West of Dead has everything it needs to succeed, and yet it remains stuck in its own little limbo – forever moving forward but never getting anywhere.
The roguelike genre is on fire. It presents indie developers with a priceless opportunity to take a familiar and beloved formula, and use it to innovate with new mechanics, stories, and settings. We’ve seen some great success stories in the genre, so no wonder we’re getting new indie roguelikes.
On paper, West of Dead has everything it needs to be another success story. But it never quite makes it all the way to the top.
Preaching to the Choir
The year is 1888, and you find yourself trapped in Purgatory, conveniently located in Wyoming, USA. This is where the dead go through to absolve themselves of their sins and move on – east toward Heaven, or westward to Hell.
You are William Mason, who’s story will slowly unfold as you play the game. At the moment, he’s after a mysterious preacher who somehow trapped all the dead souls in Purgatory, stopping them from moving on. We don’t know much beyond that when we start our journey, but the plot does get more exciting further into the game.
You’ll die over and over, trying to uncover the puzzle that is your past, the identity of the preacher, and how you two are connected. Death is part of life in Purgatory, and since West of Dead is a Roguelike, what kills you makes you a little bit stronger.
While the story is rather basic, the game does try and innovate with its cover mechanics, stark visuals, light-based combat, and Ron Perlman’s fantastic voice acting. However, everything about it feels eerily familiar.
That Same Old Familiar Feeling
West of Dead is a roguelike, so you’ll be seeing the same areas quite a bit. But that’s not where the “been there done that” feeling comes from. It emanates from a lot of the design choices.
We first have Mason himself. Personally, every time I heard his name, I flashed back to Call of Duty: Black Ops and started mumbling THE NUMBERS (what do they mean?!). The character’s traits aren’t the most original as well – a flaming skull and amnesia. And not to mention the generic villain.
It doesn’t end with Mason, though. The character upgrade system is very similar to another hit roguelike from recent years, as are various other systems. Not only because they are both roguelikes, but because we’ve seen, felt, and played it all before. Unfortunately, West of Dead frequently falls short of the “original” experience.
To the developers’ credit, the visual design, combined with the music and Perlman’s gruff voice, pulls you right into the game’s dark and wild atmosphere. The cel-shaded graphics suit the isometric point of view, and the way light and shadow play a key part in combat.
Combat is based around twin-stick shooter’s control with an auto-lock system. There’s a catch, though. Mason can lock-on on enemies that are lit up, but if they’re obscured by darkness, you can only use manual aim to try and take them out. I wouldn’t recommend doing that since it requires pinpoint accuracy, and a touch of luck, to actually land a hit that way.
To cast some light on your targets, you’ll need to run up to lanterns hanging around the room and light them. Enemies will be blinded and stunned for a few seconds, letting you get back into cover, or try and take them out quickly with a shotgun or a knife.
The way light and your lock-on system are connected gives the game a tactical, methodical layer you don’t often see in the genre. When entering a room, you always take a few seconds you plot your route – roll into cover, finish off the enemies that shuffle towards you, and then roll over to the nearest lantern and deal with the sharpshooters. Sadly, the controls often conspire against you, and you don’t always manage to pull off what you’d envisioned.
The option to turn on a lantern while rolling would have made for a more smooth experience. You’d also think that if you can’t target enemies in the dark, their aim would also be impaired when you hide in the shadow. Nope – these restless souls are crack shots, no matter where you stand.
The cover system, the old-timey weapons, the light-darkness mechanics – these new additions to the roguelike formula all sound very promising. On paper, anyway.
In practice, things are a little different. There are many bugs and small issues that hurt the experience the devs were going for. Mason doesn’t always want to get into cover, even if you’re right next to it, which might leave you exposed without you noticing it until you get hurt. If you indeed get shot, you’d want to heal yourself with a sip of Mason’s flask. You’ll then discover he can’t drink while staying behind cover, leaving you, again, exposed.
Whenever you’re near an enemy, you can hit it with a melee attack instead of shooting. This attack will send the enemy tumbling back, giving you some room to breathe. However, you can’t perform this attack if your gun is empty, which is kind of weird. The reason I’d want to push an enemy away is to give me some time to reload. Some enemies aren’t staggered when hit, so I don’t see the point of ever bothering with melee.
There are countless other examples of how West of Dead just feels rushed. Whether its missing animations, cut corners, or just unpolished mechanics. They all add up to make this game a more frustrating roguelike than it needs to be.
I will say that most of these problems could’ve been avoided with a month or two of extra polish. West of Dead went through a lengthy beta phase, and it’s a shame that the final version of such a promising game isn’t quite ready. I’m sure that we’ll see many improvements and fixes in the coming months, so give it time.
Git Gud or Git Gone
During your runs through Purgatory, you’ll collect both Iron and Sin. Iron is the game’s currency – you can use it to buy new items and weapons from the roaming merchant that pops up in every so often.
Sin is your “upgrade points.” At the end of each level, you’ll meet the Witch who absolves you of Sin and turns it into experience points. You can upgrade your health flask and add more weapons and trinkets to the merchant’s supply (or random drops). But other than these meager upgrades, West of Dead doesn’t reward you enough in a way that makes future runs feel faster or slightly easier.
You can also upgrade Mason at shrines scattered around a level. You can enhance the damage you do, increase your life bar, or improve the effectiveness of your items. But every time you die, these upgrades will reset, and you’ll have to start over. This is a roguelike, after all.
But roguelike or not, there’s just too little sense of progression. At some point, you’ll unlock an option to skip part of the levels, but that only means you’ll arrive at more advanced areas weaker. I found myself dying at the same exact spot again and again since Mason doesn’t really improve between runs, no matter if I took a shortcut or not.
Am I just not good enough? Maybe. But if after 15 hours of playing, I don’t feel like I’ve made any significant progress, I think there’s something wrong here. Atomicrops, another roguelike published by Raw Fury, pushed players along by rewarding them according to how well they did on their previous run. The better you did, the better weapons and upgrades you get on your new run. A similar system could have solved West of Dead’s biggest problem.
Down Memory Lane
While I wasn’t satisfied with my gameplay progression, I was more than excited to keep playing to unlock more story.
Every time you defeat an Outlaw (a sort of mini-boss), you’ll get a new piece of your memory. When you bring this memory to the Witch at the end of the level, you’ll get to sit through a short cutscene and listen to Perlman reveal more about Mason and the mysterious preacher.
You don’t necessarily have to advance deep into the game to unlock more memories (something I found a bit odd). You just need to find more Outlaws, which can pop up on every level.
Something that did bother me about Ron Perlman’s narration is that he’s the only one doing it. While he is very talented, having Mason the single character to actually speak while all the others just sort of groan at you detracts from the overall experience. I’d love to see, or rather hear, the rest of the cast, from the annoying bartender that keeps repeating the same few lines, to the preacher.
We’ve Been Here Before
If you like the roguelike genre, you’ll enjoy West of Dead. The slow burn story, the brave attempt at innovation, and the stark visuals will keep you going all the way through. But if roguelike isn’t your cup of tea, or you’re looking for that one game to feed your masochistic tendencies – you can do better.
The future may bring more bug fixes and gameplay improvements to the combat and cover system. Until then, West of Dead makes you want to keep going neither eastward nor westward.
Developer: Upstream Arcade
Publisher: Raw Fury
Release Date: Jun. 18, 2020
Our West of Dead review copy was provided by the publisher.Some of our posts include links to online retail stores. We get a small cut if you buy something through one of our links. Don't worry, it doesn't cost you anything extra.