Eastern Promises

HIGH The art style.

LOW When I don’t get the “Traitor” revolver.

WTF That economy.

West of Dead continues publisher Raw Fury’s eye for titles with good visual style and tight mechanical design. Unfortunately, West of Dead also continues a trend of indies that would be perfect if not for bugs and design issues that are sure to be ironed out in six months’ time.

The game is a roguelike, procedurally generated twin-stick shooter played from a cinematic isometric view. The art style is evocative of Mike Mignola’s Hellboy comics – all heavy blacks with splashes of color – and it even has Hellboy himself, actor Ron Perlman, voicing the main character.

The story follows a mysterious gunman with a flaming skull who wakes up to find himself dead and possibly in purgatory. He’s told that good souls head East and bad ones go West, but there’s a preacher blocking travel in both directions. The gunman must try and track down the preacher and piece together his own past while doing so.

The dungeons are broken up into dark rooms and hallways, and in each room there are a number of cover spots behind tombs or boxes, etc, that the player can flit between while taking pot-shots at the enemy. There are also unlit lanterns in most rooms, and turning them on will stun enemies. Using the cover and lanterns is important because health items are random and sparse until a life-giving canteen is unlocked, and even then, it’s not much.

How the player approaches each area depends on their loadout. Guns are randomly found or bought from a shop with randomized merchandise from an initially-small pool, and the player can carry two firearms at a time. 

Guns have infinite ammo that reloads over time. Shotguns pack a punch, but have short range and small capacity. Rifles shoot much further, but require lining up shots to do good damage. Pistols and revolvers are mid-range and reliable, but deal low damage compared to the others. In addition, the gunman has two ability slots that can equip random active effects with cooldowns such as grenades, quicker reload times, or damage shielding. There are also passive support effects, as well.

West of Dead is divided up into chapters, each containing three procedural maps and a boss fight. There are also extra levels that contain monsters and secrets. The player levels up on each run by finding upgrade spots that grant a choice between more health, stronger abilities, or upped weapon damage. When a character dies, all of their upgrades, guns and support items are removed, but some persistence comes from finding ‘fragments’ of new weapons and abilities that can be unlocked with in-game currency. Once purchased, those items will appear in the randomized rotation.

The devs go to lengths to force the player to change their strategy like a good roguelike should – some enemies charge the player, some monsters are invulnerable from the front, some foes warp behind the player, and so on. I found myself butting heads with problematic enemies in the second map, but once I understood how they worked, I was able to push further into the game until faced with the next challenge. Every death made me want to go back and try again, and it was all smoothed out by the sound of a great cinematic Western soundtrack and Ron Perlman’s tones.

When the action in West of Dead is flowing, it feels great — vaulting over cover to trigger a lantern that stuns enemies, and then shooting them with a revolver while they’re paralyzed for a moment is fantastic. Unfortunately, West of Dead is also host to lots of little problems that rubbed me the wrong way.

First were the small things like the auto-aim occasionally encouraging me to shoot at a harmless barricade instead of the enemy in front of me, and sometimes not even aiming at things in the same room. Sometimes the fiery cowboy might slide through cover instead of over it. There are chat prompts encouraging the player to converse with the NPCs, only to find that there’s no relevant dialogue there.

However, the worst offender is the economy.

The first map generates about 12 units of meta-currency for unlocks. The issue? After the first few that cost 10-20 each, most of the weapons and upgrades cost at least 75, with some going all the way up to 500. Earning that much buying power requires a grind that doesn’t feel rewarding and undermines the good work done elsewhere in West of Dead.

Despite the small bugs and a skewed economy that diminishes the experience, West of Dead is still something I can’t put down. The developers seem committed to fixes and I expect the experience to improve as time goes on, but it’s already an incredibly solid game that I enjoy and can easily recommend.

Rating: 8.5 out of 10

Disclosures: This game is developed by Upstream Arcade and published by Raw Fury  It is currently available on PC, Switch, PS4 and XBO. This copy of the game was obtained via Game Pass reviewed on the XBO-X. Approximately 10 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was not completed. There are no multiplayer modes.

Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated T and contains Fantasy Violence. The game is cartoonishly violent and contains a lot of dark themes. Ron Perlman narrates stories of violence against children, abandonment, and drinking. It fully earns the T rating.

Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available in the options.

Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: The game is playable without sound but the game plays a tune when a room is cleared and subtly changes the camera angle — there were a couple of times where I didn’t notice the camera angle change, so was not aware that the room was cleared. The text size cannot be altered, nor can the color be changed.

Remappable Controls: No, this game’s controls are not remappable.

AJ Small
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