Hard West 2 Review – Bouncing Back

Hard West 2 is aptly named. Its default difficulty setting is called Hard, too, and with good reason. Enemies are punishing and your squad’s capacity to battle against overwhelming odds is tested relentlessly over the course of several dozen hours of turn-based tactical combat. It’s a game about choosing the exact right moments to use their unique skills and working them in tandem to tee up devastating chain reaction combos. It’s tough, sure, but this demonic rendition of the American Frontier, where grotesque locomotives warp to alternate dimensions and blood rituals summon the walking dead, supplies you with the necessary creative tools to stand your ground, and rising to the challenge proves immensely satisfying.

There’s more to Hard West 2 than turn-based tactical combat, but not much more. The primary focus is a series of missions, usually with some choices about which mission to tackle next. In these, you command a posse of four gunslingers, taking turns to shoot, use supernatural skills, and advance from cover to cover. Along the way, as you traverse the overworld map on horseback, you’ll meet characters and accept quests from them to hunt down wanted criminals, investigate murders, recover livestock, fight waves of outlaws and demons, rob a bank, and most importantly, track down the man who stole your souls in a rigged game of poker aboard his steam train from Hell.

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Outside of combat, Hard West 2 is essentially a bare-bones RPG. Conversations are minimal and straight to the point. Towns have shops where you can buy new weapons and replenish consumable healing items, buffs, and explosives. Quests rarely involve much more than sending you off to investigate a location and returning once the job is done. Narrative choices are limited to supporting which of your companions has the right idea for dealing with the current problem, and you can make camp to rest and chat with your companions to learn more of their backstories. These chats are linked one-to-one to the narrative choices you’ve made in a way that rather unflatteringly exposes the bald mechanics: support a companion often enough and you’ll level up your relationship to unlock the next tier of their backstory. It’s all quite basic and dry. But at least the RPG portion of the game is out of the way pretty quickly and doesn’t waste too much of your time getting to the good part: the combat.

The combat in Hard West 2 is a success because its design grasps the significance of meaningful differences. Every aspect, from the abilities of your posse members to the weapons they’re able to equip to the design of the maps, adheres to the principle that a small number of things with large differences is more interesting than a large number of things with small differences. Characters and guns, in particular, are given room to carve out a distinct identity so that deploying one over another is a genuine, and often drastically different, tactical choice.

There are only six playable characters, of which only four partake in a mission at once, but each brings a unique ability that means they never feel interchangeable. As a result, the makeup of your posse has a profound effect on the way you approach a mission. Main man Gin Carter, for example, has the Shadow Barrage ability that lets him shoot through walls, hitting multiple targets and bypassing the enemies’ cover bonuses. His companion, Flynn, can swap places with anyone–friend or foe–in her line of sight, and at later levels can deal damage over time to her victims. Broad strokes are used to paint these abilities, enhancing the differences and ensuring that whatever configuration of characters you end up using, you’ll find eclectic ways to combine their powers.

I particularly loved Old Man Bill for the way his Deadman’s Revenge ability upends the traditional play style. He can damage every enemy in his line of sight within range, with the damage increasing as Bill’s own health decreases. When Bill’s in the posse, you’ve now got a character who actually benefits from taking damage and is most usefully positioned when in the middle of a crowd of enemies. Later, he develops bonuses that further accentuate these seemingly counter-intuitive abilities, such as gaining critical hit bonuses the more times he finds himself in the firing line or giving him the ability to counter an attack if he ends a turn outside of cover.

Further, I found Bill worked hand in glove with one of the two indigenous characters to join your posse, Laughing Deer is the melee specialist and his extra speed and attacks meant he was the ideal follow-up, charging in like some sort of machete-wielding cleaner to deal the killing blow to the enemies struck by Bill’s Deadman’s Revenge.

Melee weapons can only be used when adjacent to an enemy, but you only spend one of your turn’s three action points to do so. Pistols and shotguns both use two AP, but the former has greater range and can hit targets at different elevations, while the latter can spray multiple targets with one shot. And finally, firing a rifle consumes all three AP you get each turn, but its damage and range outperforms the other weapon types.

Any movement you make consumes AP, too, so deciding which weapon to use on any given turn is a choice that carries significant consequences. It’s rarely just a matter of which gun is going to hit for the most damage, either. Since each weapon type is tailored to particular circumstances, it’s about maneuvering your posse into the best spots to take full advantage. Even the simplest decision can feel agonizingly important. Should I hold position and take a three-AP rifle shot for more damage or should I only take a two-AP pistol shot but also move to a potentially more advantageous position?

Further complicating matters here is Hard West 2’s most ingenious flash of inspiration. When you kill an enemy, a status called Bravado is activated and the character who landed the killing blow has all their AP replenished. Essentially, this means if you can score a kill, you get a whole extra turn for free–it’s astoundingly powerful. Some enemies can go down with just one shot; many others take two or three. That extra turn from a kill might let you get another kill, which means another extra turn. Chaining together kills to activate Bravado multiple times on the same turn quickly becomes the goal of every turn. And, boy, is it satisfying.

