I wake up from my bed in the middle of the night, startled by outside noises. Next to me on the bedside table is an old oil lamp. I pick it up hoping to shed some light on the situation, but I miss the click, and suddenly my avatar throws the lamp against the wall. It shatters, spreading fire throughout the small wooden cabin. The bottle of whiskey on the table bursts into flames and the wooden chairs smash, as the fire creeps along the curtains and through the window, catching the chicken coop just outside. I hear a few loud screams and see a deadly burst of feathers as I stand in the midst of the chaos, being slowly licked to death by the flames of my own stupidity.
Oh, it’s one of those games, I think. As Disco Elyseeexcept with physics and chemistry and the spread of fires.
It’s the first game from newly founded WolfEye Studios, whose co-founder Raphaël Colantonio worked as creative director on Disgraced, prey, and more at Arkane Studios. In other words, expect systemic chaos. As Dishonored, Weird West is a true crossover of genres, blending the wild and the gun western with horror and fantasy. There’s “frontier justice” and midday duels, but there’s also witches, werewolves, and vampires.
While Weird West comes with plenty of systems and simulations, at its heart it’s a familiar computer RPG rather than a spectacular new translation of immersive simulation. Think of recent Larian Studios Divinity games, where you can pick up almost any object in the world, set things on fire (in real time), and sneak around and rob people. Weird West also comes in a slightly more condensed package – the world feels much smaller and less cohesive than many great RPGs, instead of being broken up into smaller locations that you travel between on a map.
The story of Weird West works as an anthology. There are five characters, which you play as in order, each with their own story to unravel and specific problems to solve: a bounty hunter whose husband has been kidnapped by a powerful flesh-eating entity; a hogman bent on revenge after their gruesome transformation; a young Anishinaabe hunter defending his home against the spirit of greed; a werewolf; and finally, a witch. Bridging each of these separate chapters are several recurring characters – a strange young girl who speaks in riddles, a wandering witch who plays games with you, and a bounty hunter obsessed with immortality and bad jokes.
Each lived life overflows into the next chapter. If you liberate a monster-infested ghost town as a bounty hunter, it will be a bustling place with traders and a saloon when you return as a hogman. Likewise, if you do a huge robbery or kill, that location will be empty except for an overflowing graveyard. Previous characters also persist in the world after you’ve finished playing them, hanging ready to be recruited into your party.
The overarching plot ultimately sees your five avatars reunited in a grand showdown that takes your past lives into account. It’s typical of computer RPGs, where the complexity varies so much in the early stages, all that can be mustered at the end is a cold, calculating summary of your actions. Although the layered structure of five different characters living in one world is ambitious, Weird West struggle to merge. He ends up feeling a little soft.
And if the main story is disjointed but ambitious, the side quests are a real disappointment. The map is huge, with hundreds of locations that will appear as you travel through the desert, but many of these locations end up feeling the same – content to browse rather than stories to savor. Random encounters never seem anything more than frivolous, and even the best side missions never get weird enough. I was hoping for something more in the vein of Lovecraft and Weird Fiction – Dishonoredfor example, talking rats, sentient hearts and magic whales. It turns out that the Weird West isn’t that weird.
I had to explore dozens of underground mines over the course of the game, and even more caves and ancient ruins, each using the same “mysterious” architecture. While there’s a neat level design with secret rooms and side entrances, too many of these levels feel like they’ve all been built from an extremely limited tile set. The visuals – a dark comic book style that looks a bit like a washed-out Mike Mignola – also don’t show up in the game quite the way they do in the character portraits and animated cutscenes.
Unfortunately, exceptional pitches are few and far between. Among those that feel more bespoke is a large brothel overflowing with red velvet curtains and furniture, reminiscent of The Golden Cat from Dishonored. Although you don’t have the same architectural complexity as a large, immersive first-person simulation, in Weird WestLarger levels allow you to climb rooftops and balconies, and use ropes to rappel through glass ceilings. Some of my favorite moments in the game revolved around the challenge of infiltrating mansions or robbing banks to power up my team at the start of the game, when dozens of gold bars and a legendary six shot made it seem like I was cheating. This type of “sequence jumping” is what I enjoy most about the immersive simulation genre. Weird West isn’t too concerned about the balancing difficulty. It’s rough around the edges and doesn’t mind its players experimenting, and even accessing late-game gear too early (thanks to a few quick saves, of course).
While there is fun to be had in stealth, stealth never really extends beyond its basic functionality. You can initiate takedowns on unsuspecting enemies, and you’ll need to hide bodies from patrolling guards, but other than that the stealth toolset is rudimentary, and it can be a tiring job clearing a camp. It’s a far cry from the brilliant espionage of something like Mimimi Games’ Desperados 3. Of course, unlike a tactical stealth gameWeird West has his fight to fall back on. While Desperadoes will make you reach fast charge after being caught in the open, Weird West is – a bit like Dishonored before – at its best when you let loose.
While you can give yourself various percentage-based perks and buffs (and there’s a skill set for every weapon type in the game), it’s the character-specific abilities that have the most impact and the most impact. INTERESTING – The beefy hogman can become bulletproof, poison the air, and generally charge around the location causing mayhem. It matches his general demeanor and, more importantly, encourages you to try a different style of play. On the other hand, there is a definite downside to locking specific character abilities. It would have been nice to have access to teleport with the first or second character, instead of just the last. I would also have appreciated the ability to mix something like the hunter’s tornado spell with my fiery and explosive hogman. For a game so keen on letting you experiment, not letting you mix and match abilities seems like a major oversight.
Weird West has a few other cool combat tricks in his arsenal. Whenever you make a dive roll while aiming, the game temporarily changes to Max Payne – it slows down the action and allows you to be a bit more tactical on your next move. But perhaps the biggest addition to combat is the kick. Ripped straight from Arkane’s Elder Dark Messiah of Might and Magicthe move is bound to be a crowd favorite, as it makes the most of all interlocking systems and the fact that almost everything in the game can be moved and cocked with great force.
Levels are littered with explosive barrels, oil spills, and other environmental hazards. It is here, when chaos ensues, that Weird West looks the most like a good immersive simulation. Your brain is buzzing with ideas of how you can maneuver things such, kicking this or that object, mixing water with electricity or fire with poison. There will be plenty of times when things just don’t work out, or everything will backfire and you’ll end up burning yourself to death in a little wooden shack, but when will it all fall into place? It’s magic.
With Weird West, these magical moments appear far too rarely. Pure ambition means that something special will eventually be spewed out by the game’s extensive simulations – an accident with an oil lamp, for example – although it’s a rough and heavy thing, all the more raw compared to the extended elegance of a Dishonored. Instead of doing what many, myself included, had hoped for – converting Arkane’s mind and immersive simulation into an inventive top-down form – Weird West fell into a more mundane existence as a stripped-down computer RPG that’s far from weird enough.
Weird West will be released on March 31 on PlayStation 4, Xbox One and Windows PC via Game Pass. The game was reviewed on PC using a pre-release download code provided by Devolver Digital. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, although Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased through affiliate links. You can find additional information on Polygon’s ethics policy here.