsive world to butterfly effect the hell out of, and it very nearly delivers on all of it. At its best, WolfEye Studios' first outing offers delightfully chaotic combat and an interesting supernatural setting that leaves no actions without consequence. But while in many respects Weird West achieves some of its grander ambitions, it fails to nail some of the basics. Immersive sim fans will be in their element here, but Raphael Colantonio's latest won't have as wide an appeal as his previous successes with Arkane.