This demonic rendition of the American Frontier, where grotesque locomotives warp to alternate dimensions and blood rituals summon the walking dead, supplies you with the necessary creative tools to stand your ground, and rising to the challenge proves immensely satisfying

The Bravado system works so well because it encourages aggressive play and incentivizes taking chances. There’s no exact equivalent here of the overwatch system from XCOM, so there’s no real way to hunker down and pick off the enemy as they come at you. Instead, you’ve got to take the initiative and Bravado actively rewards you for taking risks that pay off. When you’ve got one character left and all she has is a 50% chance to hit, in another game, a risk-averse player might decline the shot and use the turn to heal up or buff their defense. In Hard West 2 you know that if that 50% shot comes off, that enemy is dead, Bravado kicks in, and you get a whole extra turn to wreak more havoc. Bravado’s always there, egging you on, urging you to give it a go, to roll those dice. And it’s very hard to resist.

Bravado also works to stretch the tactical considerations of each turn even further. Maybe one character can’t get a kill, but they can do damage and another can complete the kill to activate their Bravado. Suddenly you’re thinking, “which character do I want to get Bravado on this turn? And if I want Flynn to get Bravado this turn, what moves are Gin and Bill going to have to make first to ensure that happens?” You’re mentally mapping out each character’s potential moves, swapping between them to check their lines of sight and to-hit chances, running through the various combinations of orders you can give them and how each character can best take advantage of the previous one’s moves. Bravado is a tremendous reward for planning ahead.

The Bravado system complements the high difficulty, too. If you’re not making full use of your posse’s skills, it’s really easy to be overrun by enemies in much greater numbers, moreso when they start regenerating their health each turn or if you’re facing certain enemies who can simply summon more enemies to join the battle. Given the stern challenge, Bravado is the most effective method you have for turning the tables, and it becomes crucial to chain kills to keep it active for as long as possible. By the mid-game, if you’re not taking out a half-dozen or more enemies in a single round, then you’re probably missing a trick somewhere along the line. With the high difficulty, fortunately, comes a high strategic ceiling.

Supporting the excellent combat engine is a clever skill tree system that utilizes playing cards gained by completing missions. Far from merely a skill tree presented in a novel fashion, these cards are dealt into a hand for each member of your posse and confer a bonus to, say, the character’s health or movement speed. Get enough cards and you can start dealing poker hands that unlock new skills for each character. Deal Gin a pair and he gets a damage boost while Bravado is activated. Deal him a four-of-a-kind and his Shadow Barrage ability now also inflicts the Burning status on any enemy it hits, while also conferring all the benefits of any lower-scoring hand.

The cards are dealt from a common deck, so you’re distributing limited resources among your characters to fill out their skill trees. And this means making tough choices about who gets which cards to enable them to unlock which skills. I found myself gravitating towards certain characters whose abilities I favored, dealing Flynn those three Queens because I knew I’d make better use of her increased shotgun damage than if I dealt them to Bill to unlock his critical damage boost. The fact that new cards are often offered as a reward for completing secondary mission objectives is also a terrific incentive to fully explore each mission map.

However, the map design doesn’t always allow the combat’s tactical depth to fully express itself. The maps are typically narrow and focused on funneling you into a series of two or three distinct encounters. As a result, the maps can feel compartmentalized in a way that is both a strength and a weakness. They feel manageable in the sense that you can think of clearing an area, pausing to regroup before moving on, and even drawing a line with a manual save. At the same time, they don’t deliver the kind of continuous running battles that might involve having to split your attention and resources across several different hotspots at once, and the greater strategic scope this might entail.

Adequate use is made of the terrain. Variations in height are common across every map and, with an increased chance to hit from higher ground, much of the strategic thinking revolves around one or two characters securing elevated sniping positions while the others work to flush enemies out of cover or finish them off.

However, there’s not a great deal of variety elsewhere in the map terrain. Whether you’re fighting your way through a mining complex or a saloon or a church and graveyard, they’re all composed of the same basic pieces: The same walls that provide full cover and the same waist-high structures that provide half-cover, the same ground you can run across, the same ladders and staircases that let you reach upper or lower floors. There are few new situations to deal with–no dark areas that restrict your vision or swampy ground that slows your movement, for example–and no attempts to deliver any sort of dynamic changes to the encounters other than what the enemies themselves can bring.

You can interact with some objects in the environment, which provides a little additional variety. The lid of a nearby sturdy crate can be flicked open to transform half-cover into full, or a table can be flipped over in classic Western bar shootout-style and used as cover. But these aspects are minimal and don’t fundamentally alter your approach.

Better are the environmental objects that serve the Ricochet ability inherent in certain guns. Triggering this ability lets you target specific objects–often a metal drum or pipe or similar–to bounce your shot off them and onto an enemy you couldn’t otherwise hit with a clear shot. Maybe you can’t get a bead on the guy inside that building, but you can hit the stove behind him and rebound the bullet into his back.

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The Ricochet ability does fundamentally alter your approach in that it opens up the possibility space of the map. You’re now having to calculate a whole new series of angles when considering where to position your characters, not just those vectors that may allow you to get a shot on the enemy but how that enemy may be able to use Ricochet to get at you. In fact, it’s a sign of how effective the ability is at expanding the tactical board that even on the very final mission, I still found myself caught out by an enemy puncturing my careful squad positioning with one well-placed ricocheted shot that I simply hadn’t noticed was possible.

Much like that final mission enemy, Hard West 2 gets it right where it counts. Despite some thin RPG trappings, it’s ultimately a highly-accomplished game of tactical combat with two or three genuinely terrific ideas executed exceptionally well. While it does suffer from a lack of imagination in some of its map design, that doesn’t detract too much from how enjoyable it is to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with your posse and find creative ways to put down hordes of Wild West demons.

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