The idea of there being an afterlife is an intriguing concept, to say the least. For some, it’s a place you go to be judged after you shuffle off this mortal coil, while some believe that life begins anew. For West of Dead, however, the afterlife acts as a stylish housing for a roguelike twin-stick shooter that shows little mercy and a slight lack of cohesion.
West of Dead is a tale that places players in the spurred boots of William Mason, a fallen gunslinger who now finds himself wandering the dusty tracks of purgatory, in a constant standoff against its inhabitants. With Ron Perlman on narrative duties, we’re provided with a running commentary from our protagonist as he tries to figure out why he’s stuck in this weird west inspired Groundhog Day loop – with more being revealed as an incentive for survival.
It’s no wonder that developers Raw Fury chose Perlman for this role, as West of Dead is a visual dead ringer of the original Hellboy series of comics – using a combination of striking black shadows and muted colours. Mason’s character design is also particularly picturesque, with an aesthetic that resembles a poncho wearing Ghost Rider.
While it’s important to ensure that style doesn’t outbalance substance, West of Dead manages to build its visuals into its gameplay mechanics, with lighting playing an important role in your survival. Each dingey procedurally generated area is littered with oil lamps, which can be used to illuminate what’s lurking in the shadows. This is something that latches itself onto the core of the combat, perhaps being more of a hindrance than a feature at times.
Each instance of combat plays out like an old west showdown – complete with conveniently placed blocks of cover. Making sure to maintain cover during a shootout is integral to your survival, as it doesn’t take long for dead gunmen and monsters alike to put you back in the ground. These undead menaces will attempt to break your cover, either by charging towards you or physically breaking it upon attacking.
While this could have been a great way to add another layer to the combat, areas are frequently littered with things to cower behind, making the threat of exposure seem slightly redundant. You’ll also need to carefully time your shots per the ammo capacity of your weapon and reload speed, as despite this being a twin-stick shooter, Mason can’t just let loose like it’s Robotron: 2084.
As thrilling as a tense shootout against the undead sounds, there are a few gripes to be had with the way these specific twin-stick mechanics work. As previously mentioned, illuminating your foes is important, but this is because the game makes it almost impossible to take a shot in the dark. Despite being able to aim with the right thumbstick, accuracy is directly tied to the games ‘aim-lock’ feature, which requires enemies to be visible before functioning properly. This means that despite carefully lining up your shot, it’s highly unlikely to reach your target.
Unfortunately, there’s more wrong with these aiming mechanics than just the rules they abide by. For one, manually aiming will frequently be cancelled out by the insistency of auto-aim, which more often than not will cause you to shoot at a completely different target – sometimes pointing your gun at something inanimate instead. Not only does this add to the frustrations of an already challenging experience, but it also trips the combat of any strategic prowess, turning the affair into a point-blank quest for a lucky shot.
Even if the combat is dampened by temperamental mechanics, West of Dead has a whole armoury of firearms that can be collected during each run. Each pistol, shotgun and rifle found during your afterlife escapade has three characteristics – damage, reload time and ammo capacity, which fundamentally change how the weapon feels to use. For example, some pistols will encourage firing more shots with less damage, while rifles require the player to carefully line up their shot to ensure maximum damage and accuracy.
That being said, I personally felt a complete aversion to rifles during my playthrough, as their emphasis on holding the trigger to aim then releasing felt hampered by the aiming mechanics. Rifle shots also seem to be narrower than the pistol, which incidentally caused them to fly past enemy hitboxes like the divine intervention scene of Pulp Fiction.
Each hand cannon and boomstick also has its own unique name, alongside its own set of traits and stats. These traits range from anything to be able to land a critical shot under certain circumstances, to inflicting status effects on your foes. As well as possessing specific abilities, weaponry is also categorised by level, meaning the higher the number, the better the capabilities. This system of progressive loot might be commonplace in many roguelikes but still adds some excitement and flair to each run.
In addition to the traditional smoke and gunpowder is also a collection of melee weapons and throwables – just in case you fancy bringing an axe or some dynamite to a gunfight. These can be mixed and matched within two equippable slots, which can also facilitate buffs such as faster reload times. This means that Mason can have two firearms and two additional items to accompany him during his purgatory purge – which certainly comes in handy when dealing with the array of fiends out for his ablaze head.
West of Dead’s deception of purgatory is a perilous place, with danger ramping up as soon as Mason leaves the comfort of the spectral saloon starting area. Ahead of each run is the expected procedurally generated level, with some entry-level weaponry randomly generated for you to pick up before traversing the treacherous path ahead. Things start off relatively tame, with a few gunmen and zombies littered around the darkness, which helps ease you into a rhythm. It’s not before long though that you’re up against snarling beasts and aggressive outlaws, all hidden within unpredictable murky narrow corridors.
Each enemy within West of Dead has its own way of being uniquely threatening, which adds to the hostile unpredictability of the game. One minute you’re having a shootout against criminals, the next you’re being chased down by some sort of pagan demon. While enemy variety is always welcome, there are occasions when the procedurally generated levels make for an impossible fight. There’s a particular scenario that can occur when dog-like beasts are awaiting you at the top of a ladder, which due to the speed of the enemies means that it’s physically impossible to ascend without having your blood spilt.
Surviving each of West of Dead’s zones and progressing through its chapters might contain an element of luck, but there’s definitely contingencies and preparations that can be made. Each area will have points of interest that can be utilised, such as alters that will allow you to increase your health or damage output and a merchant who’ll sell you items. Seeking these out, rather than beelining straight for the level exit will increase your chances of survival in the next area.
Fighting enemies and mini-bosses will also allow for the collection of ‘sins’, which can be used to parlay with a witch residing in the safe zone between levels. Sins act as a currency for unlockable items, such as an Estus Flask style health bottle or new weapons that can be potentially found during your outings. These purchases will stay with you in death, which is handy considering the consequences of failure typically found within a roguelike of this calibre.
Whether it happens fairly or not, at some point you’re likely going to bite the dust. As this is a roguelike, this means you’re sent straight back to the beginning of the game with empty pockets. While you’ll occasionally have luck on your side, allowing for a run to feel like a substantial achievement, you’ll often find yourself slowly trekking back through the starting areas of the game, waiting for the randomised powers that be to cut you a break.
With each death, however, comes newfound strength and knowledge, collected both by the player and by Mason through slowly purchasing permanent items from the witch. This premise means that even if you die a thousand times, you should be able to progress further and further with every run – providing that you learn from your mistakes and don’t screw up.
West of Dead won’t be for everyone, but there’s no denying its style and substance. While there’s a lot of room for improvement when it comes to the mechanics, this roguelike still offers enough to be enjoyable, even if it’s infuriatingly frustrating at times. West of Dead’s faults are also things that perhaps can be patched in the future, meaning that this weird west adventure could vastly improve. Ultimately, if you are a fan of roguelike mechanics, or just love the aesthetic, West of Dead is at least worth a quick look – even if it’s just to hear the dulcet tones of Ron Perlman.