Title: Hard West 2
Developer: Ice Code Games
Release Date: August 4, 2022
Reviewed On: PC
Publisher: Good Shepherd Entertainment
The age of the Wild West was a time where death from dysentery was as certain as the sight of a cowboy chasing cattle. The American frontier was an era of exploration and discovery, but it was also known for its rampant lawlessness and sprawling badlands. You wouldn’t be wrong in thinking that life during this period was difficult, but in the world of Hard West 2, life gets even harder for those unfortunate enough to get caught up in the battle between the living and the dead.
Hard West 2 is part turn-based tactical RPG and part open-world, text-based adventure set in a supernatural version of the American Old West where you not only take on the usual enemies, like bandits and criminals, but also paranormal ones. Although this is a follow-up to the initial game released in 2015, it is not a direct sequel and can be played independently without prior knowledge of the first.
The introduction throws us straight into the action and starts like any other day in the Wild West – with a train heist, of course. Our main protagonist, Gin Carter, convinces his gang to take over a locomotive, dubbed “the Ghost Train,” allegedly carrying federal gold. But to get to that, our troublemaking posse must first go through the guards riding alongside and inside the train. Once they get to the carriage containing the valuables, they find it empty, and the promised reward they were expecting instead becomes a living nightmare.
The opening mission serves as a tutorial and initially lets you take control of 4 party members, which happens to be the maximum number of characters you’re allowed to bring into a battle. The starting group consists of the charismatic leader Gin Carter, the mystical sorceress Flynn, the sharpshooting Clive, and the enigmatic Native American Laughing Deer. While this is the team you start with, you will eventually meet additional party members.
Each ally has a different story that’s unlocked by raising their loyalty points. These points are increased through overworld conversations, where you’ll be given dialogue options that can positively impact a specific relationship depending on your choice. Although this feature doesn’t impact any combat elements and isn’t necessary for advancing the plot, it’s always a welcome aspect when character stories are fleshed out because it helps to improve the player’s experience and immersion into the game.
Once the opening mission is completed, you will then be able to explore the game’s open world. The environment is minimalistic yet beautifully designed, and the ravaged wilderness of the Old West is accurately depicted through its display of towns, farms, and settlements scattered over a stretch of barren wasteland. These landmarks and the people you meet within are interactable and are where you’ll be spending most of your time outside of battles.
Combat is designed with a grid-based movement system, and each party member is given three action points to either move, fight, or heal themselves. Characters can conceal themselves behind objects scattered throughout the field, either as half or full cover, which lowers the opponents’ accuracy. Bullets may also ricochet from highlighted items in the area, so an attack is still made possible even if an enemy isn’t within direct sight.
Every clash has a set of main objectives that need to be fulfilled to achieve victory. There are also optional side missions that, although unnecessary, can be completed to earn additional weapons, utility items, and money, among other things.
Bravado, a mechanic unique to the Hard West series, is a crucial aspect since most fights will be heavily tilted towards the opposing side. Bravado refills a character’s action points whenever they get a kill. Since you’re limited to a team of 4, maximizing this is integral to accomplishing objectives and winning encounters.
Now, it wouldn’t be a Western-themed game if it didn’t include some sort of gambling reference, and that’s precisely what it does with its clever integration in the use of playing cards and poker hand combinations in individual and team progression.
Playing cards can be found as you progress through your journey by completing minor open-world quests or fulfilling side objectives in battles. The cards can then be equipped to upgrade one of four character stats, namely health points, which affect how much damage a character can take before fainting. There’s also Speed, which influences how far a party member can move, luck, which impacts shot accuracy, and bullseye chance, which is just the game’s lingo for critical hits.
But what makes the playing cards a favorite facet of mine is the ability to combine them into poker hand combinations because they not only upgrade member attributes but also unlock character-specific skills and traits that can help turn the tide of battle in your favor.
Each character has a unique skill to tailor your strategy based on their strengths. The skill I enjoyed using the most was Flynn’s “Shadow Swap,” which enables her to switch places with any ally or enemy as long as it’s within her line of sight. The only catch is that both individuals’ HP would get reduced by one; however, the tradeoff is considerably favorable since it’s instrumental in eliminating stronger opponents by getting them out of position.
Yet, no matter how unique and charming its graphics and features are, Hard West 2 has some glaring shortcomings. The limited number of usable party members becomes a big issue, especially in the game’s latter stages. Encounters become increasingly difficult as the number of enemies grows, and the lack of allies means your strategy has to be near perfect to accomplish the main objective. In addition, healing and utility items, which can only be used on the individual that brought it, are limited to 2 per character, and you aren’t allowed to revive a fainted member.
There were also several bugs that I encountered throughout my playthrough that, although not game-breaking, were still noticeable such as bounty posters not disappearing from the inventory, attacks not registering immediately, and some text errors during open world dialogue.
Being a fan of strategic RPGs, I enjoyed the game entirely with its integration of novel elements and brilliantly designed graphics. Having completed it in less than 30 hours, it’s well worth it as the story’s originality defeats its linear nature, and there is enough variation in each encounter to keep you looking for more.
Hard West 2 is a tactically challenging work of art with a beautifully depicted environment and unique features that, much like its name, become progressively harder as you advance. Hardcore fans of tactical RPGs will savor what it has in store with its distinct combat system and necessity for well-thought-out strategies. Still, on the other hand, casual players may not be too happy with the level of difficulty as the game punishes aggressive and lackadaisical gameplay.
Regardless, it’s important to try not to make any deals with the devil, or you might end up in the Ghost Train on the way to the world of Hard West.
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