The old American Southwest has proven to be a fascinating backdrop for many games in recent years. This is a good time to tell stories about venturing into the unknown in an eerily quiet, dusty land. Naturally, a supernatural story about something full of nocturnal bumps is a perfect fit for such a setting, and many games are beginning to draw attention. Hard West 2, developed by Ice Code Games, is the latest game to embrace the emerging “Weird West” genre, and the follow-up to one of the first titles to embrace a world filled with cowboys and ghouls.
Hard West 2 takes the XCOM-style turn-based combat of Hard West 1 and doubles down on the action, with a more “gunner” gameplay that rewards high-stakes play with high rewards. Ice Code Games also upped the game’s production values, embellishing Hard West’s Oregon Trail-esque presentation to create a unique and visually stimulating package. It’s not the most mechanically complex strategy game, or the most engaging storyline, but it’s good enough to be a worthwhile experience.
Hard West 2 follows a group of outlaws who chase a ghost train through the American Southwest. Standing center stage is a deadpan, no-nonsense Kim Carter, who leads a motley crew of gunmen including witches, priests, and undead cowboys. The gang specializes in hunting down a demon-possessed man named Mammon, who takes the soul of the gang’s best gunslinger, Castella Colt. Every genre tropes and clichs are present in Hard West 2, with enough bank heists and train heists to satisfy any player looking for a popular weird western drawn from the pages of a comic book. Although, the story generally leans more towards the western side than the paranormal, and doesn’t diverge too much from the main plot at first.
The demo is where Hard West 2 really sells its narrative. Ice Code Games clearly appreciates its comic book inspiration, which is reflected in the beautiful artwork throughout most of the event. Often, the single-frame cutscenes that run through key moments in the storyline steal the show with their brilliant color work and detailed characters. These elements transfer well to the in-game dialogs as well, meaning no matter what happens, Hard West 2 won’t be short of good things to look at.
Additionally, some notable voices drive Hard West 2’s dialogue, including the work of Kevin Conroy, known for his voice as Batman, and Darien Sears-Evans, who voiced Weaver in Days of Old. Hard West 2 tells its story in a text panel in the style of a choice-based text adventure, splicing those excellent voice-overs on top of descriptions of the game’s environments and character expressions. Given the lack of big-budget animation, Hard West 2 does a lot to impress players as they get to know these characters and control them in battle. It might not be to everyone’s liking, but its old-school text-based storytelling is sure to be refreshing for those who love this kind of game.
As the story unfolds, players will make important decisions for each team member in multiple side quests, giving the narrative a slight role-playing element. These decisions will award loyalty points to designated crew members, unlocking more dialogue options and more combat skills as players form relationships. However, most of these side quests are as simple as clicking the correct dialogue option and choosing which team member will receive loyalty points. Decision-making lacks weight and consequence, equating to a shallow sense of player agency. Overall, the combat will keep players hooked on Hard West 2.
The original Hard Western Habit compared to the popular XCOM series of strategy games. It’s hard not to notice the similarities, even in the sequel. Hard West 2 immediately makes no reservations about the sources of inspiration for its UI and visual language. The game also comes close to the tried-and-true strict rectangular level design of XCOM, compared to the looser design of Gears Tactics. Mechanically, Hard West 2 has most of the genre’s staples, including the use of action points, the cover system, and percentage-based attack mechanics.
Success depends on knowing how to best use these mechanics in any combat scenario, while mastering positioning and finding the best line of sight for the best chance of hitting. It’s all like one big puzzle, and the player has to keep deciphering what the next best move is. Hard West 2 executes these strategic concepts well and learns how to make the process of learning, adapting and enacting very rewarding. However, the game has a few tricks that make it stand out from other strategy games.
Hard West 2 differentiates itself as a more action-oriented strategy game, with gameplay systems that favor short-term, high-stakes play over long-term strategy and pre-planning. It does this by redesigning the previous game’s Luck mechanic and introducing a Bravado mechanic. In Hard West 2, players accumulate luck points every time they miss an enemy or take damage. When players accumulate enough Luck, they can cash it in for guaranteed hits on enemies. Additionally, the Bravado mechanic ensures that every time a player defeats an enemy on the field, they get all their Action Points back and effectively get another turn for free. As long as the players keep killing, they keep taking turns.
Bravado opens up the game in a new way, challenging players to think outside the boundaries of traditional strategy, creating a freer combat system in the process. More often than not, the best approach in a combat scenario might be to stand in the middle of the field, cash in some stored luck, and take out everyone on the field once the team has sufficiently weakened the attackers. It’s about as close to a high-octane gunplay as a strategy game can get. It’s a very satisfying experience when everything lines up for the player and there’s a chance to destroy an entire group of enemies at once. However, the combination of luck and bravado can also feel like a crutch at times.
While Luck and Bravado brings a unique twist to Hard West 2’s strategy gameplay, it often feels like it comes at the expense of the game’s other systems. Many players may find themselves just trying to get lucky throughout the shootout, eventually cashing in all at once to complete one scene. Ironically, the combination of Luck and Bravado is so powerful that it often becomes the safest bet on any given round, wasting fewer resources and guaranteeing round success. When paired with a shallow set of overall strategy mechanics, the game loop can feel a bit stale after a while
The only combat options players have in Hard West 2 are to move, shoot, use items, or take cover. Unique abilities also exist, but are usually very situational, with very few characters possessing powers that can significantly turn the tide of battle. The game lacks surveillance stats, reload mechanics, and proper class specialization for characters. All of this is standard for the genre, and expands the game’s tactical repertoire significantly. As it stands, combat depends on finding the best line of sight and using Luck and Bravado. Additionally, the number of enemies in Hard West 2 is relatively small, mostly humans or humanoid demons, and no new enemy types were introduced after the first chapter. Disappointingly, the only mythical creature players will fight is the occasional wendigo. In a setting with as much potential as the weird west, it felt like a real missed opportunity to fight some interesting ghouls and demons.
Outside of combat, players can expect to find a more fleshed out world than Hard West 1. The game takes place in three different settings, each with a new climate and a new set of landmarks, including side quests, bounties, and weapons. These areas are visually sparse and function more like interactive maps than any robust and engaging open-world experience. Still, it’s a huge step up from the first game’s base map, and makes Hard West 2 even more appealing.
Despite some shortcomings and missed opportunities, Hard West 2 is a solid experience. Ice Code Games has crafted a unique and action-packed combat system while keeping most of what makes this type of strategy game so engaging. It might not have the production value or depth of XCOM or Gears Tactics, but Hard West 2 still manages to be an addictive and satisfying turn-based strategy experience.
Hard West 2 is now available for PC. Game Rant obtained the PC code for this review.