Platforms: Xbox One (reviewed), PS4, Switch, PC
One look at West of Dead, and it’s hard not to instantly fall in love with its highly stylized comic book-esque visuals. Developer Upstream Arcade’s cover-based roguelike shooter is more than just a flashy game, though — married to that slick style is a ton of substance. Mechanically, West of Dead is fantastic, and fans of roguelikes looking for the next game to sink hours into need look no further. Even if you’re a fan of games with permadeath, though, you should be aware that this is among the harder games in the genre to come along in recent years.
Penance in Purgatory
West of Dead is set in the year 1888, in the dreary Purgatory, Wyoming. You play as the mysterious William Mason (voiced by the ever-versatile Ron Perlman), a dead gunslinger who’s forced to atone for his sins while facing vile undead creatures and phantasm-like cowboys. It may be called Purgatory, but the setting is almost hellish — there’s a grim, nightmarish sense of impending doom looming in the air that really makes the world feel ravaged and unforgiving.
That world comes to life thanks to the gorgeous art and animations. There’s a dark, bold cel-shaded look to West of Dead that really helps create the game’s overall tone. In addition, everything animates beautifully. From the character movements to the way light and shadows appear, everything has a fluid, lively look to it. Early on, for example, you’ll visit a snowy area, and seeing bits of snow flow in the wind looks great and adds to the ghost town vibe of that level.
Adding to the game’s visual atmosphere is a striking collection of desperado-styled western themes that all sound really cool. Music is calm when you’re moving from one area to the next and then gets heavier when you enter a shootout. Clear an area of enemies and you’ll hear a quick guitar melody indicating that you can now breathe. The music in West of Dead is just as effective as the graphics at creating an intense and inspired landscape.
The incredible sound design doesn’t end with the music, though. Gunshots are loud and explosive, reloading has a nice clicking sound to it, and William Mason’s footsteps make a satisfying crunch as he travels across gravel, dirt, and snow. As previously mentioned, the main character is voiced by Ron Perlman, who truly carries the performance wonderfully. His deep, gravelly voice helps to create a protagonist who’s gritty, somber, and repentant. Every line of dialogue voiced by Perlman is fantastic and further helps to piece together the puzzle that is the game’s atmosphere and tone.
Isometric Roguelite Shooting Action
It won’t take long for you to realize that West of Dead is a different kind of roguelite shooter. Rather than featuring fast-paced shoot ‘em up gameplay, the action here is more methodical. When you enter an area, you’ll be able to catch a glimpse of some of your surroundings. A lot of the time, enemies and parts of the area will be shrouded in shadows. By lighting hanging lanterns, you’ll uncover more of the area, as well as stun nearby enemies. That’s when it’s time to strike, but even then, you can’t just rush in.
Your best bet for survival is to immediately hide behind cover. Enemies will shoot at you, and you’ll have to pick your spots and fire back when they’re reloading. If they get too close, you can use a melee attack to push them back and then unload some more fire on them. William Mason isn’t the speediest protagonist, and his deliberate movements make it so that you have to play cautiously. There’s no getting around that — if you try to run-and-gun, you’ll be quickly disposed of. Taking cover and picking your shots is the main strategy you’ll use.
That said, there will be times when you have to move around a bit more. Cover is destructible, and it usually takes a few enemy shots to destroy a crate or other object you’re hiding behind. That’s when you can either start firing away or dodge-roll your way to safety behind another piece of cover. Alternatively, you can also slide over cover and surprise-attack enemies, but unless they’re low on health or stunned, you can expect to take some damage yourself in the process.
What makes West of Dead different from other games of its ilk is its higher learning curve. While the mechanics may seem simple, there’s a lot in play that will take you a few tries to learn. You can never rush in, but you may want to at first. You have to survey the area, but you might want to try and blast your way through. West of Dead has a slower-paced, more strategic style to its gunplay, and it slowly provides you more tools for survival, so long as you’re willing to let go of your learned roguelike habits.
You can equip two guns and two abilities. Each gun is assigned to a trigger, and each ability is assigned to a bumper. This setup feels a bit odd at first but becomes second nature once you get used to it. The guns you find along the way include old pistols, six shooters, shotguns, and rifles, and experimenting with each gun will really help you find your favorites to work with. The same goes for abilities, which include daggers and explosives you can toss at enemies, time-limited shields to protect you, and lanterns to stun bad guys.
For the most part, the action feels good. Unfortunately, there will be times when the isometric camera angle works against you. Because the camera automatically rotates and moves depending on where you are on the map, it can sometimes go haywire and cause you a bit of grief. Thankfully, I never experienced this during the shootouts, but moving around the map wasn’t always as smooth as it could’ve been.
Nightmare on Repeat
Parts of West of Dead may remind you of Dead Cells or Enter the Gungeon, and its mechanics are certainly similar to those games in some ways. While you do have to start the game from the beginning upon dying, you can unlock different items by finding them on the map or purchasing them using iron and sin, the game’s two currencies that you acquire from killing enemies. Weapons, special, abilities and buffs can all be unlocked, and they’ll make subsequent runs much smoother.
You’ll start with a couple basic guns and no additional items, but the likelihood of finding items you’ve unlocked early on increases quite dramatically. Even though the game is trying to kill you all the time, it still grants you some respite during your travels. You’ll find healing items sporadically. You can backtrack if enemies are overwhelming you and allow them to trickle in through a tight corridor for you to pick off. There’s even a section between levels that allows you to heal up and use your acquired sin to purchase new items from a creepy witch.
The gameplay loop in West of Dead is rewarding, no doubt, but it’s not as seamless as something like Enter the Gungeon or Rogue Legacy. The game’s progression is also much slower than a game like Dead Cells. That’s not necessarily bad, but if you’re a fan of those games, you should have your expectations set accordingly. You’re not going to breeze through West of Dead — or even parts of West of Dead — like you would with other similar games, but you will be rewarded for your patience and adherence to the gameplay rules.
There’s a lot to love about West of Dead, with only a few minor hiccups along the way. The game looks and sounds spectacular, and it plays mostly brilliantly. Some may not enjoy the deliberately paced action, but for those who stick with it, especially during the initial hours, you’ll uncover a different kind of roguelite shooter. West of Dead is intense, stylish, challenging, and satisfying to play, and it sets a new bar for roguelites by doing things differently.
Also, Ron Perlman.