It’s super reductive to review a game simply by comparing it to other games, but sometimes there’s no better way to describe where a game is coming from when it feels like a certain style of game was ingrained into its DNA from the point of conception. I’ll just say this, if you played and enjoyed Dead Cells from 2017, then there is a lot of commonality between it and this game that West of Dead would be worth a look.
Coming out of Beta in mid June, West of Dead is a twin stick style shooter Roguelike. From U.K. based developer Upstream Arcade, currently out on Game Pass for PC and Xbox One. Players take control of a recently dead gunslinger (voiced by Ron Pearlman) in 1888, finding themselves in purgatory, the player must make their way through the plain of death and do battle with the many souls lost whilst making their way either East or West.
As with many Roguelikes, the game starts you off with relatively little equipment; two weapon slots, which can be taken up by the array of weapons that fall into the slots of shotgun (close range), pistol (mid-range) and rifles (long range). On top of this, during their journey through purgatory players can find or buy equipment that ranges from bundles of TNT and molotov cocktails to knives and throw-able hatchets.
While equipment is on a timed cooldown, your guns work a little differently. Each gun has a different number of rounds in their chambers, which don’t start reloading until you back off and take a breather from the fight. Combat is built around peaks and valleys of activity brought about by this necessity to reset yourself and reestablish your surroundings.
Every combat arena within the labyrinthine stages, randomly generated upon each new run, are filled with bits of cover. The player will duck behind any piece of cover they stand beside, which act to block the advances of close ranged enemies and the gunfire of any other enemies in the room while also reloading your weapons twice as fast as you would when stood out in the open.
Thus your play style becomes entirely based around ducking in and out of cover when you’ve spent all the ammo in your guns. From there is gets more granular based on what guns you have. If you’re using a shotgun for example, you need to close the gap between you and your enemies dodging between cover and getting close enough to attack them. Rifles on the other hand take longer to fire but allow you to almost clear a room from the door you entered in.
As with all Roguelikes, the gameplay loop becomes one of trial and error, one in which you’re going to die over and over in order to learn the patterns of the enemies in each area, which starts off frustrating, but can become rewarding as you tear through the earlier stages when the enemies attack patterns have become ingrained into your brain.
Not only that, as you fight your way through stages you collect a couple of resources, both Iron and Sin from enemies. Iron is used to buy new gear from your pool whenever you bump into a vendor, while Sin is used between levels when interacting with the Shamanic Witch. Through her you pay for the upgrades that carry between runs of the game, from the ability to restore your own health to new and different weapons that can randomly appear during future runs.
The format and gameplay loop of West of Dead reminds me of Dead Cells so much that I can’t not bring it up. The area between stages where you buy your permanent upgrades followed by another guy who fills your health and flash. The starting area that acts as a museum of everything you’ve unlocked. It’s stuff that’s inherent to the genre, but I find it difficult not to draw comparisons.
However, while it’s easy to draw those comparisons, West of Dead doesn’t share the aspect of Dead Cells that made it so difficult put down. While the gameplay for West of Dead is snappy, rewarding and constantly unique, it lacks that real sense of tight control that was inherent to the Dead Cells experience.
My biggest frustrations with the game are borne from a sense of; when I die in West of Dead, I don’t feel like it was my fault, as if that death were unavoidable. In the very best Roguelikes, the ones I can’t stop playing, every death feels like a learning experience. While that is certainly true in West of Dead’s approach to its gameplay loop, it’s distinct visual style sometimes gets in the way of what is a pretty precision based combat system.
The high contrast, black and white visual motif makes for a highly stylised realisation of the afterlife, but the isometric style camera angle and fact that light and darkness are mechanics of clearing a room make it sometimes feel like the game it struggling to keep up with the pace of its own combat.
If an enemy is slightly in the darkness, but you know they’re there, the game won’t lock your weapon fire onto them. The twin stick style of moving and aiming makes locking on nearby enemies easy, but there is some significant amount of aim assist being used to speed up the process, which makes the game’s sometimes arbitrary feeling decision to not lock onto certain enemies who are partially shrouded in darkness awkward.
Hence where the combat can fall down, in these cases a death or taking a significant loss of health, which can ruin a run, feels almost inevitable. Which is counter to the core of a roguelike such as this, which is made to be punishing, but fair. Being punishing and occasionally unfair is a good way to turn a player off your game permanently.
Although, despite falling afoul to this a number of times, I’ve not been driven off the game yet. The mellow narration from Ron Pearlman, along with with the music being used makes the game feel pretty chill a lot of the time, jumping between frantic confrontations and those moments of cooldown work even better.
In the end West of Dead is a very cool, very stylish roguelike. It’s not the best example of the genre, and with Rogue Legacy 2 coming out later this month, it’s in a very real danger of just falling out of my rotation. But if you have Game Pass and are intrigued by what I’ve written, then it’s certainly worth a try. Failing that, the game is coming to PS4 and Switch in August. It’s a satisfying loop based game that only occasionally screws you over.