As Disappointing as a Wet Cigarette

Back in March I was able to try out one of the many beta tests for West of Dead. In the short period of gameplay I enjoyed what was presented: crisp, punchy gunplay with a beautiful cel-shaded palette and a mountain of possibility. Fast forward two months, and West of Dead presents its completed take on a rogue-like spaghetti western with paranormal tendencies. How does it go? South. Very south.

Much of what I touched upon in terms of plot has not changed since the Beta, so click here for a refresher on what Purgatory has to offer for William Mason. West of Dead‘s saving graces fall solely upon its gameplay, weapon selection, and sound design. Purgatory, Wyoming spans ten different areas, 6 main stages and 4 side stages, procedurally generated so no map will play out exactly the same. Each stage is filled to the brim with an assortment of enemies: gun-wielding rangers, to demonic dogs, cleaver throwing giants, and murders of crows to name a few. The fighting areas are tight and compact, with breakable cover to keep Mason on his toes, timing perfect dodges to avoid bullets and explosions and always staying close enough to see the lights of his enemy’s eyes. The cel-shaded, overly saturated style beams life into the desolate, dreary environments Mason will be see over and over again. From crypts to farms, churches and mines, it is a nice blend of different areas to battle in, especially with some of the environmental hazards some of the stages sneak in.

While relying heavily on tested titles like Dead Cells, the twin stick shooter’s weapons are delightfully chunky and powerful. The weapon selection is numerous among its four categories: Revolver, Pistol, Shotgun, and Rifle. Collected Sin from fallen enemies can be traded with a mysterious Witch to unlock your arsenal, each displaying different variations to suit almost every style. Mason can also hold two secondary items, which range from hard-hitting offensive items like axes and dynamite to defensive items like shields and lanterns. Rounding out a completed build are charms that can add passive abilities such as extra HP from healing items, or regaining lost health by hiding behind cover or inflicting damage on enemies.

When all these pieces come together, the sound of a fast-paced battlefield is electric. Rapid reloading, which is done automatically after not shooting for a short period of time, projects little noises of bullets filling their slots, the sound of an old time-y cash register pinging open after each enemy falls, the 5 note tune from an acoustic guitar signifying an emptied battlefield and a job well done: Upstream Arcade absolutely hit the nail on the head with making Purgatory, Wyoming feel as Wild West as it possibly can.

Much like Purgatory is considered an avenue in the afterlife where one stays before judgment, West of Dead could’ve used a lot more time before finding its way out. There are a ton of bugs and polish issues scattered throughout. One of the biggest offenders is the game’s auto-aim assist. Aiming is not a precise objective but more of a suggested idea; as long as enemies are within sight, guns will snap onto a target. This can range from working as intended, to exploitative, to run-killing. Longer ranged rifles can hit enemies off-camera so long as they are illuminated in light, but will also take precedence over enemies who are anywhere in the darkness. Many times Mason will have an enemy barreling towards him, be just enough in the darkness, and Mason will snap to another enemy across the screen and maintain firing presence with that enemy. Normally this wouldn’t be an issue since a quick flick of your aiming reticle would keep the closer target in line; but the auto-aim will always take the enemy in light over an enemy that is technically hidden in darkness, and won’t peel off said enemy until they’ve been dispersed of. It’s an unnecessary inclusion of difficulty, as many runs have been tarnished by this mechanic and the fact that auto-aim assist is an option that cannot be turned off is maddening.

West of Dead‘s AI also finds itself riddled with issues. You will constantly find enemies that won’t engage in combat even as Mason plugs holes into them, which makes some rooms disappointingly easy. Outlaws, randomized mini-bosses that played a role in Mason’s past life, can get stuck after a slide over cover and never fire another bullet, allowing Mason to casually drain their life bar and complete what would’ve been a tough fire fight. This same problem happened with the first two main bosses in the game: they took one slide into cover, got stuck, and immediately went passive. If you were interested in the difficulty of those main bosses, I literally could not tell you.

But the biggest offender is the structure in which West of Dead handles its story telling. Mason’s life is shrouded in mystery and can be slowly pieced together by eliminating outlaws, as well as accepting the burden of weary souls trapped within Purgatory. Accepting burdens will reward Mason with a piece of his memory back, alongside able chunks of Sin, Iron, and weaponry to help in his journey, but each burden comes with a price. Burdens will curse Mason, requiring him to kill a number of enemies before getting hit, with one hit while cursed being an instant kill. These do provide a tense atmosphere while demanding cautious traveling, but these moments play opposite of what West of Dead does well, which is delivering a fast-paced shootout. Add on top the issues with auto-aim, and deaths from accepting burdens will feel more unfair than justified.

Memories can be given to the Witch which give a small chunk into how Mason got to where he is. While these are interesting tidbits of plot and more reasons to use Ron Perlman’s voice acting, there’s no way to look back and replay past memories, and with two different recollections happening between memories you pull it can be unnecessarily convoluted.

One of many bugs in the game, behold: an invisible William Mason.

Collecting all these memories and burdens will produce the chance for Mason to face the final boss. Now, I understand the novelty of the “show, don’t tell” style of story telling, letting the environment and actions tell the overarching story instead of slapping you in the face with it. But the way West of Dead handles unlocking the True Ending is so needlessly concealed that it absolutely kills any momentum in finishing its story. After accepting three specific burdens needed to acquire the ending, the secondary objective while killing the final boss is never alluded to or presented in a way where the player would find out unless by sheer dumb luck. While finishing my 2nd run I had three friends watch the entire thing, and none of us had any idea of what I missed to truly finish the game. If you miss the secret objective and defeat the boss before completing it, your run is finished, and you go back to the very beginning to do it all over again. There’s absolutely no excuse for not giving a hint or just not having it in general, since there is already a prerequisite that needs to be accomplished before getting to the final boss for the True Ending. It’s just bad design, and a disappointing end to my 18 hours of game time.

So with that, my time with William Mason is over, and the town of Purgatory is now behind me. I started on this trail with a 30 minute demo that intrigued me enough to continue down its soon to be completed path, but when I got to the end of this road, I realized that the proverbial dirt road I was traveling on felt a lot like the state of West of Dead: usable at times, deemed effective by some, but ultimately incomplete by today’s standards.

What a shame.

Reviewed on Steam. Playable on PC/XB1/XBox Game Pass.