Cowboys, outlaws, ghosts, demons, werewolves. These are all good things. Combine them together and you get the Weird Western genre, which must surely be an even better thing, right? Hard West 2 makes a good case for it, standing as a tactical weird western that knows this genre has to look, feel, and sound good first and foremost — even if that means sometimes it doesn’t actually play as smoothly as you’d like.
Hard West 2 is more of a thematic sequel to 2015’s Hard West as opposed to a literal one. It tells a new, unrelated story across its 20-30 hour campaign, with three difficulties of escalating brutality to choose from, and even completionists shouldn’t really worry about playing the original before this one. The world design is really what draws you in beyond the superficial surface. You lead a posse of badass cowboys on the verge of the supernatural in the Hard West. After a bad deal with a bad devil goes badly wrong, you are down a few souls and would very much like them back. In fact, the plan is to get them back at the barrel of a gun. (The devil’s name is Mammon, by the way, and he has an extremely cool ghost train with giant metal centipede legs.)
Hard West 2 Screens
The campaign is split between doing dialogue-driven quests in overworld areas and diving into turn-based combat missions for most of the playtime. The writing both in and out of missions is hit or miss. It has more than a few lines with weird grammar or eye-rolling cliches, but does the job well enough that I wasn’t skipping cutscenes or text-only descriptions.
Shoot Em Up
The centerpiece of Hard West 2 are its tactical battles. They’re pretty good, but for everything I like about them I dislike something else. The combat is reliable and has minimal frustrating randomization, but on the harder missions that makes it feel more like a puzzle than tactical exercise. That distinction matters too: On the middle-of-the-road Hard difficulty I had to restart multiple missions, some as many as five times, to figure out the solution to that puzzle and get a win. That’s balanced against the flexible character abilities and neat weapons available. Combined, they form a range of powers that synergize with well-designed environments to enable tricks, combos, and chained kills.
You get three actions per turn, with shooting usually taking two or three of those, meaning that the rules overall favor defensive fighting. Your attacks do fixed damage based on the weapon used, and all that changes is the chance to hit based on range, elevation, and the enemy’s cover. Combined with that defensive focus you have a real problem to overcome when closing in on new groups of enemies: They’ll probably get effective shots at you before you get some at them.
Luckily, you have four tools to play with. The first is trick shooting, which lets certain weapons bounce bullets off of metal objects to circumvent enemy cover. The second is luck, meaning that missed shots (among other things) fill a pool to spend on bonuses to attacks in later turns. The third are your character abilities, unique powers everyone has: Like Old Man Bill, who’s full of bullets and likes to send them back at the enemy in an explosive burst, or Flynn, who can magically swap places with anyone she can see, ally or enemy, at the cost of a little health.
The fourth tool is Bravado, the key system that lets you overcome enemy advantage. When your characters get a kill they immediately refill all their action points. They can do that as many times per turn as you can get kills, and setting up someone to get four, five, or six kills in one turn is the best part of Hard West 2. It’s also a tension on that puzzle-like difficulty: There’s always the feeling that you could better optimize the fixed damage numbers of your weapons against the enemy’s health. You do that arithmetic every turn, constantly, for more and more kills, and the higher difficulties demand you balance optimal kill counts against defensive movement to succeed.
But beyond that standout mechanic, the combat doesn’t do much that’s new or exceptional, and even lacks a few things I’d expect — you can’t vault most small objects, for example, and a lot of cover is indestructible even to dynamite. That, and those area of effect attacks are two dimensional, which leads to odd situations like not being able to shoot someone with your shotgun because they’re on a balcony below you. That said, the good qualities of those combat systems outweigh the frustrations, and a mix of interesting enemies and varied missions do keep it fresh throughout.
The Wild Bunch
Every mission is packed with weird western clutter and character that not only looks good but serves as cover for you to interact with and play around. Rickety wooden frontier streets packed with hanging signs and big marble banks at the end, ramshackle homesteads cluttered with disused farm equipment, sprawling occult-plus-steampunk mining operations — I think you get it. The objects and visuals in missions are real pretty, even disproportionately so compared to the design and writing, and the sound design and voice acting have very few flaws. There’s also a great soundtrack, courtesy of Dead Space and Tomb Raider composer Jason Graves.
It’s not just the atmosphere that’s got a lot going on, either. The enemies you fight are weird and cool, ranging from run-of-the-mill bandits and lawmen to demonic cultist covens, wendigos, and mindless revenant gunmen. There’s even a bit of historical inspiration, with one native antagonist group being a mustache-twirling, evil twin mirror version of the real-life Ghost Dance Movement. (Hard West 2 does not, thankfully, fall into the atrocious trap of painting the many native peoples of the west with one brush, even if many of its depictions are more fantasy than reality.)
Gin Carter, the roguish gambler and leader who now lacks a soul, is a pretty generic RPG leader for you to inhabit, but your other party members are exercises in memorable character design. You’ve got Kevin Conroy as Old Man Bill, who died a long time ago and is really grumpy about coming back; Lazarus, a fire-and-brimstone-and-bullets preacher; Cla’lish, voiced by Mela Lee, a no-nonsense pacific northwestern native tracker and sharpshooter who can also commune with and summon the dead.
But there are two real standouts: First, Brandi Hollsten as Flynn, the orphaned-at-birth woman blessed/cursed with powerful witch abilities. She’s a relative newcomer, but the actress is definitely one to watch. And then the character I at first disliked, but later loved: Laughing Deer, an absolutely clinically insane sociopath of a warrior. He likes to hurt people and take things, and he doesn’t pretend otherwise. While that’s sometimes a recipe for a one-note boring character, voice actor Adam Gifford brings an unhinged, scenery-chewing depth to LD that I can’t help but love. Voice directors: Please cast Adam Gifford to do more over-the-top characters.
It doesn’t hurt that Laughing Deer is also very, very fun to use in tactical combat. He’s the reigning king of Bravado-fueled killstreaks: After all, you’re never at the wrong angle for a killshot when you’re in melee range.
Built Hard, Kill’t Hard
Those characters are all set personalities – Hard West 2 has some character building aspects, and equipment to fiddle with, but make no mistake: This is very much a tactics game. The RPG elements are effectively limited to dialogue choices, there are no character levels, and nearly every character buff is transferable between missions from one party member to another. Those buffs mostly come in the form of cards, which are mission rewards, of which any character can hold five. By forming poker hands with those cards you unlock more and more of a character’s passive abilities and upgrade their active one. It’s a delightful, thematic way to gear up and I absolutely loved it.
What I didn’t love was how rigid that felt. Each character is primed to be best at one or two specific things, and there’s little-to-no reason not to gear them up for that and that alone. There are also some subpar designs mechanically, like Lazarus. Even though I loved his character, he has powers that revolve around when a party member goes down… in a game where all of the mainline story missions instantly fail if you lose a single character… even though there’s no permadeath and most other missions let you lose as many as you want.
Why would I use my precious few permanent upgrades on Lazarus when I can’t reap the benefits in the hardest missions? The permanent upgrades come from making friends with your posse members, which happens in decisions out on the trail. Better friends get boosted abilities — and sometimes more dialogue options enabling different rewards and alternate paths during the text-driven world map quests. It’s a nice source of character moments, but it feels bad to pick the dialogue you like when you know it’ll hamstring you in combat.