West of Dead caught my eye with its unique, dark western theme. I loved the flaming skulled hero, and the action-packed gunfights of the trailer got my trigger fingers itchin’ to grab my controller. West of Dead takes the player into a wild west setting of Purgatory, Wyoming, which is a literal purgatory where the dead can go either East or West. The game presents a unique take on the afterlife, along with action-packed gameplay and a thrilling light/dark mechanic which make it a top pick for me this year.
West of Dead is about a journey through purgatory in order to either travel east or west to the afterlife. The game has a lot of spiritual themes, violence, and grotesque sights. The spiritual tone of the game doesn’t follow a traditional Christian view of the afterlife. The hero diesa violent death that he can’t remember, and that is keeping him from moving onto heaven (east) or hell (west). The player will meet other souls with burdens that the player can take on to help those souls move on east or west. The levels of the game contain lots of bones and Native American items related to death. The game also features a lot of gun violence as is typical of westerns, but the violence is not gruesome or bloody. When enemies get hit by bullets there is no blood, just a white explosion. The enemies look hideous such as the bird-like mummies or the fat butchers which both look like someone put them together with pieces of various corpses. I would recommend the game to older teens and adults, and it receives a T for Teen rating from the ESRB.
West of Dead opens with the hero waking up in Purgatory, Wyoming with no memory about how he got there, only the certainty that he’s dead. The player moves the hero through the cavern learning the mechanics of the game until, Boom, a nightmarish creature attacks out of the dark, and the hero is dead, again. West of Dead is a rogue-like, twin stick shooter that blends cover shooting and light/dark gameplay brilliantly. The game features the voice acting talent of Ron Perlman who is famous for playing Hellboy, and for his voice acting in the first Fallout game. His deep gravelly voice lends to the game’s dark and mysterious tone.
The atmosphere of West of Dead plays on the use of light and dark throughout each of the levels. Every level is a procedurally generated dungeon that has lanterns placed in each room along with the enemies. These enemies lurk in the darkness, standing in place as they fire at the player. Their shots give away their general location, but bringing down enemies in this state literally requires the player to take shots in the dark. When the player lights a lantern, however, a circle of light pushes back the darkness, revealing the enemies and stunning them temporarily. Many times I got a jump scare when I lit a lantern and found an enemy standing right next to me!
I appreciate that the game has an auto-target feature that automatically targets the nearest visible enemy. Some weapons require the player to hold down the trigger to aim while others fire when the player pulls the trigger. West of Dead possesses a lot of different firearms and special weapons themed around the old west. I found that I was careful about how I paired weapons and special attacks, because pairing two slow-firing, low ammo guns with close range special attacks could be fatal in a pinch.
The controls of West of Dead handles superbly while being very simple. Instead of requiring a complicated combo of buttons to vault over obstacles, the game only requires the player to push one button while moving, which both lets the hero vault over things and also dodge incoming gunfire. It felt smooth and graceful as I got the hero to vault over a tomb, dodge an incoming shot, and then fire his shotgun right into the face of a nearby zombie. The controls feel so intuitive it just felt good to play all the time.
I have written before that I am not a fan of rogue-like games because they feel repetitive after going through run after run trying to get further into the game. West of Dead changed my opinion of the whole formula by including chapters that allow the player to save some of the progress that they have made in the game without changing the rogue-like gameplay. The saves work like chapters in a book that get completed when the player defeats a boss in the levels. The player still has to complete the run of each level deeper into the game, but they get to keep special items which make moving through the level easier and they can build up the armory and health potions the player starts with to aid in fighting through the levels.
The graphics of West of Dead look dark and gritty, which fits with the theme of purgatory. The game looks somewhat like it’s cell shaded, but I attribute this to the dramatic, angular light and dreary colors. The player doesn’t get to control the camera, but there was never a time when I felt like the game didn’t give me the correct angle to allow me to play through each room. I felt the game purposely put the camera at an angle to keep me from seeing all of the room at once, thus preserving some of the surprise of enemies waiting in the dark.
The music of the game creates a wonderfully dark, moody atmosphere with unique tracks for every stage. Each level has one track for exploring the level then another for encountering an enemy. The music is not very complicated or long, which is fine because it sets the right mood and leaves the player to play the game. I will download the music if it’s ever released.
West of Dead awesomely combines western gunfighting with a dark, horrific ghost story. I love the simplicity of the graceful and action-packed gameplay, as well as the way it transforms the rogue-like formula in a way that doesn’t feel like a boring, unending loop. West of Dead receives my high recommendation.
Review copy generously provided by Sandbox Strategies.
The Bottom Line
West of Dead is an excellent, action-packed, Western twin stick shooter that features smooth gameplay and striking atmosphere.