Hard West 2 is a follow-up from Ice Code Games and Good Shepherd Entertainment, and promises challenging turn-based bouts as you make your way through a grim frontier. Granted, I didn’t know what to expect since I didn’t play the original game, but parts of this sequel did intrigue me.
In a way, Hard West 2 carves out its own path in a genre where certain concepts have become the norm. Still, there were moments that became too tedious as time wore on, primarily driven by the core mechanics.
Ghost trains and bargains with the devil
Hard West 2 starts when a posse of outlaws led by Gin Carter attempts to rob a train. Rumor has it that the train is haunted and, soon enough, they meet someone known as Mammon (who, apparently, could be the devil himself). A firefight ensues, causing the train to derail. Some members of the gang emerge from the wreckage, regrouping to meet new friends and foes. The narrative develops with familiar tropes from the Weird West fiction genre (not to be confused with a game with the same name). There are bandits mixed in with specters, as well as a bit of supernatural horror.
Apart from Carter, your group is comprised of Flynn, a mysterious young woman, and Laughing Deer, who is peerless when it comes to melee combat. You’ll also encounter Cla’Lish, who knows of the mystic arts, and Lazarus, a man who’s also hunting for Mammon. And, yes, there’s even an undead fella named Old Man Bill, whose eternal slumber is disturbed when you unearth his coffin.
There are key moments in Hard West 2 when you’re presented with dialogue options, whereupon some of your party members may gain loyalty. This does feel a bit tacked on. True, your teammates will never leave you outright (as was the case in some RPGs). But, you’re mostly just seeing who gets a loyalty point first. Eventually, these choices will simply unlock new options when prompted, perhaps giving you an extra reward or another means of completing a sidequest.
The deck is stacked
Unlike other RPGs or turn-based strategy games, Hard West 2 doesn’t rely on traditional leveling. Instead, you acquire skills and stat boosts by way of poker hands (probably one of the niftiest concepts I’ve seen in recent memory). Some main missions or sidequests provide you with playing cards. You can then equip these on your characters to earn perks.
For instance, simply having a pair might unlock a character’s skill, but a full house or royal flush would unlock better options (including the lower-tier perks). This makes for a rather intriguing mechanic, at least at the start. Near the end, you can expect at least four of your party members to have a full deck.
And you’re going to need those abilities and perks. That’s because Hard West 2‘s idea of a challenge is to throw dozens of enemies in an area to make things rough for your four-person party. The good news is that you’ve got brilliant mechanics such as Trick Shots (available for most handguns and some rifles) and Bravado.
Trick Shots allow you to hit opponents that might be behind cover by shooting an object to cause the bullet to ricochet. Imagine having a zero percent chance to damage a foe, and then having that bullet bounce around for a guaranteed hit. Bravado, meanwhile, refreshes a character’s action points (AP) after they’ve killed an enemy. This allows you to go on a rampage: use three of your characters to lower the HP of several goons, and have the fourth eliminate them one by one as Bravado chain kills restore their AP multiple times in a single turn.
One by one, they all fall down
Of course, there are also character abilities to take note of. Carter’s Shadow Barrage hits all units in a straight line, even passing through walls and obstacles. Laughing Deer’s Wild Run lets him rush a target, gaining extra damage for every tile that he crosses. Then there’s Flynn’s Shadow Swap, which allows her to switch places with an opponent, either to get a better vantage point, move a threat further away (i.e., Wendigos and their melee counters), or to start a setup. Moreover, Old Man Bill’s ability, Deadman’s Revenge, might just be the ideal nuke. It causes him to fire multiple projectiles to hit every enemy in his line of sight, with extra damage dealt depending on how low his HP is.
Each encounter, therefore, feels like a puzzle of sorts. A good example is an area with around 10 enemies. You can have Bill tank most of the hits to lower his HP. Then, get Flynn to move closer to the middle of the zone so that all hostiles are visible. Next, Flynn swaps with Bill to reposition him, and Bill unleashes his nuke. Regrettably, outside of their main abilities, your posse members are mostly “samey” in certain regards. They can equip the same weapons (and have the same weapon skills), and there are no armor pieces to wear — just accessories.
Lastly, apart from the usual battles, you might also experience chase sequences. These have your characters or enemies on horseback, with the mounts galloping straight ahead. You’ll have to watch the tile where your character would move, as there are obstacles that would outright put them out of commission.
Sadly, despite all the actions that you can do when fighting baddies in Hard West 2, there’s one mechanic that I truly missed: overwatch. I will admit that this staple of the turn-based strategy genre can feel overdone. Likewise, it can lead to a scenario where you’re just skipping turns while waiting for your foes (I’m looking at you, XCOM series). However, there’s a way to retain that, while also integrating fresh ideas. This is something that Gears Tactics and Warhammer 40K: Chaos Gate – Daemonhunters managed to do spectacularly.
Both those titles had an overwatch action, as well as an AP-refreshing mechanic by way of executions. Essentially, you’ve got an ideal blend of defensive tactics where you wait for hostiles to move into your cone of fire, and aggressive attempts to rush and take out a pack. These go hand in hand, creating a combat dynamic that feels rewarding.
In contrast, Hard West 2 primarily focuses on an aggressive playstyle (i.e., Bravado chain kills), and the need to eliminate as many targets as possible in a single round. Again, it does feel like these bouts are puzzles in their own right. Unfortunately, when you have too much of that going on all throughout the campaign, it becomes tedious in the long run. I should also add that the load times are unbearably slow, even when installed on an SSD. If you’re like me and you save-scum to get near-perfect results in battles, this can be quite a hassle.